The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Catherine MacSweeney) Coffee House Press 184pp, $16.95.
In a letter to Elined Kotschnig, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote:
The symbol of losing teeth has the primitive meaning of losing one’s grip because under primitive circumstances and in the animal kingdom, the teeth and mouth are the gripping organ.
If one loses teeth, one loses the grip on something.
While his contemporary Sigmund Freud predictably regarded dreams of tooth-loss as connected with castration and sexual repression—and indicative of a fear of the penis—Jung’s interpretations were more concerned with teeth as representations of power. Their loss (either imagined or real) indicated deprivation of individual power, or the fear of having another’s power enacted upon oneself.
With this in mind, it is unsurprising that dreams of losing teeth are common indicators of anxiety. Furthermore, instances of tooth removal embody some of the most memorably horrific scenes in cinematic history; Laurence Olivier’s Nazi war criminal’s sadistic interrogation of Dustin Hoffman in the 1970s classic Marathon Man; the hammer scene in the Korean revenge-horror flic Oldboy; and Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, whose slow disintegration into a human/fly hybrid is marked by the loss of his teeth.
This strong psychological relationship between teeth and our sense of self contributes to the expressive clout of Valeria Luiselli’s “dental autobiography” The Story of My Teeth. Here, the motif of teeth best aligns with Jung’s description of them as the “gripping organ,” providing not only our ability to properly eat and speak but also the figurative representation of personal agency, and even a marker of success. However, Luiselli’s charming, funny, and moving novel transcends this dental narrative, and is, at its heart, a profound commentary on the power of storytelling, both as a creative force and a way to instil value.
Humorous and heartbreaking, The Story of My Teeth is Luiselli’s follow-up to her award-winning debut, Faces in the Crowd. The author’s mastery of entrelacement was epitomized in that first book, which weaves together three plots into an intricate, and increasingly complex, braid of poignant narratives, where fact and fiction become indivisible (a refrain also common to this new work). Born in Mexico City in 1983, and currently based in New York City, Luiselli has lived in Costa Rica, South Africa, India, France, Spain, and South Korea. Despite such varied environments, two places in particular form a crucial part of her fiction: both Mexico and Manhattan play pivotal roles, often more like characters than settings. While Faces in the Crowd took us into the heart of Harlem, in The Story of My Teeth the nooks and crannies of the Distrito Federal are made tangible through Luiselli’s deftly descriptive prose, with the assistance of photographs documenting the real-life locations featured in the novel.
Written in instalments for the workers of the Jumex juice factory in Ecatepec, Mexico City, The Story of My Teeth recalls the heyday of serialized literature, when publishing chapters sequentially in magazines was a way of broadening readership to include those unable to afford books. In this case, each chapter was distributed among workers in the form of an egalitarian chapbook (with some so enamoured that a weekly reading group was formed, Luiselli subsequently receiving MP3 recordings of their meetings). In contrast to 19th-century serializations, modern technology allowed her to mold her written responses to include workers’ input. In this way, The Story of My Teeth is highly collaborative, and while Luiselli’s skill as storyteller is indisputable, the book’s rich sense of authenticity, locale, and character are surely in part due to numerous personal contributions, in addition to the many factual elements involved in what is otherwise an improbable tale.
The source of the improbability is our protagonist, Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez—aka Highway—a man self-defined by his teeth. Highway narrates the majority of the novel, and for a time we trust the validity of his accounts, despite frequent strangeness. Any disbelief is outweighed by sheer entertainment due to Highway’s skill as a speaker and storyteller. A talented auctioneer and master of hyperbole, his fabulous stories define him as a raconteur of inimitable status, and an admirer of the latent value of objects:
I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.
His life is recounted with such convincing, often intimate detail that a strong connection is forged between reader and protagonist. This bond is tested when Highway’s friend Jacobo de Voragine takes over the narration—and the unexpected truth of his life is revealed.
We are first introduced to Highway’s infant self, described as “a tiny, brown, swollen blob fish,” born “with four premature teeth and [a] body completely covered in a very fine coat of fuzz.” Born dentally abnormal, Highway is different from day one, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he regards teeth as precious, and indicative of uniqueness. They are markers for life events; for example, Highway recollects his first job at eight years old, when “all my milk teeth had been . . . replaced by others, as wide as shovels, each pointing in a different direction.” An early memory is of his father biting his nails, the resultant clippings forming Highway’s inaugural, if somewhat disgusting, collection of artifacts. His father’s death is marked by the loss of teeth, in addition to his “nails, [and] face: he was cremated.”
When Highway begins working security at a juice factory, where sales fund “the largest art collection in the continent,” he feels that he was “the gatekeeper of a collection of objects of real beauty and truth,” despite being barred access to the art itself. Clearly, this is a man for whom objects hold great importance.
