Structural Work

The Story of My Teeth
Valeria Luiselli
Granta: 188pp. : £12.99

“Whilst conceding that I might need money (there was the divorce and the costs involved in having my ‘teeth fixed’) she said she didn’t see why she should subisidise my greed. Later, in her note of apology, she said she’d had a toothache when the journalist rang.”

This is from Martin Amis’ memoirs –  Experience – and the ‘she’ in question is A.S Byatt. It’s interesting that I’ve used a footnote from the book because Amis devotes a lot of his memoir, and indeed portions of his fiction (Money for instance) to teeth. This quote is referring to the publication of The Information and the friendship – ending advance he attained for it, by leaving then agent Pat Kavanagh, and wife of friend Julian Barnes, for the famously ruthless Andrew ‘The Jackal’ Wylie.  The press coverage, as the quote suggests, implied that Amis had sought the higher advance to pay for his subsequent dental work. The literary world, as we know, sometimes appears like its art, and certainly Amis could probably envisage himself writing such a ludicrous, self-conscious event in his fiction.

Throughout fiction though there are names of characters and people that are sometimes explicitly obvious, and sometimes impossibly uncanny. James Wood in How Fiction Works asks “Am I the only reader addicted to the utterly foolish pastime of amassing instances in which minor characters in books happen to have the same names as writers? Thus Camus the chemist in Proust…” and goes on to name several more.  Of course, you realise the names Valeria Luiselli gives to her characters are intentional:  there is Uncle Solon Sanchez Fuentes, Juan Sanchez Baudrillard and Uncle Fredo Sanchez Dostoyevsky to name a few.  But one of the unmentioned acknowledgements Luiselli may make is to Martin Amis:  “I read a story that day in the newspaper about a certain local writer who 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” says her main character.

Whether Luiselli is referring to Amis or not she is making a wider point about the art of the novel and its value today and such is the theme of her book. Her quixotic, short novel focuses on Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, referred to by his much more succinct nickname ‘Highway’  (another stranger than true reference to Amis some might be able to infer here). This is the story of Highway’s teeth and his “treatise on collectibles and the variable value of objects”.

At an auction he acquires a set of Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. He then sells off his old teeth after being mastered in the four types of auction; hyperbolic, parabolic, circular and allegoric – which are also names of sections in the books – claiming the teeth to be those of dead, famous writers. He meets Jacobo de Voragine who he tasks with writing his ‘Dental Autobiography’, and who he collaborates with in an allegoric auction to raise funds, after he finds his home ransacked and all his precious objects stolen.  Amongst this is Highway’s relationship with his estranged son Siddhartha but there is not a huge amount of plot. Instead the book’s wholesomeness comes out by the feeling that every bit of black on white is part of the whole text. Meta-fiction, coming out of the postmodern age, has been derided at times, and as the likes of Jonathan Franzen return to the thick, social novels, Luiselli’s slim piece, whilst obviously meta, is about much more than deconstructing the novel – it is about deconstructing the whole concept of narrative.

As the titles of the sections suggest these refer to the way in which the events are narrated. As a result the book is questioning the way in which we relate narrative to reality, which at the moment seems to be in a kind of paradigm crisis. There seems to be transition and movement in the current cultural zeitgeist where the space opened up by the times we’ve been living in, to the times we’re going to be living in, is shifting. Narrative and how we narrate is intertwined with this and like Amis’ dental work, Luiselli is trying to come to terms with the relationship between the structure and the aesthetics, the cosmetic and the necessary, how essential and how reliant they are on one another at a timely juncture. Luiselli’s mastery of narrative is combined with a concern of what narrative implicates. Ultimately, she asks rather than what is the cost and fate of books, but what is the cost of a medium that is a carrier of narrative, in an age where everything uses narrative to add or enhance that value.

It’s a question of modernity. The ‘Parabolics’ section grapples with this most head-on in a kind of Freudian lucid manner, as Highway in a dream-like world has a dialogue with Fancioulle the clown. It opens with a quote from Highway’s Uncle Marcelo Sanchez Proust (“When a man is asleep, he has in a circle around him, the chain of hours…”) and he bounces on in an energetic, at times restrained, but other times excited prose, to a mediation on morning erections: “As a consequence, many men wake up with a powerful, proud erection, the intensity of which also acts as a first anchor to the world during the transition from sleep to wakefulness.”  The mirror of reality and modernity long ago displaced by the constructionism of postmodernity seems to be returning.

However: it is fragile. David Foster-Wallace in ‘Suicide as a Sort of Present’ describes a depressed woman looking into a mirror (“each time she fell short of perfection she was with an unbearable plunging despair that threatened to shatter her like a cheap mirror”) and as Highway continues to talk to the clown he says, “For me, there’s no more ominous than a human being dressed up as a clown, probably because I’ve always been being scared as being perceived as one.” There is the cheap mirror of modernity that Highway is confronting and is vaguely becoming aware of. By believing now that if we are to live and abide by some kind of reality that isn’t a linguistic construction, but is a mirrored definable aspect of living that reflects some kind of truth, then the truth appears to be as tangible as that cheap mirror.

In the ‘Allegorics’ section Highway begins to dictate his dental autobiography. Here it is noticeable that there is a trajectory throughout the novel and it’s worth noticing that the ‘Allegorics’ is just before the ‘Elliptics’ which is solely in the hands of Voragine. It is just before this that Highway questions his own self in a Kundera-esque manner:  “I am not sure if this should be in the story, because it’s a part that seems to start folding over on itself, so that I become confused agitated and lose my way.” And on finding his trashed  home he says: “I first felt a tremendous relief. Then, a little sadness. Then, disbelief, and anger. Then, again, a deeper form of sadness and relief fused together, almost a weightlessness.” A real crisis of character.

In a sense, The Story of My Teeth’s world is an inverted one. Luiselli asks the question, what, if instead of the object that the advertisement advertises, we’re only actually buying the story that sells it. There’s nothing to say that we don’t, and the book as a format, is in essence an example of the thing that leads this paradoxical existence: it is something that we buy and consume, not for its physical qualities, but the ethereal experience of the narrative within it that lives further than the physical page. In ‘the garbage can of history’ as Highway calls it books are some of the things worth saving.

As you come to the end of the book, past the ‘Chronologic’ section compiled by translator Christian McSweeney (who has done a fabulous job) there is the author’s afterword. Luiselli provides a rationale in a way here. I’m not going to elaborate on this too much because it is somewhat of a surprise and frames the book in a different light. What The Story of My Teeth then becomes is a kind of Brechtian play, the Godard film that uses non-professional or unknown actors .Now, thanks to the proliferation of advertising, we live in a world full of narrative. But what this book reminds you is that there was once a time when books reached an audience to those traditionally unaccustomed to fiction reading, and that they were written and serialised for this very purpose, by the Balzacs, and the Eliots, and the Dickens, and would leave readers waiting for that next instalment.  Although this is a supremely intelligent book it is also great fun, and Luiselli reminds us that fiction should and can be made for all and can be read by all.

Thank you to Granta for providing a review copy.

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