Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2015. 192 pages. $16.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
Given all the allusions Valeria Luiselli makes in her ambitious second novel The Story of My Teeth, it’s either very peculiar or very telling that there aren’t any references to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1835 short story “Berenice.” In this tale about a man who extracts the still-pristine enamels of his dead wife, Poe’s monomaniacal Egaeus admits, “In the multiplied objects of the external world I had no thoughts but for the teeth. All other matters and all different interests became absorbed in their single contemplation.” Even if Luiselli’s deviously inventive book encompasses far more than this fixation on molars, there’s a surprising level of overlap between Egaeus’ obsession and the themes the Mexican author explores through her own obsessive protagonist Roberto Sánchez Sánchez. Introduced as the “best auctioneer in the world,” her enigmatic “essay-novel” depicts him as he goes about amassing a collection of teeth from a purported roll call of famous personages. Via his misadventures, it entertains not only the notion that the teeth are somehow the font of selfhood and identity, but that our selves are inextricably constituted by all “the objects of the external world,” making them inherently unstable as a result.
It’s this instability that relates “Berenice” and The Story of My Teeth, but ultimately draws them apart. Poe’s Egaeus perceives “the realities of the world . . . as visions only,” and it’s because of this inability to anchor himself into reality that he latches onto the teeth of his Berenice, which offer a more constant and durable alternative to each “frivolous device” he had a tendency to ponder idly while he’d been a bachelor. Similarly, Sánchez is portrayed in the opening chapter of The Story of My Teeth as someone who turns to teeth in order to compensate for certain personal deficiencies. He’s tallied as an unremarkable child and adult, as “the sort that doesn’t make waves.” This is despite being born with “four premature teeth,” a head start that results only in these teeth growing crooked. His sheepishness about these wayward dentures possibly plays some role in his lifelong inclination to hoard anything and everything, including his father’s nail clippings and straws given to him by his first boss’s wife. Luiselli’s eye for seemingly innocuous detail captures how these objects almost function as “borrowed personality,” as residue of other selves that galvanize or even replace the self with which he appears too dissatisfied to ever fully affirm.
It’s because of this desire to immerse himself in objects that might alter and ameliorate his own identity that the story of “a certain local writer who had had all his teeth replaced” captures his imagination. As the first chapter humorously recounts, he dives into an unlikely career in auctioneering that, after detours with “Buddhist” women and antiquing excursions abroad, eventually earns him the money to buy “the sacred teeth of none other than Marilyn Monroe.” Having long dreamed of the strong, “good teeth” of Americans, he then undergoes a dental procedure to fit these new ivories, finally declaring at the chapter’s close, “For months after the operation, I couldn’t keep the grin off my face.”
Of course, The Story of My Teeth doesn’t leave things as simple as that. The very fact that Sánchez could have his own teeth substituted for another person’s implies that the teeth aren’t quite the enduring symbol of an equally enduring self that we may have previously supposed. Like Poe, Luiselli invokes them as a symbol of the essential part of the individual, but unlike Poe, she inverts this symbolism and implies that even this “essential” part is entirely open to change, not to mention cross-contamination from other people.
In other words, she implies that there’s no such thing as a self-contained and lasting “self” that remains constant through the ages, immune to being formed and “inter-constituted” by the other selves around it. The beauty of The Story of My Teeth is that she expresses this idea in an original and creative manner, exploiting an unorthodox structure and an unorthodox method throughout the novel’s eccentric duration.
For one, the book is divided into “Books” rather than chapters, with the first chapter comprising a more conventional “Story” with a “Beginning, Middle, and End.” Subsequent “Books,” however, almost all assume the names of unconventional auctioneering methods pioneered by either Sánchez’s Japanese teacher or by Sánchez himself. These are referred to as the “circular,” “elliptical,” “parabolic,” “hyperbolic” and “allegoric” methods, and—as is made clear in the first chapter—they all reflect a particular “degree of deviation” in “the auctioneer’s discourse” from “a given circumference” (i.e. a given version of the truth). Each separate “Book” therefore represents a different way of telling the same basic story, and since they all offer differing perspectives on Sánchez’s quest “to write the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography,” they all separately push the relativistic, subjectivistic argument that there is no single, “true” way of constructing such a narrative. As a result, they also push the argument that a person and their life have no single, particular “truth.”
It’s this contention that’s embodied by the borrowed teeth residing within Sánchez’s mouth, as well as the teeth of numerous other celebrities he (allegedly) keeps with him in a bid to receive something of the personal makeup of their previous owners. It’s also embodied in the process through which Luiselli wrote the novel itself. As she notes in the afterword, The Story of My Teeth was composed in installments “that were distributed to the workers” of the Jumex juice factory in the “neighborhood of Ecatepec outside of Mexico City.” The workers read these installments during book-club sessions, which “were recorded and sent back to [Luiselli] in New York.” Piece by piece, Luiselli used their feedback to re-adapt and redirect the book while she finished it in stages, with the end product being a collaborative novel that contained many stories taken “from the workers’ personal accounts.”
Put differently, this unconventional procedure is an almost perfect reinforcement of a protagonist who’s constituted and defined at least as much by other people as he is by himself. Because Sánchez is a man who, at one point in the novel, announces before a packed church, “I am my teeth,” and because these teeth originated from someone else, his story is resonantly amplified by an author who has used other people’s words as well as her own.
In doing this, Luiselli has strikingly reminded us of how all novels are already collective and collaborative, insofar as they’re inescapably shaped by the other people with whom their creators have at some point had contact. But more importantly, in doing this, she has also conjured one of the most remarkable novels of 2015, a novel that illuminates the familiar problems of identity and selfhood by re-presenting them in a bracingly defamiliarized light. Even if the nature of its subject matter dictates that it can’t settle on a clear and invariable “meaning,” this doesn’t really matter in the end, since it nonetheless proves itself as a book full of surreal wit, sharp prose, sympathetic humanity, and, of course, sparkling teeth.