In the recent past, young adult novels–John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” series, and earlier, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series–have experienced a swell of popularity amongst those their primary readership would call “grown-ups.”
There’s no mathematical algorithm to figure out this appeal, but I think it’s something about these novels’ protagonists: young people negotiating their coming of age in our complicated present, their opportunities and their optimism. “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, published in 2013, is a recent addition to this canon.
A first-person narrative dictated by Aristotle, a fifteen-year-old boy living in El Paso, Texas, the outset of the book beautifully establishes the ambivalence and loneliness of youth. It begins: “One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke. In the morning, when I opened my eyes, the world was the same,” and sets the tone of the time period—summer 1987—by referencing the classic 1980s ballad “Alone” by Heart.
As the book progresses, Sáenz, a writer of both poetry and prose, continues to give the traditional framework of the bildungsroman a lyrical twist; the novel is filled with sparse sentences peppered with dialogue.
I would go so far as to say (sorry Potterheads!) that coming of age stories aimed at an adult audience are the most culturally salient. The book has won multiple awards, including the Lambda Literary Award and Stonewall Book Award for LGBT fiction, an Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award honor, the Pura Belpré Author Award for Latino fiction, and the Michael L. Printz Award honor for Young Adult fiction.
The beauty of the book lies in both its form and its content, and how the two intersect. Sáenz’s writing dances on a line between poetry and prose, reflecting the narrative’s focus: liminality, specifically, the dance that an adolescent must partake in between childhood and adulthood.
The book begins in the summer, when Aristotle goes to the local pool and meets a boy who teaches him how to swim. It then spans over a year, detailing Aristotle’s intimate relationship with the boy, who also has an “odd” name: Dante.
In an interview with NPR, Sáenz commented on the naming of his protagonists: “I think when you’re 15, you kind of are a philosopher, you are a thinker…I wanted to give their names some weight” (“Discovering Sexuality Through Teen Lit,” 2.20.13).
Sáenz holds true to his words; the boys’ names accurately represent their positionality. In the novel, the two boys experience their coming of age, which includes philosophizing about what it means for them individually to be human. This progression is relatable to both young people experiencing the process of growing up and adults looking back on their adolescence.
The young men also discover and develop the mental and physical depths of their relationship with each other outside of heteronormative boundaries. The book is dedicated to “all the boys who’ve had to learn to play by different rules.” Dante—open, loving, vulnerable–knows that he likes boys, and Aristotle—quiet, stoic, guarded–needs time to discover his sexuality while maintaining a fierce love and appreciation for his friend. Dante teaches Aristotle how to swim, to appreciate literature and poetry, to make up games and to share his feelings. For these gifts, Aristotle is willing to risk his life for Dante’s. Aristotle lauds his friend: “And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness./Wow, a world without darkness. How beautiful was that?”
Another meaningful level of this narrative is that it is situated within the context of the boys’ families, their culture and their home. Both boys are Mexican-American, and in the book, Sáenz gives a multifaceted depiction of two different Mexican-American families, challenging stereotypes and anti-Mexican rhetoric. In an NPR interview, he said, “I was really enraged by many things … and I think hopefully we’re coming out of what was a horrible, racist time” (“Discovering Sexuality Through Teen Lit,” 2.20.13). In particular, Sáenz aptly challenges the stereotype that there is no such thing as a professional Mexican-American. He says, “We have a long history in this country, and we’re not all workers with our hands. There are a lot of professional Mexican-Americans, and it’s just not presented in literature,” he explains, “and I wanted very much to do that.”
Dante’s father is a college professor, and Aristotle’s mom, a high school teacher, comments poignantly on his position: “‘It’s a wonderful thing, what his father does… When I went to the university, I never had one Mexican-American professor. Not one.’” And Aristotle ponders: “There was a look on her face, almost anger.”
In the book, Aristotle and Dante’s parents do not exist within a vacuum, but within systems of oppression that scar them; for example, Aristotle’s father suffers from memories of serving in Vietnam, and his whole family lives under the shadow of his imprisoned older brother. Yet their families work hard to fight individual and societal battles and also maintain a constant stream of love for their sons. For me, that was the book’s most poignant element.
The book is a lovely representation of our current cultural moment, a layered depiction of the complexity of young people coming of age and coming to terms with their identities. Furthermore, it importantly establishes a strong sense of community and support for these individuals, and in turn, creates spaces of hope for readers of all ages.