Book Review: THE STORY OF MY TEETH by Valeria Luiselli, Trans. by Christina MacSweeny

StoryOfMyTeeth-Web-356x535 The Story of My Teeth
by Valeria Luiselli
Trans. by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press, 2015

In 2013 Galería Jumex, a contemporary art gallery outside of Mexico City, commissioned Valeria Luiselli to write a fictional story about their exhibition, The Hunter and the Factory. Her resulting work, The Story of My Teeth, explores the connection between the gallery’s collection and its source of funding—Jumex, a juice factory. Luiselli was inspired by nineteenth century Cuban tobacco readers—who read serial novels to tobacco factory workers—to write the novel in installments for the juice factory workers. The workers read and critiqued her installments, contributed photographs of the neighborhood, and offered stories and opinions on the art collections that their labor funded. The final, collaborative product is ultimately about the love of storytelling, from the process of creation to its power as a shared experience. It becomes so layered and complex through experimentation with perspective and form that ultimately it transcends genre. It is literary fiction, but with elements of memoir, biography, metafiction, tragicomedy, and magic realism woven in.

The novel is about Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, nicknamed Highway, a collector of objects, like teeth, his father’s fingernails, jewels, and contemporary art. He works at a juice factory in Ecatepec (a neighborhood outside of Mexico City) for more than nineteen years, before becoming an auctioneer. He desires to someday write his autobiography, and have a surgery to fix his teeth. As a temporary solution, he purchases Marilyn Monroe’s teeth at an auction and has an operation to replace his with hers. The confidence Highway gains from his Monroe teeth does not depend on their authenticity. Fake or genuine, they contain not only the weight of Monroe’s name, but also her history and impact on the world. In replacing his teeth with her teeth, he merges their histories and evolves his identity—he is as much a part of the teeth’s story as the teeth are a part of his story.

And this is, more or less, the “story of his teeth”: they are crooked, then removed (and replaced with dentures), and then sold at an auction. He auctions them as the teeth of Virginia Woolf, Plato, Rousseau, and more. The stories he tells are entertaining, humorous, and often complex. They derive humor from their two-line simplicity, or long and unrelated anecdotes, or violent endings. His stories indirectly question why we value what we value—whether that is art, or straight teeth. He believes that he can “restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth.’” Its authenticity doesn’t necessarily matter, only the story and faith he has for the object. In buying an object at an auction, one is buying the story that sold it. Consider a certain portrait hanging in the Louvre that increased in value from being stolen and vandalized. Like auctioneering, art—whether in the form of literature or a painting—must be bought and sold, both figuratively and literally.

Highway’s story is “sold” to us from three different perspectives: Highway’s, his friend (and transcriber of his autobiography), Voragine’s, and Christina MacSweeney’s, the actual novel’s translator.  Luiselli “sells” us The Story of My Teeth by appealing to our inherent need for storytelling. The novel is, overwhelmingly so, a writer’s novel: it is (continuously) aware of its origin—a fictional collaborations with an art exhibition. This is exemplified by the novel’s setting in Ecatepec, Highway’s initial career at Jumex, and the most climactic scene, which takes place at Galería Jumex. These examples serve as the novel’s “constraints”: the novel’s plot cannot stray too far from its origin as a commissioned project.

In consequence for straying, Highway is punished: he is kidnapped, most likely drugged, and taken to a clown exhibition at the art gallery. There he is forced to confront some of his biggest fears, such as clowns and being perceived as a clown. This section is absurd, and seemingly fantastical. It is not until Voragine’s chapter that we learn what exactly happened to Highway when he was kidnapped. On its own, this chapter would not have worked; it would have felt too contrived. But combined with Voragine’s chapter, it works because Voragine grounds both Highway and the story of his kidnapping, and presents him as a more sympathetic character. Voragine’s chapter is a necessary companion, and contrast, to Highway’s story for this reason. He presents himself as a more reliable narrator than Highway, and avoids Highway’s hyperbolic and boastful language, instead favoring straightforward facts and prose. Voragine admits to Highway’s flaws, but still hopes that the reader will see Highway as he does: as an entertaining and enthusiastic storyteller.

Like Voragine, I choose to see Highway as an entertaining, albeit flawed, storyteller. It is his exaggerated sense of self, and his stories, that make the novel enjoyable. But the novel becomes successful, as a whole, with its structure: Voragine’s chapter, MacSweeney’s chapter, and Luiselli’s “Afterward” revealing the novel’s origin, help to immerse the reader not only in the world she created, but in the process of its creation. Luiselli proves that collaborative fiction, or even a fiction exercise, can yield a successful and cohesive novel—and that if this is where the future of contemporary literature may be heading, we should embrace it.

In addition to The Story of My Teeth, Christina MacSweeney translated Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, and her collection of essays, Sidewalks. Luiselli’s first novel won a Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and in 2014 she received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. The Story of My Teeth was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2015.


Filed under: Book Review, Prose