The Story of My Teeth
(Coffee House Press, 2015)
Let’s acknowledge that the vast majority of art involves a balance between being asked something and being given something (usually, attention/work given over for the deep pleasure of meaning/empathy/story/connection), and let’s further acknowledge that the way we usually think about this stuff has to do with whether the art is easy/commercial or hard/pure. Finnegans Wake is hard—it asks much but (supposedly) rewards a fair amount for the work; E.T. is (presumably) its near opposite, a sensationally satisfying movie that asks little and, not coincidentally, features an ending choreographed for maximal heart-string-tugging and music that all but paints the emotions right onto us. This isn’t to say easy art’s bad or hard art’s good; we all get to decide for ourselves.
Distinct from this (admittedly brutal and reductive) binary is art that’s neither easy nor difficult but confusing, art that’s opaque in what it asks from and what it offers to the reader/viewer. The risk this work runs is that it’ll seem self-involved, fake, an affected pose: that’s art? Lots of folks sneered about Duchamp’s Fountain or Gertrude Stein’s work, about Reed’s Metal Machine Music, fill in your own examples, and I’d posit here that the weird defensiveness we feel encountering such art is actually a fear we’ll treat it, the work, somehow inadequately, a fear that, at not being asked to engage as we’ve come to expect to be asked to engage, we’ll screw up and engage poorly with the art and maybe miss whatever glory the art’s got on offer.
The most recent great example of this sort of art is Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, the young author’s third book from Coffee House Press (after 2014’s simultaneous release of her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, and Sidewalks, a collection of essays), and Story’s story is easy enough to just sum up: this is the tale of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez and how—as the book’s first sentence declares—he’s “the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because [he’s] a discreet sort of man.” Be advised that the claim here is not at all that Luiselli’s novel (translated by Christina MacSweeney, whose translation one assumes must be great, given MacSweeney translated Luiselli’s other two books as well, but the usual charming commentary about translations—that it’s lithe or sensual or rigorous or whatever—is here for me unapplicable given I’ve never read the thing in the original [and would guess most reviewers who make such claims haven’t, either]) doesn’t feature starkly engaging sentences that more often than not surprise and so propel the book ceaselessly; the sentences are absolutely thus, and Luiselli’s arch, almost-tangential style is addictive, and after finishing the book I had a hard time not feeling mildly let down by what suddenly appeared pedestrian strings of words.
But as far as what the beautiful sentences are adding up to, or what in cohering they’re attempting to transmit as far as point or idea, that’s a tougher river to ford. Ultimately it feels safest or most direct to claim that the book is ultimately about story-telling, the support for which has to do with the fact that, early on (p. 15 – 16), Highway relates that, according to his teacher
there are four types of auctions: circular, elliptical, parabolic, and hyperbolic. The strand that any auction follows is, in turn, determined by the relative value of the eccentricity (epsilon) of the auctioneer’s discourse; that is to say, the degree of deviation of its conic section from a given circumference (the object to be auctioned). The range of values is as follows:
THE EPSILON OF THE CIRCULAR METHOD IS ZERO.
THE EPSILON OF THE ELLIPTICAL METHOD IS GREATER THAN ZERO BUT LESS THAN ONE.
THE EPSILON OF THE PARABOLIC METHOD IS ONE.
THE EPSILON OF THE HYPERBOLIC METHOD IS GREATER THAN ONE.
Which info’s strange and fascinating: the main character is literally arguing that there are methods of attaching value to objects through story; further, immediately after this list, Highway divulges that he “developed and added another category […] the allegoric method, the eccentricity (epsilon) of which is infinite and does not depend on contingent or material variables.” Parse that: as of page 16, the narrator is admitting that his big development in the field of auctioneering is the introduction of lies, and implicitly we’re forced to consider that something’s actual thing-ness matters little in terms of how we value it: what we use to establish value is story, the veracity of which is, to our man Highway, insignificant.
That’s a long set-up for what is and reads like an awfully brief book—The Story of My Teeth clocks in at 183 pages but feels half that as an in-the-chair experience—yet the set-up is crucial simply because the actual story in The Story of My Teeth is a multi-bracketed affair. There are seven Books within the book, the first five of which are narrated by Highway; in the sixth, Highway’s pupil Voragine (the word is an accent shy of being the Spanish word for vortex, and the character in the book is hired to write Highway’s autobiography in exchange for which Highway’ll give him an education [“Such as how to avoid paying for your meals, or how to ride buses for free. I can also give you street. I know this neighborhood better than anyone, and I can give you all that knowledge.”]) takes over as narrator and after several pages there’s a series of nine pictures of places in the novel; the seventh Book is a timeline by which Highway’s fictional life is transposed among real-world events (earthquakes, Foucault's death, Sgt Pepper's release) but the seventh Book’s author is Christina MacSweeney, as in the translator. Plus after all of that, Luiselli herself inserts an afterward explaining that the novel you’ve just read is the result of a collaboration between Luiselli and the workers at the Jumex juice factory in Mexico.
This is all too much and not even close to enough, given that the structure and ancillary aspects of the novel have nothing to do with the fact that Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez is—while sort of sad but hugely compelling; while alienated from but, in the course of the novel, reconnected with his son; while entertaining and learned without it being made clear just how much we can believe his entertaining or learned nature are real or just aspects he presents to the reader—a terrific narrator and character, and the individual Books themselves are so compelling one whips through them as one does the worst addictive treats. Highway’s teeth, by the by—the actual ones lining his mouth for the bulk of the novel—are (he claims at the book’s start) those of Marilyn Monroe, and his own born-with teeth are auctioned off (falsely, by the allegoric method, presented by Highway as the teeth of Plato, Chesterton, Borges, Woolf) in the second Book, the buyer of which turns out to be Highway's estranged son Siddhartha, who also steals the entirety of Highway’s “admirable estate”—stuff, the reader understands, that may or may not be “valuable” as the term is used beyond the book but which Highway himself would consider monumental, special. There’s more, and there are what might be called “reversals,” though I’m not certain it’s fair to call them such in a novel like this.
The reason for all this too-muchness, for attempting to paint or at least expose something like the novel’s breadth, is that despite having read and enjoyed the book I’m not certain what it is or what it means, and am even less certain that the book is attempting to engage with readers in that realm. What the book is, ultimately, is a story, no more or less than promised in the title: it’s the story of Highway Sanchez Sanchez’s teeth mediated (as every story is and must be) by the variety of voices that actually formed and shaped the told story, Luiselli included. What it feels like, more than anything, is an explosion of the suburbanish expectations one might come to novels with, the false-but-clung-to faith in purity or authorial control, and in the explosion’s aftermath we’re left as readers forced to believe maybe Highway is right, and that story, regardless of its veracity, is the root of all value.
WESTON CUTTER is from Minnesota and is the author of You'd Be A Stranger, Too (BlazeVOX Books, 2010) and All Black Everything (New Michigan Press, 2012).