I came to The Story of My Teeth a little later than most reviewers so I was a little hesitant to write a book review for it; however, upon finishing it, I felt a little more compelled to do so because it’s one of those compelling reads that you wish your friends were reading, a narrative steeped in wonder, propelled by heartbreaking characters.
Valeria Luiselli’s novel is a collection of tales of an auctioneer named Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez. The narrative loosely follows a chronological arc but deviates from time to time. Though the book has been compared to Robert Walser’s work, I feel it more closely resembles The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. Though all three authors have absurdist tendencies, Luiselli’s and Schulz’s books construct history through vignettes rife with a sense of the fantastic.
Sánchez Sánchez is a unique character that provides us with a deeply biased history of his life. He is a simple man who believes he is destined for greater things, in particular a nicer set of teeth. He begins working in a factory and marries up a class. He is inspired to take a class on auctioneering and discovers his talent for it. This skill takes him from Mexico to the United States, where he studies under a master of the technique and develops elaborate theories on auctioneering. It is in America that he finally acquires the teeth he feels he deserves, the teeth of a deceased Hollywood starlet.
Things go poorly for Sánchez Sánchez when he returns home. He auctions his belongings and himself to his son, who disabuses him of all his possessions. Sánchez Sánchez finds himself on the streets, worse for wear. He enlists a young man named Jacobo de Voragine to write his life story and his narrative ends. Here, Luiselli, in the final few pages of the novel, tells another version of the end of Sánchez Sánchez’s story through the perspective of de Vorgaine, who shows a very different reality from that presented by Sánchez Sánchez. It’s an interesting change in framing as it presents the reader with a choice: believe Sánchez Sánchez or de Vorgaine.
The Story of My Teeth is compelling as Luiselli presents the story in very short sections that are grouped in six parts (a seventh part added as a chronologic by translator Christina MacSweeney). Like The Street of Crocodiles, the book reads like interconnected shorts but unlike Schulz’s work, this book has a much more defined narrative line connecting the pieces. The various narratives, perspectives, forms, and modes used in the book come together seamlessly and help assemble a very fine book indeed.
What I found most compelling about Luiselli’s book is her striking prose. For example, Sánchez Sánchez’s diary reads, “[w]hen a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host. Instinctively, when he awakes, he looks to these, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth’s surface and the amount of time that has elapsed during his slumbers, but this ordered procession is apt to grow confused, and to break its ranks.” We see that even the simple men in her story are men with philosophies, but its through Luiselli’s language, that we find interest in these odd philosophies, histories, and judgements. Though we lose the sounds of Luiselli’s native tongue in the shape of the sentences, we still see her ability to craft eloquent and strange prose through the fog of English translation.
Since I spend much of my time thinking about and discussing book design, I would like to discuss the physical design of the book itself as it plays and important part in the reading of this novel. Mary Austin Speaker did a fantastic job of assembling and designing this novel. It’s simple and eloquent with fine embossed text on the cover that weaves between seven illustrated teeth, simulating depth in a very effective way. The sections are divided by illustrations of teeth, a epigraph, abstract designs that resemble early twentieth-century wallpaper, and landscape oriented fortune-cookie fortunes that require the reader to turn the book and really engage with it as a physical object.
This book has inspired me to read other work by Valeria Luiselli. It’s a delightful mix of absurdist fiction, magical realism, and innovative design and readers will likely appreciate this book for its bold ambitions and its dedication to art of fiction both in subtext and implementation.
The Story of My Teeth
by Valeria Luiselli; translated by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press; 184 p.