“Auctioneering Selfhood,” Simon Chandler’s review of The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, appears in the Summer 2016 edition of KROnline.
In my first year as a Book Review Editor at the Kenyon Review, I’ve had the chance to interact not only with a wide range of books but also with a diverse group of reviewers, each one of whom consistently provides unique and compelling insights into today’s literary landscape. Many times the connection between the reviewer and the text happens because the reviewer reads a book and wants to say something about it. In other instances, a book strikes me as interesting or innovative, and I seek to make a connection between the book and a reviewer.
In the case of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, I had the latter experience. I bought the novel one Friday night while browsing at a local bookstore. Once I sat down with the book later that night, I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. It’s a novel that balances humor and intelligence while considering the role collaboration can play within a work of art. I knew it was a book I wanted to see reviewed at KRO. The next morning I wrote to Simon Chandler (who had reviewed a book for us previously) to see if he might be interested in a copy of Luiselli’s book. A few weeks later, the review appeared in my inbox, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with the approach he took.
It goes without saying that it’s a challenge to summarize one’s perspective about a complicated and unconventional novel in 1,200 words. But there’s also the challenge of doing so in an artful way. Chandler’s review did both. I was particularly struck with his point about the symbolic nature of the teeth and the way they allow us to think about the collaborative nature of storytelling. In the novel, Sánchez purchases Marilyn Monroe’s “sacred teeth” and, in this way, the notion of having Monroe’s surgically installed demonstrates that “teeth aren’t quite the enduring symbol of an equally enduring self.” Everything is open to change and also to “cross-contamination from other people.”
With multiple sections of the book telling the same story from different perspectives, it becomes clear that settling on a straightforward summary of an experience is impossible. But as Chandler points out, “this doesn’t really matter in the end,” because Luiselli’s novel is “a book full of surreal wit, sharp prose, sympathetic humanity, and, of course, sparkling teeth.” Chandler’s review captured the power and charm of the novel that led me to read it from start to finish that night on my front porch. When a reviewer’s approach manages to articulate the spark of a book in such a succinct way, it can become less of a review and more an extension of the novel. Because Luiselli’s novel is so interested in collaboration, I have to think she’d be fond of this idea and all of the possibilities it can offer.