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The Textured Narratives of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth

By Alex McElroy.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth, trans. by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press, 2015)

In 2013, novelist and essayist Valeria Luiselli was commissioned to write a work of fiction for an exhibition at the Galería Jumex, an art gallery located in the run-down outskirts of Mexico City. The Galería Jumex, one of the most important contemporary art collections in the world, is funded by the Jumex Juice factory. Sensitive to the significant divide between the art world and factory workers, Luiselli set out to write a novel that bridged that gap. She produced The Story of My Teeth, an erudite picaresque novel written collaboratively with workers at the Jumex factory.

Collaboration is nothing new for Luiselli. Her first two books (the essay collection, Sidewalks, and the novel, Faces in the Crowd) are in many ways collaborative texts. One doesn’t read Luiselli so much as one walks through her mind. Her prose meanders and swerves, forming lyrical, associative conversations with the literature that inspires her work—Faces in the Crowd follows the life of neglected Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, and in Sidewalks, Luiselli weaves in ideas from Walter Benjamin, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Walser, and others, to make sense of her experiences.

The Story of My Teeth is only a slight departure for Luiselli. Using a relatively straightforward plot, the novel is narrated by Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, an itinerant auctioneer and storyteller looking for an artist to write his dental autobiography. Absent are the flights through space, time, and perspective that Luiselli used in Faces in the Crowd. This is a story, as Sánchez states, with a “beginning, middle, and an end.” But The Story of My Teeth is by no means simplistically structured. Luiselli’s effort to bridge contemporary art and factory workers leans heavily toward the former.

Jumex

The novel is split into six different books—The Story, The Hyperbolics, The Parabolics, The Circulars, The Allegorics, and The Elliptics—with a seventh book, The Chronologic, added by translator Christina MacSweeney. Each book begins with an epigraph on the subject of the philosophy of language from thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, and others. The passages are startling besides Sánchez’s ribald first-person voice, but they serve to wed together the novel’s theoretical underpinnings with Sánchez’s lewd, everyday sagacity. Luiselli wants readers to see that Sánchez’s auctioneering pursuits are of high intellectual value. Beside Mill’s statement that “A man may have been named John because that was the name of his father . . . But it is no part of the signification of the word John, that the father of the person so called bore the same name,” Sánchez’s techniques seem less fraudulent than semiotic. By renaming meaningless objects—for instance, claiming a rotten old tooth belonged to Plato—Sánchez unknowingly challenges Mill’s assertion. Mill might be correct, however, in Sánchez’s world, names are not arbitrary, but transformative and often lucrative.

But the book is only partially about the philosophy of language. Mostly, it’s about Sánchez, “the best auctioneer in the world,” a collector and seller of junk, a man who “can interpret Chinese fortune cookies” and count to eight in Japanese. He was born ugly, his mouth pebbled with premature teeth that grew into a hideous smile. But as Sánchez’s uncle, Eurípedes López Sánchez, reminds him: ugliness is character building. That Eurípedes in the bloodline really is that Euripedes. The playwright is one of Highway’s many celebrated relatives. Jean Baudrillard, Marcel Proust, Michel Foucault, Robert Walser and others all appear as members of the Sánchez clan. Sánchez is a manifestation of Luiselli’s ideas about the interconnectedness of life and literature. He represents the influence of literature on life. He is what it feels like to live among books, to be one with writers and thinkers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Sánchez compares his work as an auctioneer to the work of a storyteller. “I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects,” he says, “but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” Throughout the book, auctioneering and storytelling are inextricable. The four methods of auctioneering that Sánchez uses—circular, elliptical, parabolic, and hyperbolic—parallel his early definition of literature: “hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics.”

And when we first see Sánchez wielding the gavel, he proves an enchanting exaggerator. A local priest has asked Sánchez to conduct an auction to help the church recover its financial losses. By this point in his life, Sánchez is a renowned auctioneer. He has sold everything from libraries to cattle, and brags about having “lined his pockets swindling millionaires with the tap of a gavel.” He owns two plots on the “lovely Calle Disneylandia,” where he stores the innumerable objects he has collected over the years. His most prized possession he keeps affixed to his gums: the teeth of Marilyn Monroe.

