The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli — Connor Goodwin

1) I’d been wanting to read Valeria Luiselli for a while. Everywhere I looked sang her praises. And when I heard her read and talk at Brooklyn Book Festival, I was dying to read her. She read a passage on morning wood that was just as full of humors as said member.

2) The novel evolves around a man named Highway who makes his way as an auctioneer – trained first by a Japanese master in Mexico and later by a cattle auctioneer in Oklahoma. After reading an article about a writer who paid to have his teeth surgically replaced by writing a novel, Highway decides to follow suit. Thus the book before us, The Story of My Teeth (Granta).

3) There is a complex array of relationships between exchange, value, and language (specifically, stories, or oral histories). One manifestation of these entangled relations is arguably the principle driving force of the novel. Highway adds onto his sensei’s teachings a fifth method of auctioneering: “the allegoric method,” which basically translates into giving the object an exaggerated origin story. In this way, Highway attempts to reform the “art of auctioneering”: “I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.”

4) If irony was the main register of the 20th century, then exaggeration may be that of the 21st century. As Luiselli says, exaggeration “[has] less to do with lying than surpassing the truth.” For example, just think of media-speak since the 24-hour news cycle, which, in an effort to recycle the same material with just as much drama, makes good use of exaggeration. And then there is a proliferation of movies that are “based on a true story.” The notion that what we are about to witness actually happened somehow enhances the viewing experience, making it all the more visceral. While a comprehensive study of the revenue of dramatized versions vs. documentaries would yield more accurate results, I’ll just cite figures from a recent example that comes to mind. The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as the crazy French acrobat who walked across the Twin Towers on a tight rope has been out for a little over a month and has earned a domestic total of $10 million. Now compare that with Man on Wire (2008), the documentary, which earned a total domestic gross of $2.9 million. At the very least, hyperbole (“a fissure in the relationship between style and reality”) sells, as Highway knows well.

5) The idea of excess—especially as it plays out in the market and material wealth—is transplanted into the realm of language, value trailing behind it. As a result, a new economy becomes situated by and around language, rather than “natural” laws of economics as neoliberalists would have it. Language violates those laws, surpassing the law of supply and demand. Or, in terms of supply and demand, every object has the potential to become unique insofar as it can be imbued with an origin story. Of course, one could easily counter saying mass production of material goods gives them a common origin. To which I reply, language is more vast a frontier than any market history has ever seen—use some imagination!

6) Highway is approached by Father Luigi to host an auction at the church to save the church “from the rampant capitalism that’s threatening it.” “And while you’re at it, you’ll be cleansing your soul. Understood?” The crowd is a bunch of old people sitting on old money. He accepts and decides to auction off his old teeth—each tooth comes with its own story. Among the ancestors of his teeth are Plato, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Woolf, and Borges. Borges, while selling for a healthy sum, does relatively poor compared to the rest. After this, I was forced to ask myself, is the tooth fairy really so cheap that it only gives a quarter a pop?

7) Father Luigi readily agrees to Highway’s style of auctioneering, seeing as how “The hyperbole is an effective means of transmission of the great power of the Holy Spirit.”

8) The best part comes at the end of the auction. With no more teeth left to sell, yet clinging onto the ecstasy of BUY BUY BUY and SELL SELL SELL, Highway decides to auction off the teeth in his mouth; in effect, giving himself up for exchange in the market. His teeth, he explains, are none other than Marilyn Monroe’s, which he had surgically installed after buying them at an auction in Florida. The yellow, he assured everyone, was from all the cigarettes between takes. CUT.

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9) ACTION. Highway wakes up on a bench with four clowns staring down at him. Oh, and all his teeth are missing. The last thing he can remember is heading to the car, holding hands with his estranged son Siddhartha, who bought his teeth for 1000 pesos.

10) “I think that son of a bitch my stole [my teeth].” Is Siddhartha his tooth fairy—or is he more akin to some kind of tooth demon?

11) Another gem from Highway:“I’d lost my teeth, I’d slept on a bench, I’d allowed myself to be humiliated and emotionally tortured by my own son, but, despite all this, I was in an outlandish, tropically romantic-adventurer frame of mind; I believe that this is because I have always been a well-grounded person.”

12) There are a lot of interesting things happening with regards to how language and art intersect with the market and how consumers (in particular those of the working class) interact with this. For a different aspect/more coherent argument see Aaron Bady’s article for LARB where he smartly contextualizes this book within the Bolaño boom.

13) Prior to becoming an auctioneer, Highway was a security guard for Jumex juice factory, which founded the largest art collection in Mexico. He sees himself as a kind of “gatekeeper” to the gallery located right next door, yet he is never invited inside. When he finally does experience the gallery, it is marked by violence and horror. He is completely disoriented and even (gasp!) silenced. One verbal exchange goes like this, “And I’m the best auctioneer in the world. Yeah? And what did you come to auction us? Not knowing how to respond, I held my tongue.” To leave an auctioneer speechless is no easy thing. (Clowns are one of Highway’s greatest fears ever since a clown caught shitting in the street gave chase, pants half mast.)

