Thursday, January 23, 2014

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Hi everybody! My name's Sam J. Miller, and I'm super honored to be joining the Guys Lit Wire crew. I love books, and I love talking about the books I love, so, you know, watch out. I'm a community organizer and a writer, mostly focusing on science fiction and fantasy. For more about me, check out my website!

Friendship is bizarre. What makes two people click? Think of your best friend, and how happy they make you: why them? How did they find their way into your life? Sometimes I look at the people I love and realize how easy it would have been to never meet them. If I hadn't struck up a conversation with someone because I liked their T-shirt - if I had chosen a different college - if it hadn't rained one day - my life would be so different, and so much more empty. Friendship between boys is especially bizarre. Young men are constantly being told they can't express their emotions, can't have conversations about what's going on in their lives, that to truly care about another boy is to risk being called gay.

Benjamin Alire Saenz's Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a book about friendship. It's a book about a lot of things, but first and foremost it's a book about friendship between boys. It's dedicated to "all the boys who've had to learn to play by different rules," and I suspect that's the audience that will connect with this book most intensely: the loners and misfits and individualists who are hungry for life, and want to live it on their own terms.
Aristotle and Dante are two Mexican-American teenagers in the 1980's, who meet at a swimming pool and become best friends in that weird way where two totally different people somehow instantly click. They both have weird names. They're both insatiably curious. They make each other laugh. Why? Aristotle - Ari - our narrator - doesn't know. "Laughter was another one of life's mysteries." But Ari, a loner who was "mostly invisible," and "liked it that way," is intrigued by Dante, who seems like his exact opposite, who is a guy in a totally different way than Ari thought possible.

Surrounded by tough masculine men, including a brother in prison who no one talks about and a silent strong father whose experiences in Vietnam damaged him deeply, Dante's very kindness is a mystery. "How could a guy live without some meanness?"

 This book is the story of their friendship. There's no particularly compelling plot, no ticking time bombs or dystopian werewolf cabals, but the writing is so gorgeous and Aristotle's inner world is so marvelously rendered that we plunge forward breathlessly. The evolution of their friendship is the plot, as is the development of their characters, and all of that is exciting and surprising, but it's hard to discuss that without venturing into major spoiler territory, so I hope you'll take my word on it.

It's also utterly heart-breaking. In a good way. The real star here is the prose: the rhythm of the sentences refuses to let you put the book down. These characters come to life. Their friendship comes to life. Reading it, you want to be part of that friendship. You want to hang out with them.

Telling this story from Aristotle's point of view is an interesting decision. Dante is sensitive, articulate, excitable, brainy, inappropriate - many of the things that distinguish teen boy readers, and more conventional YA boy protagonists. Aristotle is aloof, angry, tough, strong, smart but afraid to show people that he's smart, preferring to suffer in silence rather than open up to the people who love him. The result is an unusual read, and one that I think boys in both categories will be able to connect to. There's also a truly gut-punchingly intense spoiler at the very end that could only have happened with Aristotle as narrator. 

Friends help us figure out who we are. That's the plot of Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Dante knows who he is. Aristotle doesn't. His friendship with Dante helps him figure out who he is.

 The book has cursing in it, so readers uncomfortable with swear words should consider themselves warned. And folks who are uncomfortable with LGBT issues should DEFINITELY stay away. And then reflect upon how that discomfort has cost them a truly incredible reading experience.

Reading Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was so intense I often found myself sitting on the subway, surrounded by commuters, trying, and failing, not to cry. And one evening when I was close to finishing it, and the train got to my stop, I sat there and kept reading. I kept reading all the way to the end of the line, and then I sat on a bench at the subway station and finished reading. And then I walked all the way home. Because I wanted to stay inside the book a little longer.

 If you've ever fallen that hard for a book, I think this one is for you.


KHB said...

Sounds like a must-read. Thanks for sharing, Sam!

Sam J. Miller said...

You're welcome, KHB - would love to hear your thoughts if you do read it!

Anonymous said...

I desperately love this book. It's funny, I reviewed it a few days ago, too. This really is one of the most beautiful books i've read in ages and ages and ages.

Sam J. Miller said...

Yes! Pam! "desperately love" is the perfect way to describe the peculiarly intense affection this book inspires