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.

How They Make The News

On one day in September, this year, a seventh of the world’s population logged onto Facebook, which means that one billion people logged into Facebook on one solitary day. Where those have tried before (eg.Myspace), nobody knows what the formula is that has made Facebook connect with one billion people, not forgetting the rest that didn’t choose to go on the internet that day. Maybe Facebook entered the world at the right time, away from the juvenility of Myspace, the chaviness of Bebo, the middle-classness of twitter.

However, If you’ve logged out of Facebook from your device or computer, you’re greeted  by  the image of generic depersonalised male and female heads like you see on public toilet doors, situated around a picture of the flat-world, with dotted lines connecting them. It is here you realise that Facebook is the true global product. It hides behind its plainness and simplicity, where inevitably, ridiculous, complex computer systems developed by ridiculously intelligent Harvard students, who perhaps mirroring their site, and a potential pioneer of the technology-fetishisation culture (think: turtleneck), do not dress like the billionaires they are, and wear simple, unbranded garments.

It is something that has either helped or has actually has globalised the world, the final cog in the system.  There may be McDonald’s and Coca-Cola on offer in the remotest parts of the world now, but these are anybody’s McDonald’s, or anybody’s Coca-Cola can that has been dispensed on the ground after consumption. This is unlike Facebook, because if you leave Facebook behind in the meta-garbage of the internet, everybody knows that it is yours. Unlike other social networking sites, you have no choice over what you call yourself –  you are merely you. Or at least, you are a representative of the name you were given at birth, unless you eschew this and generate a weird pseudonym for yourself. But even if you were to do that, who would you end up ‘friending ’ anyway? Undoubtedly you would only be wanting to look at the people you know, or people who don’t want you to know who you are, so you can look into their lives for your own conceited purposes. Facebook has completely re-altered the way we think about our private and public selves, and the fact that it promises you with the possibility of looking at somebody else’s private-self it has one hell of a USP.

A modern, hard kernel of identity is a thing of the past coming out of the postmodern era, giving way to the notion that it is something that we’re continually constructing. Of course, Facebook does not allow us to peer into the deep and dark of somebody’s private life, but lets us believe we are. No, the fact we use our ‘real’ names doesn’t hide the fact that we’re not really being ourselves. We’re still trying to make people laugh and  cry. We’re still striving desperately to be liked. The old modern notion that if we take the mask off of somebody we can therefore reveal the truth is not so simple now. We’re wearing more masks than ever, endlessly constructing ourselves in endless situations, and sites like Facebook make this an even more complicated process. Perhaps coming on the back of the wave of reality T.V, where actors are playing ‘themselves’, where is the real of person in all this? We’re wearing masks in private now, so maybe as Žižek suggests, there is now more truth in the mask.

This kind of paradoxical falsity, where the private is not really the private, the social networking site is anti-social is like the global world that is not really global. We still have borders and boundaries, fences and patrols, and nobody is experiencing this lie right now, more than the Syrian refugees. As I write, they’re being tear-gassed and water-cannoned on the Hungarian border. All around Europe, countries and communities are proudly claiming that they welcome refugees. Here, in the United Kingdom however, it is as usual displaying its pandering centre-ground liberal tone of we will let some in but not all of them. Britain is apparently quite full and cannot afford any more nationalities or immigrants. Originally, David Cameron said that the UK would take in 3000 refugees; this is about the size of Framlingham, a tiny town in Sussex. And before you think that the United Kingdom is responsible for taking in more refugees and immigrants than anybody else in the past, think again. It is the developing countries as a whole, that hold the most refugees. Yes, developing, because migration, cheap, circulation of labour, is fundamental to the process of capitalism. And it is perhaps no surprise that two of the biggest economies in the world (America and Germany) are first and second in holding immigrants and refugees.

What the social media world allows you to do of course, is give an immediate opinion on this event. Or, what might be more appropriate, social media allows you to give an immediate reaction. The immigrant crisis is one of the many topics that could be used as an example of the point that is trying to be made here:  that the social media world highlights the contradictions that must be abided by in the globalised world. The image most synonymous with the crisis is that of the dead, three year old being carried away from the shores by officials.  It’s harrowing and defining and it will persist in the collective memory, in the way the protester in Tiananmen square does. There is moral outrage from the liberals saying that this is a result of the rich countries not helping, and the right claim absurdities like, that the majority of these migrants are men, cowardly abandoning their wives and their children, to carry on the jihadist war abroad .  Unfortunately, Katie Hopkins at the UKIP conference, who seemed to be on the cusp of making a pertinent point about the reproduction of the image in the media age (long after the liberals had jumped on her case), bypassed this with her usual, narcissistic, egotistical fame-seeking desperation. The image had served its purpose – it had shocked.  Yet can the left-liberals use it as a wholesale justification?  Surely this is as reactionary as the right claiming that it is sensationalised.