14) Later on Highway robs the gallery (or, more generously, “appropriates”) as well as an inventory of the pieces with the usual details one finds in a gallery. For example, the piece that terrorizes Highway is sterilized into a mere description in the inventory. “Ugo Rondinone. Where do we go from here? Four video installations, sound, ink on wall, wood, yellow neon light.”

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5) Description has played a part in the market for a while: “this is item is durable, sleek.” But now we would seem to be at a point where narrative, according to Genette “attaches itself to actions and events… places the accent on the temporal and dramatic aspect” is increasingly introduced in addition to description. A good example would be the food market where the foodie movement has renewed interest in the origin of foods (GMO vs. organic, farm to table, etc.). With these larger trends in mind, Luiselli’s speculative economy of language would appear to be all the more prescient, gesturing towards something similar as a possible alternative for our economy.

16) If you had to auction something from your room that was in your desk or closet, what would you sell? What origin story would you tell to maximize its value?

17) I would sell an iron cast zen tea cup. The actual story: it was a gift from a mentor before leaving for college. He told me to always keep it empty, which I have. That is, until a photographer from France who Airbnb’d at my apartment converted it into an ashtray. I wasn’t upset at all, because this transformation seemed somehow all too appropriate, and so it has remained an ashtray.

18) This book is full of cheap fortunes. Fortune cookies abound, bookending each chapter. Naturally, these fortunes can be quite lengthy—huge cookies, as it were (we are at a buffet, no?). Fortunes assembled by selling other fortunes. While the material is cheap, it is the language that gives them value. In other words, the protagonist is rich in language. A lavish way of saying—full of shit.

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19) I went in search of a Chinese fortune one Halloween. I could be anything. I dressed as a commodore from the Revolutionary War and went to the Village with my good friend Freddy—we went from one bar to the next watching the Mets game, trying not to spend a fortune before we decided to get food. He suggested Chinese and I readily agreed. So we walked to Chinatown: by the time we get there it’s 1am. We order lo mein and dumplings and it’s delicious, so much so that we barely talk. Check comes—no cookies. I inquire. They gave away all their cookies to trick or treaters earlier in the night. Dare I say, TRICK?! My fortune: pending.

20) I have since gone to another Chinese restaurant. My fortune was: if your desires are not extravagant they will be granted. My girlfriend’s was: just because you put tap shoes on an elephant does not mean it can dance.

21) It’s not only fortunes that make their way into the novel—there seems to be a little bit of everything. All of it seems to be located in an oral tradition more so than a literary one: fortunes bookend every chapter, parables that don’t seem applicable, lyrics from the band Napoleón, gossip. It is as if one were sitting at a long dinner table, conversation flowing almost as much as the wine—before you know it everyone is speaking to everyone and no one at once. The only ones listening are us: we stand behind the screen taking notes.

22) The other thing about this multitude of oral forms is that they are polyphonic, a term borrowed from Bakhtin’s reading of Dostoevsky. Polyphonic is an assemblage of different voices, each carrying equal weight in authority. One can imagine a battle of ideologues, as in the head of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. But here it is more nuanced than that. With the sheer volume of various forms and intertextuality, it is almost like chatter from a crowd—an intellectual crowd where everyone is vying for another’s ear but their own are plugged by their next thought.

23) So then, nearly everywhere there is a strong sense that what we are reading is a conversation, or perhaps more accurately, is actually in conversation with … well, that becomes difficult, for there truly are a number of guests at this feast. There are of course the many greats of Latin American literature, especially Mexico: Josefina Vicens, Sergio Pitol, Alfonso Reyes, as well as countless others. There are also philosophical (Plato, St. Augustine) and political traditions (Cardenas nationalists).

24) This novel has an interesting origin story. One that, like Highway’s embellishments of his own collections, appears only tangential. In the periphery of the novel are a juice factory and a gallery. Luiselli was commissioned to write an investigative piece on Jumex’s relationship with the esteemed art gallery. Instead, she became much more interested by the workers in the factory and began to write brief dispatches or portraits of them. These writings fell into the hands of the workers themselves who formed a reader’s group, giddy to read about themselves. Readers would then discuss these dispatches amongst themselves, all of which were recorded and listened to by Luiselli. This origin, in part, may help explain the underlying sense of a conversation, of a dialogue, that permeates The Story of My Teeth. (This reading group harks back to Cuban cigar factories where one person would read from a classic such as War and Peace while the others rolled in an effort to make the work less tedious.)

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25) This factory piece also calls to mind the art piece Kara Walker did in the abandoned Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn, titled A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. The piece consisted of a giant sphinx coated in sugar and little molasses boys with baskets. In the baskets they carried the collapsed remains of other boys that didn’t survive, for one reason or another, the installation/full run of the show—watch Walker’s lecture “Sweet Talk” here.


Connor Goodwin can’t stop. Other work has appeared in The Rumpus, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, tNY, and Chronopolis. @condorgoodwing

Images:

Dental Cosmos: Campbell, 1880 (Rubber Plates), rosefirerising, Creative Commons

Clowns by UGO RONDINONE in Boijmans 3D, wim hoppenbrouwers, Creative Commons

ugo rondinone 1002_ItalysLight_Popup, erin williamson, Creative Commons

Kara Walker: A Subtlety, gigi_nyc, Creative Commons