I first saw The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli featured prominently at a local bookstore. Then, a friend described it to me as their “favorite book of 2015.” Naturally, I had to check it out.
However, days later, I still feel about The Story of My Teeth the way I do when I wander out of some ultra modern art exhibit made of gum, a dirty urinal, and an excess of stranger’s clipped fingernails. I walk outside, blink the light from my eyes, and think, “What the eff did I just witness?”
The book starts strong with a narrator named Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, or Highway, who first works as a guard at the local Jumex factory, then becomes a late in life auctioneer. I loved Highway’s voice, his hyperbolic spin on the world around him (thus making him a successful auctioneer, a seller of stories) and his endless procession of advice bearing “uncles.”
My uncle, Solon Sánchez Fuentes, a salesman dealing in quality Italian ties, used to say that beauty, power, and early success fade away, and they’re a heavy burden for those who possess them, because the prospect of their loss is a threat few can endure.
The novel, lacking a substantive plot, instead remixes storytelling into something new where Luiselli layers story upon story upon story until we are witnessing the evolution of some sort of postmodern meta-story.
Halfway through the book, the narrative takes a very surreal turn with some horrifying talking clowns in an actual art exhibit much like the one I described above. Highway finds himself having an existential conversation with his estranged son via an animated clown art installation (yes, this is where the book lost my interest a little). The extreme dip into surrealism, followed by the epilogue that essentially punctures the dream Luiselli has spent the entire novel concocting, left me slightly unsatisfied. There is also much name dropping (Dostoyevsky, Woolf, etc.) and much that I feel my ex-MFA compatriots would have drooled over.
My interest was piqued once more at the end when Luiselli explains the process she took in writing The Story of My Teeth. Luiselli wrote the novel in chapbook installments that she sent to Mexico City, where the actual Jumex workers read them, provided feedback via recordings and, in turn, helped shape the course of her novel. Jumex really does sponsor the art gallery that features so prominently in the book. Luiselli even provides photographic proof of the clowns (which I could have done without, so frightening). With this revelation, her novel again finds entirely new ground in collaborative story-telling.
I understand the importance of this novel as a work to be studied, but it was work to read. Enjoyable work, but definitely not a “light” read. Such is the risk in reading experimental fiction, I suppose.
End of review.
Recommended for: fans of postmodern literary fiction and anyone interested in the Mexican literary scene (her sense of place in Mexico City is wonderful)