The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
Coffee House Press, 2015
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: This one is strange enough that I’ll probably read it again just for the experience.
Reviewed by Indiana
Every part of this book is strange: the way the chapters are divided, the premise, the way it’s written, and the reason it was written in the first place.
Luiselli was commissioned to write a piece of fiction for an exhibit for a gallery just outside of Mexico City. The gallery is in a marginalized neighborhood and it’s right next to a juice factory, and the factory workers were some of Luiselli’s greatest inspirations for the book.
Reading the book is similar to the experience of walking through an art exhibit. There are some pieces that seem to be coherently placed together and yet, there are some that seem oddly paired. As if the curator wanted to shock the viewer. But it’s an interesting and gratifying experience nonetheless.
The bulk of the book concerns Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, who is one of the most bizarre protagonists I’ve ever read. He’s introduced in the opening lines of the book in a Moby-Dick-like way: “I’m the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a different sort of man. My name is Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, though people call me Highway, I believe with affection.”
Besides being the best auctioneer, he also prides himself on his ability to stand an egg upright on a table, imitate Janis Joplin when he’s drunk, interpret fortune cookies, and count to eight in Japanese. But strangest of all: he collects the teeth of famous people.
Highway is a positively lost protagonist, in the sense that he always seems buoyant, even when his career and marriage fall apart. He reminds me of a Shakespearean character at some points and then an SNL character the next.
After Highway becomes an auctioneer, he begins to come up with theories on ways to auction items off. He tells lengthy stories about each and every item he sells. They’re often convoluted and obviously false, but buyers from the crowds always seem to fall under his story-spells.
Beyond making the book feel more like an art exhibit, the auctioning scenes (and there are multiple), add an interesting meta layer to the book. It calls to question the value and relationship of signs and signifiers. (Luiselli even quotes Gottlob Frege, “The regular connection between a sign, its sense, and its reference is of such a kind that to the sign there corresponds a definite sense and to that in turn a definite reference, while to a given reference (an object) there does not belong only one sign.”)
Through his verbal stories, Highway is physically giving a higher value to the objects than they are at first worth.
“He was a man who truly loved material objects. And his love for them went beyond their real, material worth; for him, their value lay in that thing that, in some way, they silently enclosed.”
The book is dotted with odd scenes and ideas: Highway becomes physically trapped in an art exhibit, he loses the teeth of Marilyn Monroe (which had replaced his own teeth), etc.
Like I said, the book is an experience.
The chapter breaks are interspersed with sayings from Chinese fortune cookies and other strange bits of wisdom (“Demented is the man who is always clenching his teeth on that solid, immutable block of stone that is the past.”)The book ends with a photo gallery and an extensive timeline of Highway’s life and other important cultural events.
This book reads like an extended short story, or a stroll through a quirky museum. Not in a negative way, or in an incomplete way. I’m not sure many other authors could pull off something as zany as this, but Luiselli writing is strong and doesn’t let the reader stop reading (or gazing at the exhibit).