At first unsure of what to sell to the church’s parishioners, Sánchez eventually decides to auction off his old teeth. Inspired by Quintillius, Sánchez enhances the value of his products through “an elegant surpassing of the truth.” He devises a series of tales about each tooth’s ostensible owners: Plato, Augustine, Virginia Woolf, Montaigne and others. With each new bid, the epigraphs from Mill, Russell, and others take on greater effect. Their semiotic assertions are no longer philosophical intrusions, but discourses on Sánchez’s trade. When do his old teeth cease being his and become Plato’s, Plutarch’s, Montaigne’s? At the denouement of each tooth’s story? Perhaps at the bang of his gavel. And can the overlap of hyperbole and high bids alchemise an ordinary tooth into the tooth of a historical icon?

Valeria Luiselli

Luiselli suggests that Highway Sánchez’s task is the task of the writer: to transform the mundane, the everyday, the unnoticed into valuable art. Or, as Sánchez’s describes his auctioneering: “I’m like the people who scavenge in your garbage. But with pedigree. I expurgate, I find. I aromatize, clean, and disinfect. I recycle.” Luiselli, too, is a scavenger, in the mode of Walter Benjamin or, perhaps more accurately (because of her interest in the three-dimensional planes of the novel—Faces in the Crowd is “a horizontal novel told vertically”), Robert Rauschenberg. Luiselli is a collector and builder of textures. The Story of my Teeth knits together picaresque narrative energy, philosophy of language, Chinese proverbs, and conversations in Latin. By blending these various styles, Luiselli separates herself from a writer like Maggie Nelson, who seems, at first glance, to be working in a similar mode; though both writers use a fragmented style that heavily emphasises literary collage and interpolated criticism, Luiselli seems less interested in the passionate interaction between art and a single mind, as Nelson is, than in how art in myriad forms can coexist within a single work.

One of the novel’s most successful textures is provided by translator Christina MacSweeney. In Book VII, The Chronologic, MacSweeney offers a timeline of Highway Sánchez’s life, including notable literary anniversaries, publications and deaths that parallel Sánchez’s story. By placing events like “asteroid discovered and named 3543 Dostoyevsky” and “Tens of thousands join Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral procession to his burial plot in Montparnasse,” beside Sánchez’s “promotion to Crisis Manager” and the date of his marriage, MacSweeney has re-envisioned and enhanced Luiselli’s attempt to bridge the Galería Jumex and a factory worker like Sánchez. MacSweeney’s Chronologic expands Sánchez’s universe, interpolating events tangential to his particular fictional narrative: “At age twenty-seven, while in Wisconsin, Mexican writer Laia Jufresa learns how to ride a bike;” “A red fish called Oblomov dies of some kind of depression in Guadalupe Nettel’s collection of short stories, El matrimonio de los peces rojos.” MacSweeney balances the lives and deaths of artists with the lives and deaths of their characters, in a timeline itself focused on the fabricated life of a character, subverting the presumed nonexistence of a character in fiction. The effect is thrilling. Highway Sánchez, MacSweeney suggests, was just as much alive as Nikolai Gogol and Michel Foucault—and for that matter, Anna Karenina, Hamlet, Humbert Humbert, and any number of ‘characters’.

The Story of My Teeth is an intelligent and highly funny experiment of a novel. However, Luiselli sometimes reaches to cross-breed literature into Sánchez’s working class genes—passages from Uncle Proust and Cousin Sartre are shoe-horned into the narrative—and the epigraphs she includes overemphasise the semiotic underpinnings of Sánchez’s profession, making the connection a little too obvious. But the novel is, on the whole, a successful fusion of disparate forms, styles, and expectations. With its manifold textures, a structure reminiscent of early Michael Ondaatje, and a thoroughly entertaining, Walser-esque protagonist in Highway Sánchez, The Story of My Teeth marks another leap forward in Luiselli’s already stunning career.

 

Alex McElroy

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex McElroy’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, DIAGRAM, Tin House, Music & Literature, The Millions and more work can be found here. He currently lives in Bulgaria.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 17th, 2015.