Shaggy Dog Bites Back: Valeria Luiselli’s “The Story of My Teeth”

The afterword of Valeria Luiselli’s quixotic narrative, The Story of My Teeth, provides a number of insightful questions as to how readers can approach her novel. “How do art objects acquire value not only within the specialized market for art consumption, but also outside its (more or less) well-defined boundaries? How does distancing an object or name from its context in a gallery, museum or literary pantheon…affect its meaning and interpretation? How do discourse, narrative, and authorial signatures or names modify the way we perceive artwork and literary texts?”

These questions are important because of what has unfolded in Luiselli’s novel but also because of her concern that art is often collaboration rather than individual creation. Moreover, she states that many of the stories within The Story of My Teeth are incidents she was told about by others. And the backstory is often as important—if not more important—than the object itself. The novel was originally published in installments, and Luiselli states that because of the way she perceives of her work, the English translation is quite different from the original Spanish version (the author is Mexican). In addition, her novel concludes with a series of photographs of actual structures (houses, commercial buildings, and streets) where the characters in her novel lived or worked. To further stress the collaborative nature, Christina MacSweeney (the translator) has contributed a chronologic timeline to events mentioned in the narrative itself.

Phew, I realize, that’s quite a significant amount of paraphernalia to throw at you for understanding her novel!

Let me elaborate. After Gustavo [aka “Highway”] Sánchez Sánchez becomes a successful auctioneer, he agrees to contribute some of his own property as a fund-raiser for a localstoryofmyteeth Catholic church. What does he contribute? His own teeth, but the parishioners and the priest aren’t quite aware of his subterfuge. Instead, he manufactures a backstory for each of the teeth, thereby making the auction much more likely to result in successful fundraising for the church. He refers to these backstories as “hyperbolics,” and provides an elaborate account of how each tooth came into his possession—tombs being opened, extractions because of decay, etc. And the ten teeth, he claims, originally “belonged” to Plato, Rousseau, Borges, Petrarch, Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, and others. People bid for the teeth not because they are teeth but because of the famous people whose mouths once harbored them.

We’ve seen variations of this in numerous instances and we usually call it memorabilia. Its origins are probably in the relics that churches in the Middle Ages once professed to have as their sacred objects, including one that claimed to have a finger of the Holy Ghost. I kid you not. Modern variants: clothing worn by rock and/or porno stars, and so on. But I digress.

Well before Highway becomes a successful auctioneer, he has a lifelong obsession with all things dental. He was born with four premature teeth, which the nurse called “congenital prenatal detention.” That later became a problem because they rotted earlier than teeth that form more slowly. Plagued by continued dental problems, he could not resist fixing one of his later auctions (when he was in the United States) and acquiring Marilyn Monroe’s teeth to add to his “collectables.” After his return to Mexico, he had ten of his own teeth extracted and Marilyn Monroe’s implanted in his mouth. What a smile that gave him, knowing that he could be walking down the street, his mouth full of teeth that once belonged to the famous actress. (His own teeth that were extracted became the ones he later sold in the auction to raise money for the church.)

Unfortunately, at that auction for the church, Highway’s own son, named Siddhartha—whom he had not seen in many, many years—showed up, seeking revenge over his earlier abandonment. That “son of a bitch of my son” drugged him and had Marilyn Monroe’s teeth removed, thus leaving him toothless again. That incident leads to dentures and an incipient relationship with a young man who wants to be a writer. That young man, Voragine, will eventually write the story of Highway’s life, his “dental autobiography,” as it is called, or the narrative we have just read.

And teeth? What about them? Well, that returns us to those opening questions from the author’s afterword: “It is not objects that are sold, but the stories that give them value and meaning.” When Highway can recognize this, even though he now wears dentures, “He would hold them between his fingers, like castanets they use for flamenco dancing and, depending on the occasion, make them speak or chant and tell fascinating stories of the lost objects that had once formed part of his collectables.”

Teeth make the man.

Valeria Luiselli: The Story of My Teeth

Trans. By Christina MacSweeney

Coffee House Press, 184 pp., $16.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.