Humans are good at sensing invisible forces that give rise to the phenomena we see. Behind the dropped fruit, gravity; behind the stolen glance, lust. We may not know the precise formula, but we’re familiar enough with cause and effect to feel when the usual rules are at work.
We also notice when they are not. As readers, we may not even think about what normally shapes a novel, an ineffable blend of inspiration, imagination, research, language, and story. But let the book be governed by something weirder—a constraint or chance procedure, something that makes the fruit fall up instead of down—and our ears perk up. An extreme example is Raymond Roussel’s 1914 novel Locus Solus, generated via unseen wordplay, in which stiff human characters provide a frame for feverishly lively objects, like a weather-powered machine assembling a mosaic of discolored teeth. Detested by pretty much everyone but the surrealists, Locus Solus can hardly be called a good novel, but it does give off an exciting crackle of the unfamiliar.
The young Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli’s slim, unnervingly confident new novel is also about the life of objects, and of teeth in particular. Like Roussel, whom she name-checks, Luiselli has clearly produced The Story of My Teeth, her third book translated into English, under peculiar stars. You can feel some exterior force affecting it.
Yet it introduces such an irrepressible voice, in the person of our narrator Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, the self-described “best auctioneer in the world,” that you don’t have to be a surrealist to appreciate this book. You can just marvel that what Luiselli calls a “collective ‘novel-essay’ about the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature” also happens to be a genuinely delightful read.
The plot, such as it is: Sánchez Sánchez—but let’s just call him Highway, his nickname—is here to tell us the story of his life, or more aptly of his teeth, inspired by a belief that writing a book is a great way to be able to afford dentures. (Don’t try this at home.) An inveterate collector of objects, young Highway finds work as a sort of personnel crisis manager at a juice factory outside Mexico City, but in midlife he discovers his true calling: He becomes an auctioneer, training in the “four types of auctions: circular, elliptical, parabolic, and hyperbolic.” He successfully bids on a set of teeth supposedly belonging to Marilyn Monroe and has them implanted in his own mouth, only to later lose them when, in a moment of auctioneering hubris, he sells his entire self to his estranged son, Siddhartha. He then meets a young man named Jacobo de Voragine, with whom he collaborates on the text of one last “allegoric” auction, a variety of his own invention, of works of contemporary art. There the story ends, followed by an epilogue narrated by de Voragine; a set of photos of real locations mentioned in the story, taken near an actual Mexican juice factory; and a timeline of real and fictional events in the novel, compiled by the translator.
The narrative at the center of all this apparatus hardly makes sense in itself, you may observe. But Highway believes so firmly in himself—in his own “perseverance, discretion, and discipline,” in his destiny, in the glory of his Monrovian teeth—that it is hard not to do the same. Aside from his charming braggadocio, he has other fine qualities. He is thoughtful on contemporary issues of material culture: “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.” He refers frequently to a large tribe of relations, including his uncles Juan Sánchez Baudrillard, Miguel Sánchez Foucault, Marcelo Sánchez Proust, Roberto Sánchez Walser, and Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky. He is endlessly digressive but, skilled raconteur that he is, ties up each loose thread with a flourish: “End of declaration.” He is an appealing representative of high and low culture—a Baudrillard-citing guy (or, OK, Sánchez Baudrillard–citing guy) who fundamentally just wants to be able to chew his food.
Where did this unusual character come from? From an unusual writer, for starters. With her two previous books, Luiselli, who was born in 1983 in Mexico City, grew up largely in South Africa, and is now a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American studies at Columbia University, has demonstrated a cosmopolitan, quizzical mind. Faces in the Crowd, her first novel, entwined the American trajectory of the Mexican poet Gilberto Owen with the story of an unreliable young female narrator fascinated by him decades later. Sidewalks, a book of essays published simultaneously, addressed such subjects as urban cycling and a visit to Joseph Brodsky’s grave in Italy. In a way, though, the subjects were almost irrelevant. What was interesting was watching Luiselli’s mind strike the world and spark language from it: “In the small, rounded head of a child, gently resting against the window of a metro carriage, the crack of an idea opens up—the fissure of a new word.”
The Story of My Teeth, which is, like the earlier books, beautifully translated by Christina MacSweeney, shares those books’ strengths, but its origins are stranger. There is, it emerges, a real juice factory outside Mexico City where the value of objects is implicitly up for question. The campus of the company Grupo Jumex, in an industrial neighborhood of Ecatepec, includes the by-appointment-only Galería Jumex, “an exhibition and presentation space devoted to experimental art.” It was, until recently, the only home for what is said to be the largest private contemporary art collection in Latin America—surely, at minimum, the largest funded by a juice fortune. (Since 2013, the collection has also been displayed through a more accessible museum, in Mexico City.)
Commissioned to write a work of fiction for a Galería Jumex catalog, Luiselli found herself at a dizzying vantage point for this globalized age. “There is, naturally, a gap between the two worlds: gallery and factory, artists and workers, artwork and juice. How could I link the two distant but neighboring worlds, and could literature play a mediating role?” she writes in an afterword. “I decided to write tangentially—even allegorically—about the art world, and to focus on the life of the factory. I also decided to write not so much about but for the factory workers.” To do so, she sent installments of the fiction from New York to the workers, listened to recordings of them discussing it, and continued the story accordingly. She also deployed locals to gather photos of Ecatepec, so she could locate the story among its landmarks. (Some of the locals, like one El Perro, made it into the novel as characters themselves.) Until Luiselli finally revealed herself, the writing was presented under the name of a man known otherwise as Highway: Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez.
This procedure goes far in explaining both this book’s quirkiness and its very un-Rousselian eagerness to please. On one hand, the book features highbrow “allegories” based on works by Jumex collection artists like Olafur Eliasson—or, as cited here, Olafur Sánchez Eliasson. On the other, Luiselli is emulating crowd-pleasing serial fiction writers of the 19th century—her formula, she writes, might be “Dickens + MP3 ÷ Balzac + JPEG”—and so even those weird allegories tend toward the rollicking and personable. The Eliasson one involves an old, “almost venerable” rabbit named Cockerspaniel who likes to sleep in the sun; in the end, he is slain for dinner.
If this book offers an allegory for the art world, what does it say? “When the bar was starting to close,” Jacobo de Voragine recounts toward the end of the book, “the owner would let Highway auction his stories. It was at Secret of Night”—a real bar, whose photo appears in the book—“that Highway finally put into practice the now full-fledged theory of his famous allegoric method, where it is not objects that are sold, but the stories that give them value and meaning.”
Contemporary art can indeed work something like that: Objects gain value through the stories attached, and, as Luiselli suggests, they can lose value by leaving the museum to become just one more mysterious possession in a fanatical auctioneer’s collection. In The Story of My Teeth, the stories that Luiselli has attached to the people, buildings, and companies of Ecatepec alter their value, touching them with the glow of literary inspiration. At the same time, she pulls revered artists and writers out of the museum and the library, recycling them as characters, even metaphorically adopting them as relatives.
In her blend of truth and fiction, in her tinkering with the value of art and its makers, Luiselli becomes a kind of auctioneer herself. She might even reach the high standard of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, who on his deathbed leaves a note to his son full of characteristically humane bluster. Siddhartha can keep his beloved Marilyn Monroe teeth, Highway writes. They “were false anyway.”
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney. Coffee House Press.