Now let’s remember the collective term for the likes of Facebook, Twitter, etc. Social – media. It is the media effectively created and dictated by its users. Twitter trends become the news.  And what this new form of media has is many thousands, millions of critics and voices with their apparently ‘real’ personas (in the case of Facebook) dictating their ‘real’ or perceived, genuine  voices.  And because we’re behind the veil of our real name, we think that we’re actually embodying our real self on there, yet the correlation between the thoughts and displays of thoughts on social media and the actual living, moving act are unlikely to be the same. The hardline anti-immigrationist Britain First sharing person on Facebook is very unlikely to proclaim these views in real, living life apart from with those they are very comfortable with. Like most people, they will be that liberal, polite, job-going or seeking, tolerant citizen of society.

And here is the paradox: slacktivism became a common term several years ago to describe those who vociferously expound their political views on social media, yet do not replicate this action in real life; yet hey are active, extremely active,  in the generating of the media and news by which others watch and contribute now.

Usually it is the people expounding the right-wing views that are leaped upon by the moral liberals. But it is not something just restricted to the right with its memes that try to justify in its bold type, anti-immigration and wars in the Middle East, at the sake of British troops. This is something that those on the left, or those who believe themselves to be on the left also revel in doing. Curiously, what you might observe is that, those before the election, who would try and situate themselves on the left, would display this by attacking those on the right. This I reasoned in a recent blog post, was because nobody knows what the left is anymore in the United Kingdom. Older voters have long abandoned the notion, for the security of their white collar jobs, and the young barely know what it means. Since then, something cataclysmic has happened in the face of politics, by the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn.  Now those who were leapfrogging from Labour, to the Greens, to other minority parties, now seem to have come back to the red-masted Labour party. You can even change your profile picture, so that it has a banner saying “I’ve voted Corbyn”, which is a curious thing to see considering there were many propounding not to be Labour voters before the election.

Politics is fickle and in doing so, we’ve learnt to be fickle with it. Corbyn’s credentials certainly appear to be left, and indeed it does point to a fissure in party politics that hasn’t been seen in decades. However what kind of left is it? In Baudrillard’s America (1986) he asked: “what situation will result from this progressive disenfranchisement (which is already taking a violent turn under a Reagan and Thatcher)?”  Now we know the answer to that – this world we live in now. “In Reagan, a system of values that was formerly effective turns into something ideal and imaginary”: on Facebook we believe we are endorsing, connecting, doing, when in fact we are doing the complete opposite. And this is not some kind of false consciousness, because we know we are not doing anything. Corbyn is left, but the sweeping tide of disillusioned liberal lefties that have heralded his uprising, have done so without any level of scrutiny by those on the left, because there is not a left, and only those wishing they knew how to be. Instead they have  seized upon the first opportunity that has presented itself. The left was a movement formed out of action, and the empowerment to mobilise the working classes; nobody is going to be able to do that sat behind a computer.

This isn’t one of those Franzen-esque, grumbling Luddite posts about the totalitarianism of the internet. And it is also not a statement that the internet will lead to nothing, because things have happened through the use of the far-reaching implications that the internet can offer. The internet appears to give you a voice, and it does, but only a very small one, and that voice is usually just the echo of somebody else’s (yes, just like this blog-post). Behind the veneer of the online radical lies an office worker, and in reading this blog, how do you know that I’m not sat at my desk-job now, when I should be selling insurance? The mask may be taken away to reveal another mask, that like the rest of them, claims to be the real you.

What happens to the Labour party in the run-up to the next election is now anybody’s guess. There is a light sneaking through the cracks suggesting that the centre-liberal politics that has dominated in recent times, is being broken apart. I don’t think Corbyn is the man (also, anybody who is behind Corbyn owes an unacknowledged debt to Ed Milliband), because Labour isn’t necessarily the party to revive the left anymore, and looks a more Harold Wilson/Tony Benn left. What it requires, is a reformulation of the left as the likes of Žižek continually suggest, and how Fredric Jameson does here, coming out of this neoliberal age: “No future is conceivable however, from which the deeper ideological commitment to politics – that is to say, left politics – is absent…and even a fully postmodernised First World society will not lack young people whose temperament and values are genuinely left ones and embrace visions of radical social change repressed by the norms of a business society” (taken from, Late Marxism… 1990).

To exemplify the liberal – centre position, and how the reactionary, populist media is not just restricted to those on the right, just look how the liberal-lefties, usually ready to pounce on the moral high-ground, took great pleasure in the David Cameron and the Pig scandal; something that has no bearing on the political debate whatsoever, regardless of whether it actually happened or not. Gutter press for one is gutter press for all (and they clearly did not realise that by endorsing the story they were endorsing Lord Ashcroft, a major donor to the Tory Party, so rather than weaken the Tories, in the long-run it would probably have strengthened them).

Žižek, uses the example of Horkheimer’s dictum, and as I’ve used in past, should perhaps follow the reasoning that, those who don’t want to talk critically about being on the liberal-left, should also keep quiet about those on the right. “Then they came for me…” begins the eponymous last line of Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, but now, there’s nobody left to speak for me, because I’m not on Facebook.