Valeria Luiselli’s second novel is only loosely a novel, and not strictly Valeria Luiselli’s. The Story of My Teeth is in fact a collaboration between Luiselli and a group of workers at a juice factory outside Mexico City, commissioned for an exhibition catalog in the juice factory’s art gallery—maybe I should back up a bit.
Grupo Jumex, a Mexican company selling popular fruit juices, just happens to run one of the world’s premier contemporary art collections in an annex of its main factory, located in a “wasteland-like” suburb of Mexico City called Ecatepec. In 2013, the Galería Jumex asked Luiselli, an acclaimed experimental writer, to write a work of fiction for its new exhibition, and Luiselli decided to embrace the strange union of the factory and gallery in her process. Luiselli sent her novel in chapbook installments to the Jumex factory workers, who read, critiqued and sent their own anecdotes of Ecatepec back to Luiselli. The result is—it would have to be—pretty wild.
The plot follows Gustavo ‘Highway’ Sánchez Sánchez, a former Jumex worker and now successful auctioneer, who buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth to replace his own unlovely chompers. Highway then auctions off his old teeth to raise funds for the local church, as one does. For this feat, he employs what he calls his hyperbolic method of auctioning, in which the "relative eccentricity of the auctioneer’s discourse" from its object is greater than one—that is, Highway lies. Or as Highway puts it, quoting Quintilian, “by means of hyperbolics, I could restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth.’” The auction is The Story of My Teeth’s wildly fun high point, a sort of ‘Greatest Teeth of World Literature’ reel, as Highway declares his bicuspids those of Plato, Petrarch, Montaigne, and Borges, with fitting anecdotes or quotations (all true!) about these famous teeth. It was a severe toothache, remember, that set Augustine’s conversion in motion; Virginia Woolf's doctor attributed her depression to periodontal bacteria and yanked tooth after tooth—“but it made no difference. None at all, rien de rien. Mrs. Woolf died by her own hand, with many false teeth in her oral cavity,” laments Highway. “Who will offer 8,000 pesos for this tortured tooth? Anyone?”
The hyperbolic auction drives home Luiselli’s central premise, for which Highway is her perfect route: an object’s value, today, rests less on its inherent beauty than in the stories we tell about it. Contemporary art, especially conceptual art, survives on this premise—a room full of dirt in Soho is a room full of dirt in Soho, and the art occurs in the challenging discussion it provokes with the viewer: What is art, Is this art, Am I being made a fool of, Just who do you think you are, Mister, What is my connection to the soil on a super-urban island riddled with trains.
In the ecstasy of his hyperbolic auction, Highway auctions himself, and his disaffected son Siddhartha buys him, plunders his Monrovian teeth and traps him in the Galería Jumex, where Highway is insulted and bullied by giant malevolent clowns projected on the walls. Look, I said it was wild. But the clowns, like Woolf’s poor teeth, are "true," too: they’re an installation in the Colección Jumex by Italian artist Ugo Roninone. What struck me at first as a quirky, experimental invention, then—and personally, my taste for quirkiness wears pretty thin, pretty quickly—is actually the Jumex factory workers and Luiselli making up stories to go with what they see in their gallery annex. So we come back to Luiselli’s premise about stories and invented meaning.
In fact, Luiselli’s premise works at as many as four levels in The Story of My Teeth. Within the fictional universe, in Highway’s first-person account, he raises the auction value of his teeth by assigning them literary pedigrees in his deftly told stories. Then there is a second fictional tier, toward the end of the novel, when a young writer befriended by Highway, Voragine, takes over the narrative and tells us how Highway told hyperbolic tales about his own life, as if perpetually auctioning his own dilapidated world. At the meta-fictional level, the Jumex workers, just like Highway, are engaged in inventing fictions about their surroundings—not just the Rondinone clown installation, but also Ecatepec, its streets and neighbors—and thereby creating meaning and value. Finally, at the meta-meta-fictional level, the value of The Story of My Teeth itself owes a great deal to the story behind it, the inventive collaboration between Luiselli and the Jumex workers.
Is it any fun to read, though?
Honestly, I can’t remember if I’m supposed to ask such a question anymore. Conceptual art and experimental fiction are often associated, fairly or not, with a certain contempt for traditional aesthetic pleasures, as though plot and character were a failure to challenge the reader. On the other side, conceptual art is mocked as empty bloviating, and experimental fiction as academic irrelevance; “challenging the reader” is suspected as highbrow code for failing the reader. This dialectic has been chugging along longer than I’ve been alive, and I won’t add anything to it with this blog.
Assuming the entertainment question is still relevant to Luiselli’s project, though: Yes, it’s sometimes fun, and sometimes it's a drag. It’s pretty exactly like listening to a group of blue-collar guys at happy hour tell loopy tall tales about places you haven’t seen and people you don’t know—playful, interesting, but remote. Entertaining as Highway’s lies are, I never could quite shake my impatience over being taken for a ride. Existential bewilderment, metafictional trapdoors, the irresolution of truth, fiction, and meaning—they’ve all been around for a while, and seem almost de rigeur in contemporary Latin American literature; I can’t say these made up for my lack of investment in story and character. How bewildered do I have to get before I can go back to watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix, please?
But every generation is bewildered in its own way. Luiselli’s Teeth feels relevant to an Internet age bewildered by authorship, pedigree, and fraud: consider Wikipedia’s brand of open-source truth, or Facebook’s preferred unit of assertion, the confident text block laid over a photo. And if you think about it, ersatz historical-photo Twitter accounts like @HistoryinPics are just practicing Highway’s hyperbolic method—increasing the click value of their posts through an elegant surpassing of the truth. Highway’s driving passion for collecting and auctioning the flotsam of his life—his old teeth, his father’s nail parings—connects the very old world of Voragine and reliquaries to the very new world of publishing pictures of your food, your mood, and your trivia, of radically asserting the value and meaning of your own life. Who will offer 8,000 clicks for this tortured tooth?
Do go read The Story of My Teeth, then, for the challenge and pleasure of being thoughtfully provoked; support your local conceptual artist; and drink Jumex. Please share if you liked this post—it was written by Roberto Bolaño.