Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Story of My Teeth (by Valeria Luiselli)

This book is... weird.

It's a good weird! The first four or so parts are the autobiography of auctioneer Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, told in a charming and surreal narrative style. (He talks about events and concludes them with statements like "End of anecdote.") The title comes from the fact that he has false teeth (which used to be Marilyn Monroe's... maybe) and auctions off other famous false teeth, and then loses his teeth under mysterious circumstances. You're never quite on firm ground during Gustavo's story.  (The next few paragraphs are all spoilers, so proceed at your own risk. You should be safe with the final two paragraphs.)

The next part is the account of a character Gustavo has met, whom he commissions to write his "dental autobiography" -- thus casting a light on the previous parts, which we now know were written by this ghostwriter. Next is a timeline of events (both fictional and non-) by the actual translator of the book from Spanish to English. Then the epilogue by Valeria Luiselli herself, which explains that it was a novel commissioned by an art gallery, sponsored by a juice factory, written to be read aloud to the juice factory employees as a serial novel. (She got recordings of the juice factory employees discussing each installment.)

She concludes by saying, "This book began as a collaboration, and I like to think of it as an ongoing one, where every new layer modifies the entire content completely." As you can see, she succeeds there.

It is postmodernist in flavor, and feels more like a deliberate art-gallery-style piece of art than any novel I've ever read before. It is a meditation on the nature of art, reality, labels, and so much more that I can't even articulate. I cannot wait to hear what they make of it in the Tournament of Books.

(Note that it seems like a lot was lost here in the translation from physical book to ebook. I would give this a try in its physical form, not electronically.)

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