Sunday, January 10, 2016

Mexican Literature to Chew On: Valeria Luiselli's The Story of My Teeth

Olga García Echeverría

I was half way through Lolita, when my friend Sandra passed on The Story of My Teeth, a contemporary Mexican novel by Valeria Luiselli. I know Lolita (AKA the Confession of a White Widowed Male) is a revered classic, but Nabokov just wasn't doing it for me.

In contrast, Luiselli's Teeth instantly intrigued. I confess, the initial pull was racially and sexually motivated; I've got a thing for Mexican women writers. Also, the cliché “timing is everything” rings true. I began reading The Story of My Teeth about an hour after my last dentist appointment, my upper gums raw and still tingling from three novacaine injections.

All biases aside, though, this book truly entertained and surprised. After the first paragraph, I knew I was dumping Nabokov's nymphet-obsessed Humbert Humbert for Luiselli's fantastic Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, who welcomes us into the novel with, “I'm the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I'm a discreet sort of man...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: ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi. I can float on my back.”

Gustavo, affectionately called Highway by his friends, often quotes Napoleón (the Mexican singer, not the French emperor). Gustavo/Highway has worked as a security guard at a juice factory in Mexico City for nineteen uneventful years. On his 40th birthday, however, “Fortuna spins her wheel, as Napoleón, the singer, says.” Highway's good fortune? The Pasteurization Operator at the factory suffers a panic attack while attending to a DHL messenger, and Highway saves the day by taking the Operator into his arms and cradling him until the attack passes.

Soon after, the manger at the juice factory, highly impressed with Highway's handling of the situation, promotes him to Personnel Crisis Supervisor. Highway is given a desk and an adjustable swivel chair, but there is really nothing for him to do. After complaints from other employees that Highway is getting paid to stare at the ceiling and bite his nail all day, the manager sends Highway out of the factory and into the world to take specialized courses and workshops. Highway becomes “a collector of courses,” taking First Aid, Nutrition and Dietary Habits, Contact-Improv Dance, Literature, and eventually, after a series of amusing events, an Intensive Initiation Course into the Art of Auctioneering. This is where Highway's auctioneer adventures begin. His dream—to make a lot of money so he can leave his wife and fix his teeth.

Teeth, My Mother's Molcajete, and the
Granada I'm Going to Eat When I Finish this Blog 

There is so much to chew on in this book--a wacky protagonist, eccentric details, a unique and outrageous (although not completely implausible) storyline. Mini-stories, fortune cookies, pictures, obscure quotes, and a time-line all work together to constantly veer the reader into unpredictable literary places/spaces. Also refreshing is Luiselli's ability to deconstruct, challenge, poke fun at, and redefine the notion and structure of the traditional novel. Highway states on page one, “This is the story of my teeth, and my treatise on collectibles and the variable values of objects. As any other story, this one begins with the Beginning, and then comes the Middle, and then the End. The rest, as a friend of mine always says, is literature: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics.”

The Beginning, Middle, and End of Highway's story are then brilliantly presented in 26 short pages. This first section of the novel closes with a Chinese cookie fortune, “Each tooth in the head of a [wo]man is worth more than a diamond.”

Valeria Luiselli Hiding Her Diamonds: Photo by Alfredo Pelcastre

The remainder of the novel? You'll have to read the book yourself to find out how the storytelling around auctioned objects is fleshed out in the following sections. I won't tell you what happens to Highway and his Marilyn Monroe teeth. What I will give away is that the originality of this book is partly due to Luiselli's ingenious idea to invite a group of Jumex factory workers in Mexico to collaborate with her in the formation of what eventually became The Story of My Teeth. These factory workers read versions of Luiselli's story in installments and recorded their comments, criticisms, and informal discussions, at times offering their own personal stories, many of which were eventually integrated into the text with some modifications. Co-writers from the factory include: Evelyn Ángeles Quintana, Abril Velázquez Romero, Tania García Montalva, Marco Antonio Bello, Eduardo González, Ernestina Martínez, Patricia Méndez Cortés, Julio Cesar Velarde Mejía, and David León Alcalá.

My Favorite Jumex Juice

Also, in a truly collaborative gesture that “destabilizes the obsolete dictum of the translator's invisibility” in literature, Luiselli invited her translator, Christina MacSweeney, to contribute a chapter to the novel. How awesome and unconventional is that? MacSweeney's chapter, "Chronologic," is a highly informative and humorous timeline on Highway's life that fits perfectly into Luiselli's overall quirky novel.

Christina MacSweeney
Photo "Borrowed" From Words Without Borders  

The Story of My Teeth was not only a total trip and a lot of fun to read, it also came across as a book that must have been very enjoyable to create. It reminded me of how writing and reading need not make us suffer; literature (whether we are creating or reading it) should be something delectable we can sink our teeth into and chew on long after we have finished eating the last page. Bravo, Luiselli, for doing that, and leaving me hungry for more.

La Granada's Sweet Bloody Teeth

1 comment:

Gregg Barrios said...

Olga, I agree you with 100%. My comments on the book ran in LitHub
earlier this month.