DECEMBER 4, 2015
ALLOW ME to sell you a book.
Item: A lovely paperback and an excellent collectible, Valeria Luiselli’s La historia de mis dientes has been translated by Christina MacSweeney, for Coffee House Press, as The Story of My Teeth. The novel concerns a Mexican auctioneer named Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, who begins the book by telling the story of his life. The rest of the novel — or what Luiselli has called a “collective novel-essay” — is divided into six sections which each refract some version of the protagonist’s story; these sections are labeled by the geometric angle by which they depart from the original story (“The Hyperbolics,” “The Parabolics,” “The Circulars,” “The Allegorics,” “The Elliptics,” and “The Chronologic.”).
Luiselli is also the author of a previous novel, Faces in the Crowd, and Sidewalks, a book of essays, but all of her work blurs generic categories. The Story of My Teeth is equally difficult to categorize: produced in collaboration with an art gallery in the outskirts of Mexico City, it is perhaps more like an assemblage or a collage than strictly a novelistic narrative. Like an art exhibit, its contents can be explored in more than one order. The entirety must be absorbed before the logic of its collection can be fully understood and appreciated.
The bidding begins at $16.95.
Do you want to buy it yet? If not, there are also personal testimonies to sway you: the first thing you see when you open the book are blurbs by booksellers. Unsurprisingly, they like the book — e.g.: “I love this book,” says Jeremy Ellis of Brazos Bookstore. Of course, literary reviews often serve as marketing campaigns, and the relationship between these ventures becomes particularly explicit with The Story of My Teeth. Luiselli’s book is both a novel about art and an art-project about novels — a prose-experiment exploring what makes a story valuable, what makes art worth paying for, and what happens to a story once it has become a commodity.
Commodities are strange things, as Marx observed, full of “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” Art objects can be especially tricky because often there is no use value to anchor the price tag. Since a work of art doesn’t do anything and since the labor behind a work of art is constantly variable (sometimes nonexistent), its value is simply what someone will pay for it. This may be true of any market value, but the price tag on an art-commodity is famously a function of the fantasies spun around it. Without the critical frame or art-culture, the so-called piece of “art” might just be a piece of junk. Without the labor of re-description and re-contextualization — and without an artist’s name attached to it — would it even qualify as “work”?
These are old questions, of course. But The Story of My Teeth comes at the problem from an interesting angle, one in which the author examines the meaning of writerly “work.” As Luiselli explains in the afterword, she was commissioned to write a piece of fiction for the catalog of an art exhibit at the Galería Jumex, an art space funded by and located on the grounds of a juice factory on the outskirts of Mexico City. Luiselli proposed, instead, that she write a serialized novel for and with the employees of the juice factory, bringing the work of art and the labor of its workers into conversation. The curators printed chapbooks of Luiselli’s work-in-progress for a small group of interested workers to read and discuss together. These discussions were recorded, Luiselli was able to use the tapes to write the version of the novel which is now available in stores (a process she jokingly called “Dickens + MP3 ÷ Balzac + JPEG”). The resulting “collective novel-essay” is therefore insistently collaborative, an implicit rebuke to the idea of isolated artistic genius. “This book began as a collaboration,” Luiselli has suggested; “and I like to think of it as an ongoing one, where every new layer modifies the content completely.”
The protagonist of The Story of My Teeth is a gregarious and charmingly self-confident auctioneer Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, and his voice holds the story together. He introduces himself with an artlessness that masks a very sly wit: “I’m the best auctioneer in the world,” he says; “but nobody knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man.” In fact, he is nothing of the kind, having learned the art of auctioneering in Missouri, the setting for Mark Twain’s famous tricksters and Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (and also the Missouri Auction School, which really exists). Along with not being discreet, he is also not really an auctioneer. By the end of the novel, most of what he has told us about himself turns out not to be quite true. His actual story, which is eventually related to us by another character, is sadder, more painful, and lonelier. Highway is a self-made man and an author, a self-mythologizing fabulist who has created himself out of nothing.
As it turns out, Highway’s fantasies of self-creation hinge on writing a novel that will buy him a new set of teeth. At the beginning of the book, he recalls:
A story that day in the newspaper about a certain local writer who had had all his teeth replaced. This writer, apparently, was able to afford the new dentures and the expensive operation because he’d written a novel. A novel! I saw my future, crystal clear. If that writer had had his teeth fixed with a book, I could do it too. Or, even better, I could get someone to write one for me.
If Highway is a liar, he’s the sort of charlatan you’re happy to be conned by, whose fiction you might want to pay for. In fact, part of his charm is the nakedness of his mendacity. He is proud of his vocation, of which he has made an almost geometric science. At one point, he describes his auctioneering method to a potential client:
I could tell stories whose degree of deviation from the value of the conic section of their related objects was greater than zero […] by means of my hyberbolics, I could restore an object’s value through “an elegant surpassing of the truth.”
For Highway, the “elegant surpassing of the truth,” by which an object’s value can be “restored” is not a crass, commercial deception: “I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects,” he declares, “but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories.” And this, he insists, “is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.”
