Monday, February 13, 2012

Monster, Printz Award, 2000

While the story Monster takes a unique tack with the teenage-victim-of-racism angle, it’s a bit boring and predictable. Reminiscent of John Grisham novels and every court-room drama aired on television, the novel makes use of sensationalism, extreme villainization, revelations of prison atrocities, and a protagonist of questionable morality.

Steve’s voice seems authentically masculine and teenage, and effectively uses a mixed media to convey story.  However, his voice is at times whiny and angsty. For instance, in one scene Steve watches a baseball game on tv and says, “They were playing baseball as if baseball was important and as if all the world wasn’t in jail, watching them from a completely different world.”

Because the voice is first person, it seems absurd to leave Steve’s guilt or innocence vague. A boy like Steve, so set on proving how horrible his situation is, would most likely answer that question in his own journal. The author gets around it by having Steve say, “I thought about writing about what happened at the drugstore, but I’d rather not have it in my mind.” Instead of coming across as a genuine emotion of the character, this reads as a contrived way to keep the reader in the dark.

The style keeps the narrative at a relatively quick pace, but format design could be confusing or annoying for some readers. The style is also completely “telling,” since Steve controls the entire narrative to the extent that all characters become untrustworthy.

The setting is real and raw, full of minute detail and colored by Steve’s emotional lens. For example, Steve describes his janitor duty with this sentence, “On the floor there were big arcs of grey dirty water and swirls of stinking brown bubbles.”

Steve as a character is hard to like. He doesn’t develop or reveal an interesting personality. All we know about Steve by the end of the novel is that he loves film and his family and that he was put in jail and on trial for a crime he may or may not have committed. The antagonists were flat, stereotypical characters, simply there to be villainized. Those supposedly supporting Steve weren’t much better.

Themes include racism, prison life, gang violence, fear, loneliness, name-calling, and labeling. The ambiguity of Steve’s guilt provides discussion opportunities. However, constant reference to race seems to be promoting or at least accepting the racism of the system instead of challenging it.

Steve wrestles with the question, “Am I a monster?” Through Steve’s emotions, Meyers points out that this “bad kid” labeling is harmful. Myers could have made this point better by clearly stating Steve’s guilt or innocence. But instead of correcting the wrong perpetuated by the adult characters, the story wallows in it. The final response to the question is a confirmation to Steve that he is a monster. The prosecutor turns away, Steve’s father leaves, his interactions with his mother are never the same, and he is left only with this label and nothing else. Because Steve’s guilt is unclear, there is no final moral point for the reader, no growth or redemption for any character. The tragedy is simply displayed and not condemned. I can see no award-winning quality in that.

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