Valeria Luiselli’s “The Story of My Teeth”

Reviewed by Tynan Kogane

Image of Valeria Luiselli’s “The Story of My Teeth”

In 1934, at the beginning of the summer, during a ten-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City, Thomas Mann—the magisterial German writer whose lifelong dental preoccupations led him to kill Herr Buddenbrooks with a bad toothache and endow the otherwise immaculate Tadzio of Death in Venice with wonky teeth—decided to read Don Quixote for the first time. Between luxurious meals, tea times, and shuffleboard matches, Mann read in a deckchair and composed the essay “Voyage with Don Quixote”—a digressive mix of experiences aboard the ship, reflections on Germany and the decay of Western civilization, and, especially, his fascinations with Cervantes’s melancholy humor. In the essay, Mann praised the genius and “epic wit” of Don Quixote, and turned his attention to Cervantes’s arsenal of literary tricks—apocryphal authors, false translations, intertextuality, stories within stories, and the steady breakdown of fiction and reality—and then traced the influence of these devices to “the writers of the Romantic school,” including E. T. A. Hoffman, who, according to Mann, were the best successors of this admirable thread of literary history: “They have thought the most fruitfully about the weird depths, the trick mirrors and false bottoms of artistic illusion; and it is precisely because they were artists in and beyond art that they came so dangerously near to the ironic dissolution of form.”

Valeria Luiselli’s work, too, comes close to this ironic dissolution of form. Her first two books, published at the same time last year in the United States by Coffee House Press, blur literature and reality, and, in the Cervantive tradition, confound the reader’s expectations at every turn, while still operating within the mode of entertainment. Yes, these novels are stuffed with “epic wit”: Faces in the Crowd is a fractured, polyphonic narrative about motherhood, writing, identity, and the long-dead Mexican poet Gilberto Owen; Sidewalks is a brilliant collection of essays that traces similar themes, but here with short blasts from a machine gun. Wearing her deep erudition as casually as a pair of sweatpants, Luiselli proves that she is as equally comfortable echoing Marguerite Duras’s The Lover as she is Walter Benjamin’s One-way Street.

Likewise, The Story of My Teeth tackles a loopy literary impulse: the novel was commissioned for the catalog of an exhibition at the Galería Jumex, an experimental art space located on the industrial outskirts of Mexico City and funded by the juice factory Grupo Jumex, and was read in several installments to the workers of the same factory. This unlikely collaboration with—and tribute to—the factory workers led to the creation of the memorable character Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, the collector and auctioneer at the heart of the novel.

Highway is the perfectly charismatic picaresque hero: “I’m the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man.” From childhood, Highway develops a fondness for hoarding objects—his earliest collection is his father’s fingernails—and, above all, stories. In adulthood, the fondness grows. After a few unfulfilling jobs, and in order to raise money to have his teeth fixed, Highway enrolls in an auctioneering course with the world-famous auctioneer Master Oklahoma. Here Highway learns, among many other things,, that the value of objects is determined by their narratives—in other words, he comes to think of his new profession as a form of storytelling: “I wasn’t just a lowly seller of goods but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” Auctioneering serves as a perfect—and familiar—starting point to explore the intersection of art and commerce, material possessions and their imaginative functions, but with Luiselli’s lighthearted touch and metafictional flourishes it also seems entirely original. (Werner Herzog made a documentary of the World Championship of Livestock Auctioneers and called auctioneering “the real poetry of capitalism”—later, in an interview, he claimed that he wanted to produce a fifteen-minute version of Hamlet with the best livestock auctioneers.)

Over the years, from his headquarters in an industrial suburb of Mexico City, Highway perfects his craft and amasses a vast collection of objects, including the teeth of Marilyn Monroe, which he proudly transplants into his own mouth. At this point, the novel soars, circles, and swerves: Highway finds a sidekick, Jacobo de Voragine (a nice fellow who serves as his Sancho Panza, and later his James Boswell); dubious literary figures—Uncle Roberto Sánchez Walser, Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre, the neighbor Mr. Cortázar, among many others—make brief cameos; and the auctions themselves take place, beginning with Highway’s own teeth (he claims each tooth belongs to a different writer, which amounts to plenty of clever anecdotes). Finally, he auctions random objects stolen from a warehouse: a billboard with a horse (featuring a story about the Argentine writer Alan Pauls), a prosthetic leg, a stuffed dog, a music score on a tripod.

Translated into a colloquial, idiosyncratic, and thoroughly enjoyable English by Christina MacSweeney (who also created a timeline at the end of the novel, which, according to Luiselli, “both destabilizes the obsolete dictum of the translator’s invisibility and suggests a new way of engaging with translation”), The Story of My Teeth ends up containing the truths and delusions of a fabulist, elements of the picaresque, unresolved preoccupations, wonderful asides, and a whole house of mirrors constructed with so much mirth and skill that it seems to avoid the glumly highbrow label of “postmodernism.” Instead, Luiselli’s work echoes Mann’s appraisal of Don Quixote: falling into that category of writers who, with style and ease, engage the reader on an intellectual level yet are compulsively readable, without all that self-seriousness or reckless headiness.

Stendhal said that a novel is a mirror carried along a highway. The Story of My Teeth is a mirror carried by a Highway Sánchez Sánchez: a coded yet gleeful journey through Mexico City, rich with details, offering, in Highway’s words as he quotes Quintilian, “a fissure in the relationship between style and reality.”