Valeria Luiselli signed up for a tough project with The Story of My Teeth. It began as a story commissioned for the catalog of an exhibit in the Galería Jumex, a major contemporary art collection attached to a juice factory outside Mexico City. The purpose of the exhibit, and of her contribution, was to “reflect upon the bridges — or the lack thereof — between the featured artwork, the gallery, and the larger context of which the gallery took part.” So: a story about specific pieces of contemporary art, the art world at large, a juice factory, and an industrial neighborhood of which one of Luiselli’s characters says, “If there is a physical materialization of nothingness in this world, it is Ecatepec de Morelos.”
As if this weren’t challenging enough, Luiselli then decided to serialize her story to be read in the Jumex factory so that it would be “not so much about but for the factory workers.” The workers allowed Galería Jumex staff to record their discussions about what they’d read, and Luiselli recycled bits of those conversations in her novel. Oh, and one more thing: she did all this under a male pseudonym. Specifically, she did it as Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, which is her protagonist’s name.
At this point you’re probably laughing. You probably think that this sounds like performance art, which it might be, or like an MFA candidate’s anxiety-induced nightmare. But the thing is, Luiselli pulls it off. The Story of My Teeth is a great read. The writing is equal parts elegant and chatty, with a great sense of humor. It’s full of Big Ideas but never feels like a lecture. It’s episodic, a bit skittery, but has plenty of forward momentum. Luiselli never lingers too long in a section, or in one of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez’s many anecdotes or digressions into the theory of auctioneering.
Highway announces early in the book that he is the inventor of a new method of auctioneering: the allegoric method. This makes him “not 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. End of declaration.” Later, he explains to a young writer that “What auctioneers auction, in the end, are just names of people, and maybe words. All I do is give them new content.” In other words, he lies, and people buy. Draw connections to the art world as you will.
A lot of The Story of My Teeth is Luiselli letting the reader draw connections as he or she will. The book is littered with literary references. As a child, Highway works at Ruben Darío Jr.’s newsstand and helps Darío’s wife conceal her affair with a certain Mr. Unamuno. His next-door neighbor is Mr. Cortázar. His relatives all have names like Juan Sánchez Baudrillard and Miguel Sánchez Foucault. There are so many references that the book ends with a timeline put together by Christina MacSweeney, Luiselli’s translator, bringing them all together. (Yes, the book is a collaboration with her translator as well as the Jumex workers.) It can feel a bit like Roberto Bolaño circa The Savage Detectives, listing off all the Infra-Realists and their enemies, or like going to a party full of name-dropping jerks. The difference is that Luiselli doesn’t want you to take her names seriously.
Some of the names are jokes, like Highway’s cousin Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre, who “couldn’t hold his drink [and] would inevitably tell us — around the time when the dessert was being served — that we were hell.” Some are shout-outs, like the bonsai store owned by Alejandro Zambra, the Chilean writer who published a novel called Bonsai in 2006 and whose most recent collection, My Documents, includes a story in which Valeria Luiselli is a character. And all of them, as Highway says, are just names of people. Assign them value or don’t. If you do, you might be getting tricked, or ripped off. On the other hand, who cares if you got tricked if you enjoyed the story?
The Story of My Teeth is a novel full of tricks and lies. Highway’s not exactly a reliable narrator, or a reliable auctioneer. He sells his own teeth as the teeth of Saint Augustine and Virginia Woolf. But, of course, all novels are full of tricks and lies. That’s what fiction is. And as Highway would have it, stories — or, you know, tricks and lies — are the only honest way to modify the value of an object. Not just an object. At the novel’s climax, Highway auctions himself to his son. He modifies his own value. Maybe that’s what fiction is, too: a way to make ourselves valuable. And you can’t blame a writer, or an auctioneer, for that.
Is Alejandro Zambra the new great Latin American writer? James Wood thinks he is. In the latest New Yorker, he describes how Zambra’s new story collection alerted him to the writer’s oeuvre, going on to analyze all three of the writer’s novels in English. You could also read our 2011 interview with Zambra.