Aristotle is a Mexican-American teenager living in El Paso. He has never had a friend. His father has closed off emotionally after coming back from the war in Vietnam. His brother is in prison. His mother won’t talk about it. And then he meets Dante.
Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe is all about communication: every single character we meet is fighting inner demons and struggling to say what they really mean. The main character, Aristotle, is full of anger and confusion: on the one hand he is a loner who does not feel comfortable talking about his feelings, but on the other hand he is desperate to connect to his parents and to Dante. It is like there is a forcefield following him around wherever he goes, preventing him from truly getting close to someone. Meeting Dante is the first crack that slowly spreads as Aristotle frantically tries to figure out whether he wants to tear down that wall or keep it up at all cost.
Aristotle is a fascinating narrator and Sáenz does a fantastic job at giving him a very distinctive voice that fits the theme of the novel: the language is sparse and direct, the sentences short and to the point. Since Aristotle is not good at articulating how he feels and often actively avoids talking about it at all, a lot of the emotion comes from what is not said, the silence, the empty spaces. In many ways the style reminds me of Ernest Hemingway, who is even mentioned in the story at one point; he also uses brevity and directness to reflect the characters’ struggle with emotions and personal relationships. However, whereas I often have trouble relating to Hemingway’s characters, Sáenz has given the people that inhabit his book a stunning vulnerability; they can be harsh and socially inept, but these flaws do not make them unlikable. Even though they make mistakes, they are trying and that makes all the difference. They want to do better, to reach out and take the other person’s hand in theirs, but only end up running even further away and hating themselves for it.
In Aristotle and Dante, everyone is lost and broken, trying to figure out who they are and what the world wants them to be. They are all trapped inside their own heads, struggling with their heritage, their sexuality, or their past, desperate to talk and yet unable to say what they mean. The hurt is raw and immediate; it creeps up on you until, out of nowhere, you find yourself tearing up and wondering where the hell that came from.
It is not a coincidence that Aristotle likes Dante’s drawings because they are “true.” As Ernest Hemingway’s fictional counterpart puts it in Midnight In Paris: “It was a good book because it was an honest book.”
We need more young adult novels like this one.