Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Review

aristotle and dante

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Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s latest book is not great literature. It is a sweet little book, and very innocent. This coming of age story for children is dedicated ‘to all the boys who’ve had to play by different rules’. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has won a host of awards including a Lambda and the Stonewall Award this year.  So what’s the craic?

It is told from the point of view of Aristotle, a fifteen year-old Mexican loner in the 1980s. His brother is in prison, his father is distant, he has a stupid name, and he’s all angsty and aggressive. Then he meets Dante, an airy-fairy type who sees the world in wonderful new ways and they develop a friendship. They read poetry together, play with animals, and so on, like veritable Snow Whites.

Dante goes away when Summer is over but keeps writing to Ari (that’s what he likes to be called… right). Ari replies to one in seven letters. He dislikes voicing emotion. Etc. This lasts for a couple of years, during which Dante comes out as gay and keeps telling Ari how in love with him he is… Then bad things happen. Then good things happen. And everyone learns to be a bit more open, to love a little less conditionally.

What I liked about this story was that Ari was believable. The heroes in these novels tend to fall into two camps – either they are very outcast and nobody understands them and they have no friends, or they are confident and twinky and they have one girly friend and that’s all they need until they can start rogering the jocks. Ari is a loner, but I thought it quite unique that other characters like and respect him, he loves his parents, and he goes to parties. Plus he has issues with aggression – he beats someone up. More nuanced than usual.

His and Dante’s parents are impossibly cutesy and supportive. They both suss that the two boys are going to fall in love straight away and basically push them into each other’s arms. Now, my parents were so much less scary about the gay thing than they could have been – but they certainly never encouraged me to develop a melodramatic marital mind-set with the first male friend I took home. As high fantasy for young people, though; I can understand how these fantasy parents would help. And again it breaks the mould, in a genre where liberal parents form a near-extinct minority.

Negatives? For a start, I did not believe these characters’ ages. They were supposed to be fifteen at the beginning and eighteen at the end. And yet Ari doesn’t understand “big words” like “fascist,” “melancholy,” “demonstrative,” and “transvestite.” He also gets confused by growing hair on his body and his voice breaking – in one of the most clumsily-written passages in the history of literature ever – and Dante just discovers masturbation. He missed out on being thirteen.

Nobody has sex. People kiss each other – that’s the big ambition, the big goal, the big scandal, the big sin, the big pleasure. Sex doesn’t exist. Only kissing.

Because they drink and smoke weed and drive, I guess the boys had to be seventeen, but really the story only makes sense if you think of them as aged 12 to 15. Of course, rule one when writing for children: make the hero a bit older than the target reader. No child wants to admire the exploits of someone younger than them.

The other thing that peeved me was the writing style. Sáenez has got an eye for writing awkward dialogue with its halts, repetitions, and irrelevancies. So rich is his talent, that the awkwardness sometimes seeps into other parts of the book. On occasions he forgets who’s speaking in a conversation, and Ari will reply to himself, or whatever.  On almost every page somebody is “laughing.” This would be fine if any of the jokes were funny. That word gets irksome three-hundred pages in.

On the plus side, I learnt a lot of Mexican slang! Gabacho: “an ethnic slur used in the United States and Latin America for a person of anglo background.”

Obviously, I’m double the age of the target audience (assuming this is written for 12 year-olds). But I just don’t think Aristotle and Dante is well-written enough to deserve all the awards it’s received. It is, however, a charming and thoughtful book with an honest message. It is never intimidatingly queer, and a kid in denial will find it, like I found Jean Ure’s Play Nimrod For Him,[1] safe to read.

If you know any young teenage loners who don’t want to talk about the sticky One Direction posters hidden under their bed, leave this book lying around. The title will attract their attention. The content might help them feel a bit less alone in a universe of secrets.


[1] Quoth Madonna: Look it up.