Most overseas writers have to wait for years, even decades, to have their work appear in English, but not Mexican author Valeria Luiselli. Having released a collection of essay-style musings (Sidewalks) and a thought-provoking novel (Faces in the Crowd) which swiftly made it into English translation, she has been showered with critical acclaim, most recently receiving an honourable mention in the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. Of course, with all that success come high expectations, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader excited to receive a copy of her latest work – the problem here is that high expectations are rather difficult to live up to…
The Story of My Teeth (translated by Christina MacSweeney, review copy courtesy of Granta Books) is, for the most part, the story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez. Born into obscurity in Mexico, by all accounts an unattractive child, he rises from the position of Personnel Crisis Supervisor (he’s always handy in a tricky situation) to become a world-famous auctioneer. He’s a man who can sell anything, equipped with an array of intriguing methods to coax money from the wallets of unsuspecting buyers.
In addition to his rather average looks, dental issues have always plagued Señor Sánchez Sánchez, so he’s very interested when an article in the newspaper catches his eye:
“I read a story that day in the newspaper about a certain local writer who had had all his teeth replaced. The writer, apparently, was able to afford the new dentures and the expensive operation because he’d written a novel.”
p.14 (Granta Books, 2015)
While writing a book might be beyond him, his success in auctioneering eventually enables him to get some replacement dentures of his own, leaving him with a pile of loose teeth. What to do, what to do… Perhaps one last auction?
The Story of My Teeth is, to say the least, an interesting and ambitious book. Short, but fascinating, quirky and tongue-in-cheek, the madcap antics come as a surprise after the melancholy style of Faces in the Crowd. There’s a lot to enjoy here, in terms of both story and writing, but I do wonder whether Luiselli’s existing readership will come along for the ride.
The story is certainly entertaining enough. Sánchez Sánchez is an enigmatic fellow, skipping from story to story with a brusque manner and laughs aplenty. He’s kind enough to introduce us to the tricks of his trade, explaining his unique styles of auctioning goods off. Two of the more interesting methods are the allegoric, in which he tells stories tangentially (very tangentially…) related to the item being sold, and the hyperbolic. What’s the hyperbolic, I hear you ask? Well, let’s just say that it appears to involve lying (literally) through his teeth…
Of course, there’s a method in the madness, a deeper, more philosophical side to the story. Gustavo (or Luiselli, if you prefer) is a shameless name-dropper, and many of the anecdotes involve thinly disguised writers, philosophers and mystics who have been pulled into the writer’s web. For example, here’s Uncle Marcelo Sánchez Proust on women:
“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.” (pp.66/7)
Quite… À la recherche du dent perdu, perhaps?
Explanations are forthcoming. In the afterword, Luiselli explains how the book developed, a project in which sections were recorded by a voice actor and played to factory workers. Feedback was given, and the next part was created. As the writer says:
“The formula, if there was one, would be something like Dickens + MP3 ÷ Balzac + JPEG.” (p.181)
It’s more a project, an art piece, than a novel (with photographs too). Even the translation, adding MacSweeney’s helpful ‘Chronologic’ (a timeline with the main events of the protagonist’s life and some explanation as to who the people randomly dropped into the text are), is a variation on the original. Also, the last chapter, written from a different viewpoint, helps to put the story into perspective, revealing that all is not quite as it seems.
Yes, it’s all very clever, and it’s obviously fun to try to identify all the literary and philosophical allusions. Other writers mentioned include Enrique Vila-Matas, Sergio Pitol, Virginia Woolf, Yuri Herrera and Alejandro Zambra – oh, and Luiselli herself, of course. At one point there’s even a discussion on what seems suspiciously like an extract from Sidewalks, in which Gustavo strips some of the glamour from the scene…
But is it actually a succesful novel? Here, I’m not so sure. If I’m being mean, The Story of My Teeth appears a bit try-hard, flashy, all smoke and mirrors, and you wonder whether there’s actually anything hidden beneath the sparkly exterior. Of course, it’s quite possible that there is – perhaps I just haven’t been clever enough to get it (which begs the question as to who will – apart from the writer….). In some ways, it’s a book that may make more sense on a second reading. That presumes, though, that there’ll be a second reading. While I was keen to reread Luiselli’s first two books, I can’t say I’m itching to open this one again straight away…
I suspect that I’ll be in the minority here (and I’m certainly not panning the book), but for me The Story of My Teeth doesn’t live up to the standard of Luiselli’s previous work. I’ll give it another go at some point, but I’m not sure I’ll quite unravel the mysteries hidden within Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez’s stories. If anyone can shed more light on it than I’ve done, please let us all know 🙂