The provocation of Luiselli’s novel is the suggestion that he might be right — certain deceptions are in fact more real than the “actual” truth. If a good story raises the price of an object, then fiction becomes the arbiter of value (and the critic is no more than a market indicator). In making the relationship between fiction and the market central to her book, Luiselli burrows into one of the most basic questions of the capitalist system. What should determine a commodity’s exchange value? Can a price tag ever be “true”? And is it not more honest just to acknowledge the role stories play in the market place? The value of truth, then, becomes questionable and relative. In The Story of My Teeth, we stop caring whether Highway is trying to cheat us: his true history is lost in the story he would prefer to tell us and which, it turns out, we would prefer to hear.
The distinction between history and story, between “truth” and fiction, is also central to the very publication of Luiselli’s book. In Spanish, the word “historia” enfolds and contains the English words for both “history” and “story,” blurring the distinction between the two. Histories are also stories and stories are also histories; in Spanish, for example, The Story of My Teeth is La historia de mis dientes. But over the years, this syntactical blurring has occasioned a great many literary puns. Ricardo Piglia’s Respiración artificial (1980), a novel about the disappearances in Argentina during the military dictatorship, begins with the words “¿Hay una historia?” The ambiguity that emerges as the translator’s dilemma is precisely the point: Is there one history? or Is there a story (here)?
English being a bit stricter about the difference between fact and fiction, both Piglia’s and Luiselli’s translators had to choose: “¿Hay una historia?” became “Is there a story?” and La historia de mis dientes became The Story of My Teeth. The ambiguity lost in translation, however, remains key to both texts. Luiselli’s novel concerns the way stories and fictions sometimes come true. Piglia’s work belongs within a paranoid, postmodern tradition of exploding bodies and lost coherence, but the story of Luiselli’s teeth is positively constructive, even warm. Instead of collapsing and decomposing fragments, The Story of My Teeth reaches toward a world composed of fragments, the creative process which Highway calls — in a moment of clarity — a “postcapitalist, radical recycling […] that would save the world from its existential condition as the garbage can of history.”
The Story of My Teeth arrives at a very rich moment for Anglophone readers of Mexican literature. Along with the emergence of younger writers like Luiselli, Yuri Herrera, Guadalupe Nettel, Daniel Saldaña París, and Mario Bellatin, some very well-established Mexican authors — people like Sergio Pitol, Juan Villoro, Rafael Bernal, Carmen Boullosa, and Daniel Sada — are finally finding their way into translation, either for the first time or for the first time in a long time. This surge in the translation and publication of Latin American literature can partly be attributed to “the Bolaño boom.” Roberto Bolaño’s popularity in English over the last decade or so has had a profound effect on publishers. The Story of My Teeth takes part in this renaissance, but it also plays with it: in telling the story of an auctioneer named Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, the book is also telling a story about Mexican literature and about how art is allowed into the marketplace.
We can find Luiselli’s interest in what it means to be a Latin American writer now, in her first novel — Los ingrávidos, creatively translated as Faces in the Crowd — whose protagonist works at a publishing house specializing in literary translation. Early in the novel, her boss is “sure that, following Bolaño’s success in the American market […] there would be another Latin American boom” (and when she tells him that she never knew Bolaño, he jokes: “We have the honor of working with the only Latin American woman who wasn’t a friend of Bolaño […]”) The protagonist tries to ride this wave, writing detailed reports about Mexican writers she loves: “Inés Arredondo, Josefina Vicens, Carlos Díaz Dufoo Jr., Sergio Pitol,” but all without success. None of them are published. Eventually, she decides to engage in a minor literary fraud, engineering the publication of an obscure Mexican poet by pretending that the collection was translated by a more famous poet, a “Joshua Zvorsky” (who is a thinly veiled Louis Zukofsky). The fraud is eventually exposed, but the deed is done, and the obscure Mexican poet becomes a sensation, the new Bolaño. As she puts it, later in the novel, literary reputation is “all a matter of rumor, a rumor that multiplies like a virus until it becomes a collective affinity.” A story can be a fiction but still come true.
Bolaño’s name has sold a lot of books, after all, and not only his own. His name gets dropped onto more covers of newly translated Latin American writers than anyone else’s, and his footprint in the marketplace has helped more than a few young Latin American writers get published (including Luiselli, no doubt). His name has multiplied, you could say, and become an affinity. It helps that he was such a promiscuous and generous writer of blurbs, especially for younger writers. But it’s also because he, himself, made for such a good story about Latin American literature. His life lent itself to mythologizing, and myths sell. He was a globetrotting bohemian poet, a romantic rebel, and the kind of passionate vagabond he described in The Savage Detectives. Before he settled down as a family man in Spain, he crisscrossed Latin America, leaving pieces of himself behind. One consequence of his travelling, as he would later put it, was “the loss of my teeth, which I left here and there on my way from country to country, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs.”
The Story of My Teeth is a story of how art becomes a commodity, and a record of its own coming into being. It is a history of itself as part of the broader scope of Mexican literature, even when it’s lying through its teeth.