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

aristotle-and-dante

Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Aristotle and Dante are as different as night and day. Aristotle envies Dante’s talents, confidence, and openness. He feels inferior. He feels lonely. He feels lost. However, when they meet, the two form a bond that changes their lives beyond imagination.

Review:

Trigger/Content Warning(s): transphobia

Well, if I’d had any idea how good this book would be, I would have read it eons ago.

Where do I even begin? It’s difficult to organize my thoughts because there are so many things I want to say about this book. Because this book is so many things at once.

The most obvious one is that it’s about a relationship between two boys, but it’s so much more. It’s also about their relationships with themselves, their families, their histories, their culture, and the society at large.

Ari is such an incredibly relatable character to me. His loneliness, his uncertainty, his repressed feelings, his anger, his pessimism and yearning hope, his self-loathing–these are all familiar to me. Though it’s never explicitly labeled as such, I recognize his depression because I’ve been there, and in many ways, I’m still there.

His reflections on racial and ethnic identity are also a point of connection for me. There are many factors that intersect with race/ethnicity: class, language, immigration history, etc. The ongoing dialogue on the contrast between Ari and Dante’s backgrounds–their skin color, their parents’ education levels and careers, their fluency in Spanish–highlight the ways in which Mexican American identity is constructed and policed. Although I’m not Mexican American, as a second generation child of immigrants, I could definitely relate to the experience of feeling “not authentic enough” to truly belong to my ethnic group.

Beyond race and ethnicity, Ari’s world is shaped by the psychological dysfunction of his family. There is the intergenerational trauma from his veteran father’s unspoken past in Vietnam. There is the silence and deliberate forgetting of his older brother, who has been in prison for over a decade for reasons that Ari does not know. There is the overwhelming feeling that nobody in his family is willing to say what needs to be said.

The effects of this silence on Ari are enormous. He doesn’t know who he is because his family have erased a significant part of their family history and therefore his roots. His capacity to connect with other people outside of his family is stunted. Even as he craves intimacy, he’s averse to letting himself be vulnerable enough to establish trust and deeper bonds with other people. Because he feels that he lacks agency in many ways, he sets up rules to protect himself, but ultimately these rules reinforce his isolation and emotional distance. He doesn’t let anyone in, and he also doesn’t let anything out, which leads to involuntary emotional outbursts down the road.

That’s where Dante comes in. Dante is a foil to Ari: he knows what he wants, he does the things he wants to do, he wears his heart on his sleeve. When Ari looks at Dante, he sees the things he wants to be but can’t achieve. Ironically, even as self-assured and amiable as he is, Dante is also lonely. Their shared loneliness brings them together. And as Ari finds out, Dante has his own inner demons relating to his family.

1987-1988 is an interesting time period for a story like this. It’s nearly 30 years before marriage equality, before LGBTQ folks had much visibility in the mainstream culture. It’s a time before the Internet and instantaneous communication. And yet, it’s still as relevant as ever. Homophobia and heteronormativity are still pervasive, and young LGBTQ people still struggle to come to terms with their identities. Dante’s worries about giving his parents grandkids struck a nerve in me because I, too, felt the pressure to continue my family’s lineage before I came out to my parents.

One of the things I really liked about the book was the disavowal of toxic masculinity. Ari feels alienated from the normative masculinity that the boys at school perform and uphold. He also disparages the boys for their objectification of women. Dante stands in contrast to that kind of masculinity in various ways: he is friendly to everyone and doesn’t play the game of shoring up masculinity through acts of dominance and violence. He expresses his emotions freely and cries when he needs to, even over the death of a bird. Ari doesn’t think Dante is weak for this; he admires him for it and accepts it because that’s who Dante is. The importance of narratives that allow boys and men to be vulnerable and express sadness cannot be stressed enough, in my opinion.

Overall, this book was amazing to me. I marked so many places where I was just like “this, this so much, this is wonderful.” However, I had one thing that really stood out to me as problematic, specifically transphobic. Since I can’t discuss it without revealing an important plot point, I’m putting that part in white text so you can highlight it to read it if you’d like. The reason Ari’s brother is in jail is because he killed a trans woman who was a sex worker. Because of the time period and terminology that was used during that time, Ari describes the sex worker as a “transvestite,”but in our present-day world we’d call her a transgender woman. The issue is that Ari says that the “transvestite” was actually a “guy,” which is what motivated his brother to murder her.

Given our current social climate, in which trans women are regularly being murdered and misgendered because of the continued narrative of “trans women are just men in drag,”the violence of this act cannot be understated. Unfortunately the book does little to counter the ideological violence that resulted in this sex worker’s murder.

Recommendation: I don’t want to dismiss the good parts of this book, so I’m recommending it with the warning that there is that transphobia present, and to read at your discretion.

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2 thoughts on “Review for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

  1. I’ve read loads of reviews of Ari and Dante, but no one ever mentioned the transphobia – thanks for the warning. Still very interested in reading this, but you’ve made a really important point.

    Like

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