Eventually he meets Flaca; the two are married, and they maintain a brief, volatile relationship, culminating with the birth of their son, Siddhartha, with whom Highway has no further contact. The only positive outcome of this tryst (for we shall learn that Siddhartha can not be regarded as such) is Highway’s intellectual refinement; when Flaca becomes frustrated by his aimlessness, she makes him sit in on classes in classical philology and modern literature. Highway claims, “I didn’t take to the novelists, but I did like some poets and certainly all the essayists: Mr. Michel de Montaigne, Mr. Rousseau, Mr. Chesterton, Mrs. Woolf.” These names become embedded in his imagination, used later during fantastically creative auctioneering episodes. This love of prose adds another layer to Luiselli’s working-class everyman.
Upon learning of a local writer who had written a novel successful enough to afford complete dental renovation, Highway is inspired—replacing his crooked teeth would be a sure sign of success. At an auction of contraband memorabilia he finds his new teeth, “the sacred teeth of none other than Marilyn Monroe.” He has his own teeth removed and hers fitted. Confident that “one day, someone was going to write the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography,” Highway has cast off his inauspicious past.
In the book’s second chapter, “The Hyperbolics,” Highway’s skill as a spinner of yarns comes into its own. Returning to Mexico, Highway is invited by the priest of his local church to hold an auction to raise money for the parish. Lacking auctionable items, he decides to sell his old teeth, plus those of others, their owners comprising great figures from Plato and Augustine, to Michel de Montaigne, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Virginia Woolf. Even the “melancholy” tooth of Jorge Luis Borges is on offer; “the tooth itself is crocodilian, but its aura is almost angelic.” Finally, Highway decides to sell himself. The winner? His estranged son, Siddhartha, who buys his father for 1,000 pesos. The loser? Highway: he is toothless, Monroe’s teeth, the symbol of his success and power, stolen by Siddhartha.
Enter Jacobo de Voragine, an aspiring writer, whom the newly toothless Highway meets in a coffee shop. Explaining simply, “Places and things are made up of stories, Highway offers to take Voragine in and teach him about the neighborhood so he can become a better guide and storyteller. Portentously, Highway asks Voragine one thing in return:
First I need you to write my story, the story of my teeth. I tell it to you, you just write it. We sell millions, and I get my teeth fixed for good. Then, when I die, you write about that too. Because a man’s story is never complete until he dies.
Cutting off Highway’s vivacious, dynamic, and enthusiastic narration, the subsequent chapter picks up with Voragine’s narrative voice, and we learn that Highway’s life has ended. This shock will be the first of many, as the reality of his life is slowly unravelled.
The fondness for Highway Luiselli cultivates in us leads to profound sadness and loss for such a charismatic figure. Though Highway’s existence may be less magnificent than we were led to believe, the authenticity of his personality is never under suspicion. That his stories enabled him to exceed the facts of his life is testament not only to Luiselli’s creative talent but the inherent strength of storytelling.
This novel is a many-leveled vessel of storytelling and metafictional devices. Its structure specifically addresses conventions of storytelling—Book One, for instance, is titled “The Story: Beginning, Middle, and End.” It is a work of fiction concerning a man who creates works of fiction and whose life is doubly fictitious: the reality Highway presents us with is not grounded entirely in truth. The novel features itself as a narrative object, with Highway’s recollections framed, in his words, as “the story of my teeth,” and Voragine’s biography of Highway involving much of the same content, but from a more objective perspective.
The narrative contains a multitude of shorter works, devised by Highway in order to better auction worthless items. Additionally, Luiselli’s method of sending each chapter to Jumex’s workers and incorporating their feedback guided the narrative in unexpected directions; the book seeks interaction with readers, and it implicates them in its narrative progression. Finally, despite heavy doses of realism—street names, addresses of businesses, and references to locations—its fantastical elements are a constant reminder that we are reading fiction.
In a piece for Untitled Books,Luiselli noted:
I think that anyone who has ever written a novel—or even any devoted reader of novels—would agree that reality is quite vulnerable to fiction. When we become wrapped up in a fiction, our immediate reality bends itself to accommodate it.
So, we come full circle to the novel’s inception as a serialization for factory workers, whose own stories were woven into Luiselli’s fictional narrative. The Story of My Teeth makes a clear case for the capacity of fiction to bend reality. Its metafictional qualities, and self-conscious awareness of its status as artefact, reflects Highway’s obsession with objects and relics, and his auctioneering hyperbole communicates Luiselli’s ruminations on what is it that gives objects, including art works, significance and value. Just like Highway’s tall tales, and the eponymous story of his own teeth, this novel, ascribed arbitrary value as an object of paper and glue, is imbued with deeper worth by the fictions within.
Rosie Clarke is a writer, critic, and editor. Her work has been published in the Times Literary Supplement, Music & Literature, The London Magazine, Electric Literature, Words Without Borders, and more. She works for Asymptote.
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