The Story of My Teeth
by Valerie Luiselli

Coffee House Press, 2015

Early in The Story of My Teeth, the protagonist spins his ignominious birth as a character-building experience. Valeria Luiselli’s narrator speaks sincerely when he describes his birth as a blessing. Already, just a handful of paragraphs into the book, he has begun to fashion possibly worthless matters into distinctive objects of potential value. He repeats this kind of adjustment on almost every page, and his habitual contortions anchor the book as it studies stories’ effects on the valuation of even the most unexceptional objects.

Written in collaboration with workers at a juice factory, The Story of My Teeth, what the author calls a novel-essay, tells the tale of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez. At twenty-one, after his strange birth, he becomes a security guard at a juice factory, where an odd relationship exists between capitalism and art: the factory’s profits fund “the largest art collection in the continent.” Though he’s not allowed in the gallery, Highway takes great pride in being “in a sense the gatekeeper of a collection of objects of real beauty and truth.” Soon he meets a girl, Flaca, marries her, and has a child, Siddhartha, but his life takes a sudden turn when he learns of the possible fortune to be made in auctioneering and goes to the U.S. to learn the practice’s art.

While in the U.S., Highway learns four auctioneering methods, which are all based on “a combination of classical rhetoric and the mathematical theory of eccentricity.” The methods are named after conic sections that vary in their degree of deviation from a circle: circular method, elliptical method, parabolic method, and hyperbolic method. To this list Highway add his own technique: the allegoric method, “the eccentricity (epsilon) of which is infinite and does not depend on contingent or material variables.” Highway returns to Mexico determined to become rich from auctioneering, but Flaca has left him and taken Siddhartha. He devotes his life to auctioneering and turns a fortune from it. The fortune allows him to buy two adjacent plots of land in “Calle Disneylandia.” Highway also uses his wealth to bid on and purchase the Marilyn Monroe’s purported teeth, which he uses as replacements for his own deformed set.

He tells this story of his life within the book’s opening thirty pages, and the remainder of the novel-essay regards the auction of his teeth and its unexpected repercussions. Highway sells ten of his original teeth by identifying their owners as various historical figures: Plato, Petrarch, Woolf, Borges, and others. To further bolster their value, Highway imbues each tooth and corresponding owner with a “hypertrue story.” The auction is a success. The only hitch comes from Siddhartha, now an adult, who, when Highway spontaneously puts his Marilyn Monroe teeth and himself up for sale, purchases his father for the price of a thousand pesos.

Highway’s life seems to unravel from there. He’s knocked out, taken hostage, loses his Marilyn Monroe teeth, and is held in a room with clowns projected onto the walls. He escapes, toothless, and meets a young man, Voragine—a writer and church tour guide. Highway hires him to write his and his teeth’s biography. They return to Disneylandia, and Highway decides to have one final auction, using his allegoric method, in which he plans to sell objects taken from the gallery by “telling stories that used the collective names of [his] friends and acquaintances from the neighborhood—giving due credit to the artists who had made the works.” Fearful of being caught, he changes the artists’ names. While Voragine wonders if this change will cause the objects to lose their worth, Highway is confident his methods will produce high prices.

Highway’s auctioneering techniques constantly conflate value, art, and stories. He never makes an argument for variable value; he just sees value as an amorphous trait. Through his methods, he gives potentially useless objects, such as his own teeth, a value equal to that of prestigious artworks. Had Luiselli used this story simply to point out art’s subjective value, the book might have been a cleverly structured piece that added little insight, but her novel-essay has a broader scope and deeper ambition. It focuses more on stories, the ways they’re told, and the manner in which they create and attach value to objects and lives of all types.

The novel-essay ends with Voragine recounting the events Highway had previously told. Voragine uses a more linear, less ambiguous style and explains some of Highway’s less clear anecdotes. Yet, in gaining this clarity Voragine’s narrative loses some of the idiosyncratic energy contained in Highway’s sections. This loss causes the book’s final section to be somewhat flatter than the earlier parts. However, it also allows the section to serve as an ingenious exercise in the book’s conceit. While the facts (the objects) of Voragine’s section are more or less the same as those in Highway’s parts, the change in style (the methods) causes a reduction in the wonder these facts cause (their value).

Highway himself is aware of the amorphous value his story and life might contain. At times he appears quite anxious about how others will evaluate his life. Perhaps this is why he often repeats the same boastful facts about himself: “I can imitate Janis Joplin after two rums. I can interpret Chinese fortune cookies. I can stand an egg upright on a table, the way Christopher Columbus did in the famous anecdote. I know how to count to eight in Japanese…I can float on my back.” Over and over again, as if afraid we might forget them, he reminds us of his eclectic set of skills. As he did with his teeth, he connects himself to famous figures in order to enhance his own value. Moreover, as explanation for particular philosophies of his, he offers up his supposed uncles, who have names like Marcelo Sánchez Proust and Eurípides López Sánchez, and he follows his axioms with attributions like “as Napoleón says.” Whatever their actual effect, he clearly intends for them to augment his and his story’s worth.

Highway further emphasizes the parallels between the value of lives and the value of objects when he attaches himself to his old and new teeth and directly ties his value to theirs. When he says, “I am Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez…I am the peerless Highway. And I am my teeth. They may seem to you to be yellowed and a little worse for wear, but I can assure you: these teeth once belonged to none other than Marilyn Monroe, and she needs no introduction,” he links his life’s value to that of what he is auctioneering, expanding the auction’s, and book’s, scope from exploring the value of objects to exploring the value of a life. Highway’s anxiety about his own life’s worth forms the book’s most ambitious theme: how the stories we tell ourselves attach and transmute value on our lives. Through the telling of his story, Highway isn’t just recounting events, he’s trying to ascertain his own value and enhance it as much as possible.

Via these meditations on the value on the disparate objects and lives, Luiselli fuses the world of Russell, Walser, Borges, and Proust with that of the industrial workers with whom she collaborated. Her novel-essay has, as Highway might say, an eccentricity greater than zero, and this eccentricity is what gives the book its singular narrative and unique value. The cynic might say it does this only through tricks, that it, like other art pieces, have an overinflated valuation because people are too easily influenced, too easily awed. Highway offers us another perspective, an admittedly cheery one, in which the “elegant surpassing of the truth” doesn’t artificially inflate an object’s worth; rather, it only restores it. In this eccentric restoration, Luiselli places everyday objects beside art pieces and the lives of blue-collar workers beside those of luminaries. At times the juxtapositions are too jarring and feel unnecessarily inauthentic. However, more often than not, the juxtaposing succeeds and allows the spheres to permeate one another, and through their confluence, Luiselli manages to, as Highway might say, restore her book’s value.

SEBASTIAN SARTI is a graduate of UCLA. He has had previous reviews published in Word Riot and Mulberry Fork Review. 
The Adirondack Review