What to make of The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli? The story is told in seven parts and each part’s title lets you know what sort of flavor that portion of the story is going to take on. For instance, part one, “The Story (Beginning, Middle, and End)” is told in a straightforward way. But the rest of it, not so much. We have part two “The Hyperbolics” in which we are told:
I am not a naive man, and I knew my teeth were not as valuable as John Lennon’s, but I could raise their value by the apposite use of my hyperbolic method. For each tooth, I would tell the hypertrue story of one of my favorite people, in the style of the profiles of Suetonius wrote. After all, as Quintilian says, a hyperbolic is simply ‘a fissure in the relationship between style and reality.’
There are also “Parabolics” and “Allegorics.”
The story is about Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez who prefers to be called Highway. The book is Highway’s “treatise on collectibles and the various values of objects” and it is the story of his teeth.
Highway lives in Ecatepec, Mexico. He has bad teeth and hardly ever opens his mouth because of it. He does well in school and at the age of twenty-one gets a job as a security guard at a factory that makes juice. After many years in the job and a series of events, he is promoted to Personal Crisis Supervisor. From here his career spirals to ever greater heights and he eventually becomes the greatest auctioneer ever. Highway buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth at an auction and when he becomes rich enough, has all his own teeth pulled out and Monroe’s teeth implanted in their place. He saves many of his old teeth and later in the book he auctions them off one by one.
What makes an auctioneer so great, Highway tells us, is the stories they tell about the items up for auction. The stories add value to the item so that what people are actually buying is the story and not the item itself. And can Highway tell stories! He tells them with such confidence and assuredness that we have no reason to doubt them even when they seem like they couldn’t possibly be true. In the ultimate auction, Highway sells himself to his estranged son, Siddhartha, who then drugs him and pulls out all of Highway’s teeth and steals all of Highway’s collections from his warehouse.
But Highway refuses to be beaten. He keeps telling stories and eventually meets a writer and hires him to write his story. Part six of the book, “Elliptics” is written by the writer and it is the first inkling we get that Highway’s story may not be what we thought it was. Highway’s job is to tell stories and he tells us a whopper and we raise our auction paddle and buy it with pleasure.
The final part of the story, “Chronologic,” is written by the book’s translator. Luiselli invited her to write a timeline of events for the story. But it is not just any timeline, it is one that fits in so perfectly with the book that not until the Afterword when Luiselli talks about it did I believe it was written by the book’s actual translator.
The Story of My Teeth is fundamentally about stories. It is funny and charming and pulls the reader along at a fast pace. There are literary references galore throughout, some subtle, others not so very. Some of the ones I enjoyed most came as part of stories Highway told about relatives like his uncle Marcelo Sánchez-Proust:
who had many theories about many things, [and] used to say that a man should marry a woman who had an understanding attitude toward this natural condition of men. ‘You have to find a madame,’ he would say, ‘who tempers the fury that accumulates during the long sleepless hours of men who are sensitive to the elasticity of time.’
Ha! He also has an extremely existential cousin named Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre.
While the story rollicks along in an often outrageous fashion, I got to like Highway and his seemingly indomitable spirit. But when we come to “Elliptics,” the story got rather sad in a kind of Don Quioxte way, meaning you want everything the great Don relates of his adventures to be true but the glorious tale doesn’t exactly match up with reality. But then, the whole book asks us to consider truth and stories. And, just like Don Quixote fighting dragons in the shape of windmills, wouldn’t we rather have the value-added of Highway’s hyperbolics and allegorics than the strict facts?
Luiselli wrote Story of My Teeth for the workers at the Jumex factory in Mexico, the very factory where Highway began as a security guard. She wrote in pieces with the intent that the workers would read it aloud (the book was a commissioned part of an art exhibit). They did and then they would give Luiselli feedback and she would write the next section accordingly. In this way, she sees the book as a kind of story collaboration. There is the further collaboration with her translator who wrote a chapter of the book. But it goes beyond that too because Luiselli knows English even though she writes in Spanish. She and the translator worked together to write the story in English which Luiselli considers not so much a translation but more of a “version” of the original.
Luiselli has a couple other books, one of which is a book of essays called Sidewalks that has gotten high praise. I will definitely be looking into it some time. As for Story of My Teeth, I am certain I would benefit from rereading it, it is that kind of book, so full of things that you can’t catch them all on the first go around. The book is slim so a reread would not take long at all. Unfortunately my time with the book expired and I had to return it to the library so other people waiting for it could read it. Maybe in a year or two I will remember to request it back so I can discover what other treasures are hiding in its pages.