How do we create meaning? The protagonist of The Story of My Teeth, Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a factory-guard-turned-world-renowned-auctioneer, keeps turning back to that question in this collective novel-essay by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney. It’s a question about hyperbole: “surpassing the truth” as Highway calls it. In search of an answer, we are led through the cycles of Highway’s dental biography in a narrative style peppered with succinct digressions, old anecdotes, personal philosophies, and spirited declarations. Once in awhile, there is an unexpected moment that punches you in the heart, and then we swiftly move on.
We are never sure what is truth in Highway’s stories, and it doesn’t matter. We believe in his perspicuous and delightfully bizarre biography. Highway replaces his old, crooked teeth with the teeth of Marilyn Monroe, and, though we suspect they are not truly Marilyn Monroe’s teeth, we choose to believe the story; we allow ourselves to be enchanted by the calculation of his thoughts. If we are completely honest with ourselves, truth is a word rapidly deteriorating in meaning, supplanted by hyperbole, fear, and self-conscious symbolism.
In many ways, The Story of My Teeth refreshes the space of expression. Superb oddities pull you into a world of feeling. Feelings are funneled into tangibles. We settle into the weight of incomprehensible guilt, sorrow, fear, or humor sparked by inexplicable experiences. We form our own strange intimacy with the stories—each of them like a unique tchotchke, all stowed together to form a darling collection of peculiarities.
The Story of My Teeth explores the boundaries of feeling and the boundaries of art, drawing them closer together with a radical sort of intention. The story behind the creation of this book is nothing short of inspiring—if you’ll forgive the clichéd word. As Luiselli explains in her Afterword, she was commissioned to write a work of fiction for an exhibition at Galería Jumex, a gallery located in the “marginalized, wasteland-like neighborhood” of Ecatepec in Mexico. The gallery is, somewhat curiously, funded by a juice factory, Grupo Jumex. Luiselli sought to explore—or, even, remedy—the disconnect between the factory/factory workers and the gallery/artists. Under the pseudonym of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, she sent regular installments of her fiction to the factory workers, who recorded their discussions about the stories and sent them back to her; meanwhile, MacSweeney almost simultaneously translated these works.
Accessibility and collaboration are the core elements of this literary force, working in harmony with the joy of storytelling. Luiselli, MacSweeney, the factory workers*, and the eventual result of their collaboration–The Story of My Teeth–destabilize hierarchical structures persistent in the artistic and literary realms. Luiselli asks: “How do art objects acquire value not only within the specialized market for art consumption, but also outside its (more or less) well-defined boundaries? How does distancing an object or name from its context in a gallery, museum, or literary pantheon—a reverse Duchampian procedure—affect its meaning and interpretation? How do discourse, narrative, and authorial signatures or names modify the way we perceive artwork and literary texts?” Rather than push and twist to extract an answer, however, this collaborative work is a radically considerate endeavor at making sincere connections between often-disparate worlds.
At the very least, you can read through this book and enjoy the eccentric journey of an aging auctioneer obsessed with legacy and teeth. But The Story of My Teeth is also an invitation to consider our own understanding of history, meaning, and inspiration. Luiselli concludes her Afterword by emphasizing that the book was in all stages a collaborative work, involving a process of revisiting, revising, and rewriting. “I like to think of it as an ongoing one, where every new layer modifies the entire content completely,” she writes. Perhaps, as readers, we, too are a part of this palimpsestic piece of literature.
*It also seems important to name those who also participated in writing the story with Luiselli: Evelyn Ángeles Quintana, Abril Velázquez Romero, Tania García Montalva, Marco Antonio Bello, Eduardo González, Ernestina Martínez, Patricia Méndez Cortés, Julio Cesar Velarde Mejía, and David León Alcalá.
The Story of My Teeth
by Valeria Luiselli
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press, 2015
Reviewer Rebecca Hanssens-Reed is a writer and translator.