The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli review: quite a postmodern mouthful
A defiant fabulism counteracts urge towards intellectual abstraction in this collective ‘novel-essay’ about art’s value and meaning
Valeria Luiselli’s second novel is a strange creation that could be called a collector’s item in more than one sense. Collaboratively written with the workers of the Jumex corporaton (based on the outskirts of Mexico City), the narrative was originally intended as part of a catalogue for an exhibition in the company’s prestigious art gallery. Instead, Luiselli wrote the chapters in instalments, receiving feedback from the factory workers digitally and incorporating this into the next draft.
An afterword written by the author helpfully condenses the process behind the artwork: “The formula, if there was one, would be something like Dickens + MP3 ÷ Balzac + JPEG.” The equation functions as a way of incorporating multiple authorship into the 21st-century writing process; the resulting work is an experimental novel of ideas with an appealingly light touch that manages to balance its philosophical reflections with an engagingly eccentric approach.
The Story of My Teeth thrives on a book’s inherent ability to contain multitudes, a tension inherent in its title: the stories, like the teeth, are multiple, and are gleefully crammed together in a form that can accommodate their sharp edges. It begins as a tall tale in which the narrator, Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez (known to us as Highway) describes his discovery, in midlife, of an innate talent for auctioneering. He develops his skills in order to fulfil his aim of buying a new set of teeth and by the end of the first section, our hero has not only reached his goal but has managed to fill his mouth with those formerly belonging to Marilyn Monroe.
In the following section, we see Highway at work and learn that the secret to his success is an “allegoric method” that creates an obvious parallel with the act of writing: “I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” He auctions off his old teeth by claiming they come from the mouths of Plato, Rousseau, Virginia Woolf and others, doing so with such aplomb that he appears to convince even himself (he is disillusioned when the bidders offer “just 2,500 pesos for Borges’s melancholy tooth”).
Highway is not the most reliable guide we could hope to meet, seeming more interested in spinning his episodic yarns than in filling in all the realistic details: this is a narrator, after all, who brazenly alludes (in a running joke) to several uncles with names like “Miguel Sánchez Foucault,” “Marcelo Sánchez-Proust” and “Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky”. The book shows itself at every turn to be a tissue of quotations, as indicated by the plot: Highway’s story is founded on his ability to borrow, absorb and repurpose the experiences of others.
The work’s conceptual dimension is ever-present, then, and the postmodern apparatus works to direct our attention towards the conditions of the work’s production: Luiselli describes the book as a “collective ‘novel-essay’ about the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature”.
As in Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (also published last year by Granta), Luiselli uses contemporary art as a way to dramatise the power of the authorial signature and the question of artistic “authenticity”. In Lerner’s remarkable novel, an artist sells on damaged pieces that have lost their value as well as their legal status as artworks; here, Highway creates the value of the objects he auctions through the vividness and extravagance of the stories he tells about them.
If all of this sounds excessively theoretical, it should be noted that the book also contains several pages of musing on the philosophical implications of morning erections, a brief vignette in which the parents of a girl named “Valeria Luiselli” make love while wearing rat and mouse costumes, and a strangely affecting scene in which the protagonist endures a painful, one-sided conversation with his son via the medium of a video installation of four apathetic clowns.
The novel’s display of its influences – from Modernist thinkers like Ezra Pound and Walter Benjamin to contemporary authors like Alejandro Zambra – tends towards the whimsical, and the defiant fabulism throughout the narrative (some of the stories-within-stories here verge on gleeful nonsense) counteracts the urge towards intellectual abstraction.
The narrative closes with a selection of photographs of places mentioned within it, and is immediately followed by a “Chronologic” section (which, Luiselli tells us, was written for the English-language version of the novel by her translator Christina MacSweeney) which maps the main events of the novel against an idiosyncratic network of real-life events. Many of these are playful references to other Latin American authors (“2010: At age twenty-seven, while in Wisconsin, Mexican writer Laia Jufresa learns how to ride a bicycle”) and again, they highlight the endless selection and mediation involved in the act of storytelling.
Coming at the end of a book that continually feels as if it might break apart, this section – an ecstatic hyperlinked grid of literary references and signposts – seems entirely suitable in the way it dissolves the narrative from linear into spatial form, sending the reader back outside the text. The final pages of the section quote Argentine writer Alan Pauls’ description of fiction as “a map based on coincidences and divergences”, a fitting phrase for a book that treats literature as an open-ended atlas and joyfully embraces the strange, dreamlike nature of chance meetings.