Book Review: The Story of My Teeth
As you read Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, you might find yourself laughing, or gagging, or rolling your eyes. This unclassifiable book tells of the life of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, the self-proclaimed best auctioneer in the world, and a great collector of teeth and their stories. In the first lines of the book Highway declares that he can impersonate Janis Joplin after two drinks, count to eight in Japanese, and float on his back; then he asserts that the book is actually a treatise about collectibles and radical recycling. Is this a joke? Of course it is, a preposterous, rambunctious, postmodern, pastiche-like kind of joke. And a very funny one.
The book was first conceived as the text for a contemporary art catalogue for the Jumex Collection, possibly the largest private collection of contemporary art in Mexico and Latin America. But also part of Jumex is a juice plant in the industrial town of Ecatepec, just outside Mexico City, and the Luiselli writes that the catalogue morphed into a book about a character from that town to be read by the workers of the factory.
The novel probably amused the juice factory workers by making fun of every imaginable character in Mexico (including Luiselli and her husband, the Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue). The book might also have been an attempt to “carnivalize” the world, to turn it upside down by gently ridiculing the tastes in art of the owners and visitors of the Jumex collection (teeth, cranes, sharks in formaldehyde, anyone?). Now the rest of the world can be likewise charmed.
Highway is a trickster who since childhood has deceived with words, both in auctions and in literature. He swears that he was so ugly that his father made every human effort to get rid of him, unlike his mother, a woman used to accepting failure as a form of destiny. What is an outcast like Highway to do? He first gets a job as a security guard in a juice factory in Ecatepec, a playful homage to Luiselli’s original audience.
Somehow Highway finds himself becoming a contemporary dancer, fathering a boy named Ratzinger, and working as a masseur, as a bike repair guy, and as an ice cream vendor outside a bookstore. Finally he discovers his calling as an auctioneer. That will be his ticket to save money and replace his horrible, crooked teeth.
Reading Luiselli’s book in Spanish and in English (in Christina MacSweeney’s translation) makes quite a different impact on the reader. In the Spanish version, released in 2013, the complete title fills an entire page, with the following extended version of the title including all the playful ungrammaticalities:
The Story of My Teeth. A novel series written by Valeria Luiselli Which contains the hyperbolics, parabolics, ellipticals, allegoricals, and circular life perambulations of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez Carretera. (La Historia de mis Dientes. Una novela en entregas escrita por Valeria Luiselli Que contiene las parabólicas, hiperbólicas, elípticas, alegóricas, y perambulaciones circulares de vida de Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez Carretera.)
The page was designed using embellished capital letters, roman numerals and lax capitalization rules, mocking the style of Renaissance typography. The result creates a sort of family resemblance between The Story of My Teeth and early comic works such as The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities, or The Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and His Son Pantagruel, or The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon… you get the idea.
Also absent in the English version is a page of genealogy, with the names and photos of the extended Sánchez family: James Sánchez Joyce, Miguel Sánchez Foucault, Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre… the portraits correspond to the actual writers and philosophers, with at least two exceptions: Highway is represented by the Mexican singer José María Napoleón, and his wife is represented by the English singer Jeanette, both very popular in Mexico in the early nineteen eighties.
Luiselli’s book is often hilarious, witty, wry, cynical and mean in a good, iconoclastic way (maybe too iconoclastic). There is a passage, for instance, where Highway gleefully bulldozes four cultural institutions in Mexico: the Nicaraguan modernist poet Rubén Darío along with his delicate book Azul, the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno, and the venerable Mexican National Educational Radio. In the Spanish version Luiselli describes Azul, somehow transformed into Rubén Dario’s wife, as being something of a simpleton (“La esposa de Rubén Darío, Azul, tenía un ligero retraso mental. No era fea pero tenía cara de simple y risa de simple“). The lines are simply cut from the English version, which begins as follows:
Azul would generally be lying in the bed in her underwear, with Mr. Unamuno all over her. Mr. Unamuno was a pigeon-chested old codger who had a program on public radio. His show always opened with the same line: “This is Unamuno: modestly depressed, engagingly eclectic, and sentimentally political.” Idiot.
Is Azul cheating on Dario with Unamuno? Or is she is mentally unfit to recognize sexual abuse? The text is ambiguous on that matter. In any case, Azul the character seems to be a creation that serves as a critical response to the Orientalist fairy-tale-like princesses contained in Azul (the book). Presumably Luiselli thought that such nonsense deserves to be mocked, but she also worried that the original line was too much of an inside joke for Americans to understand. Even so, the characters in The Story of My Teeth transform every imaginable member of the Mexican cultural world into farcical versions of themselves. Another example: when Highway finally gets the teeth he wants (none other than Marilyn Monroe’s), the person who puts them into his mouth is a dentist named after a Mexican poet, “Dr. Luis Felipe Fabre,” who owns the dental clinic “Il Miglior Fabbro.” Is Luiselli really elevating Fabre to the stature of Arnaut Daniel and Ezra Pound? Or is it just a pun playing on Fabre and Fabbro?
Many, if not the majority, of the Mexican names in the book will mean nothing to even a very informed American reader, but that may turn into a positive trait, because the novel is then about the power of words to both deceive and delight. One superficial layer of meaning gets lost in the translation, but the ironies teem below the surface. More than a picaresque, The Story of My Teeth feels akin to the experimental novels of David Markson (name-dropping and all), with a touch of neurosis from Italo Svevo. Valeria Luiselli’s influences are just as varied and impressive as Highway’s family tree.
Nayar Rivera is a writer based in NYC working on a PhD in Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center, CUNY.