YSP Print | Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Review)

Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s heavily lauded book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a triumphant novel—though it hardly adheres to classification as such. Like the inexorable binary tensions that churn and bubble within Ari’s gut, propelling him like a visceral steam engine, Sáenz book oscillates between prose and verse, often melding the two into not-quite-prose-poetry, not-quite-poetic-prose. In a recent interview with Contemporary Verse 2, American-Canadian poet Molly Peacock notes that “poetry exist[s] largely in space and prose in time” (8). Likewise, Aristotle and Dante’s 359 pages constitute both poetry and prose—spatiality and temporality—simultaneously, melting through singular moments of intense poignancy that ultimately coagulate and manifest as a heartbreaking and uplifting story of astounding emotional veracity.

Consequently, the brief, but careful narrative events cut to the quick of life—at, on, and in the borders between childhood and teenagedom, Americanness and Mexicanness, love and friendship. Aristotle and Dante is a liminal text, scratching and carving slowly the cave walls searching for light, but finding only ulterior dark spaces that weave and wind together Ari’s intrinsic binaries with his investigation of sexuality and familial bonds. That is to say, his coming of age, his national ties, his needs for both platonic and romantic love (and the divergences and convergences between them) hinder and are hindered by a Pandora’s box of internal and external malignancies at which House of Leaves’ Will Navidson[1] would shudder.

While the novel’s end quickly overrides the other tensions in the book, the central struggle for Ari seems to be his relationship with his father. In fact, Sáenz tightly knots Ari’s own self-discovery with his father’s, and links both with the difficult necessity of mutually guiding one another on divergent, yet strikingly similar journeys. In effect, Ari’s struggle to come out to his father remains nefariously latent in each of their conversations. The novel is not so much concerned with Ari’s struggle to tell his parents the truth (or perhaps to tell himself), but rather the struggle to know each other at all. In fact, Ari’s character compared to Dante’s is markedly less concerned with his homosexuality. Rather, Ari is concerned with who he loves and how to love them. While Dante is one of those people, his father and his brother also contribute to Ari’s emotional seasickness, as his solipsistic ship floats without a compass. Thus Ari’s journey is not so much about the tough conversation as the toughness of having a conversation with his father—and about his brother.

Ari’s combination of narrative and epistolary writing solidifies the indefinite poetry-prose status of Alire Sáenz book, which gives Aristotle and Dante its emotional weight. Ari’s renderings of his journal figure themselves as a kind of poetry, interwoven with the larger narrative that Ari tells (though it, too, contains multitudes of poetry). His journal entries always consist of short bursts: lines of succinct and strictly spatial thoughts with no consideration for temporality. Rather, Ari uses his diary to continually carve out and define singular instances of himself. He consistently writes, implicitly and explicitly, this is me—here and now. While Ari’s narrative voice, through Saenz, is poetic, his more direct, intranarrative voice holds onto the spatiality of poetry as Ari deconstructs his feelings in tangential, isolated moments in time (which he does not, in fact, ever formally date).

Still Ari’s narrative voice also contains flashes of poetry. These poetic moments make Aristotle and Dante move; they give the book its action.

“Maybe you’ll be a writer,” she said. “A poet.”

It sounded like such a beautiful thing when she said it. Too beautiful for me. (Sáenz 100)

The most poetic moments are also the most poignant; Sáenz’s beautiful prose captures Ari’s cynicism in a way that thwarts dismissive voices that cannot empathize with the young boy. He is not the archetypal angst-ridden teen: this is not a boy who hates the world; this is not a boy who hates everyone or everything; this is a boy who hates that the world and everyone in it are beautiful and yet so distant. He hates that he and beauty exchange furtive glances across multiple, layered borderlines, always oscillating sides, but never meeting—never seeing. As we trace these boundaries Sáenz invites us to feel Ari’s development, to watch his poetry—to blend prose and verse—and somewhere along the way, to find the beauty in that labyrinthine darkness.


[1] “The story remains unchanged, focusing on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story – of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams” (Back cover).



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