Part exhibition guide (at least in its original intended form), part collaborative novel, part post-modern story, part examination of our personal relationships with objects, Valeria Luiselli’s delirious The Story of My Teeth is just about as brilliant and bonkers as it sounds. In the afterword – and here I hope that this does not count as a spoiler – Luiselli outlines the process by which the novel was written. Commissioned to write something in response to a gallery owned by the Jumex juice factory in Mexico, she took the original concept of a tobacco reader (a factory worker designated to read novels aloud to workers to keep them entertained), and provided the workers with small chapbooks containing individual chapters of the novel. Through a reading group set up amongst the workers, she used their feedback to tailor and edit the story. In the end, whilst this might have Luiselli’s name on the cover – she stresses that it is in essence a much more collaborative piece. This is also evident in the involvement of translator Christina McSweeney who contributes a chapter of her own – a sort of epilogue to the novel.
It’s worth bringing up the concept first, before delving into the story, because, for all its narrative tricks (think Borges and then add more Borges), it’s the collaborative nature of the book that makes it worth exploring.
The story itself is slight, but interesting. An auctioneer, Highway, tells the story of how his career came about, and how he came to have his teeth removed and replaced with Marilyn Monroe’s. More than anything, it’s an exploration of how we relate to objects, both literally and metaphorically. Luiselli juggles a surreal magic realist fable with dense literary commentary (Foucault, Borges, and Raymond Roussel are namechecked, frequently referred to as uncles, or other family members) and does a great job of making the whole thing seem far less pretentious than it has any right to.
There’s a giddy joy in the book which verges on sheer audacity on the part of the author. None of this should work, you keep thinking, but it does. It really does. There’s such charm in the writing, and such wonderful strangeness in the narrative, that you can’t help but fall in love with every page of the book.
Any Cop?: As a literary experiment, yes. As a novel, yes. This is one of those rare books. It should not work at all, but it might just wind up being one of the most essential novels of the year.