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Book Reviews Review: Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth forces us to consider how a novel is made

Title
The Story of My Teeth
Author
Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Coffee House Press
Pages
195
Price
$23.50

There's a common myth that fiction writers work alone. The archetype of Author suggests an unwashed weirdo, bunkered in some lightless cabin or loft, madly hacking away at a battered Smith Corona. While that's not a total invention (add a steady supply of cherry Twizzlers and you've a fair portrait of yours truly), novels aren't birthed hermetically, with no stimulation from or contact with the outside world.

Most books are, at some level, works of collaboration. Even the most solitary recluse relies on external input, be it from friends or editors providing suggestions on early drafts, or simply the osmotic influence of sentient life on planet Earth. And of course a book doesn't exist as anything but a stack of bound paper until it's picked up by a reader and the words come alive on the page.

Even so, the backstage machinations of fiction-making don't usually offer much beyond biographical curiosities. Franz Kafka's wish for his unfinished work to be destroyed, for example, is far exceeded by the legacy of its publication. Unlike conceptual art or activist theatre, both of which might prioritize process over product, rarely do the preliminary stages of literary creation inform the finished book. Reading is like eating in a restaurant: Better not to know what happens in the kitchen, provided the meal doesn't bear traces of those behind-the-scenes horrors.

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But what about those novels that do force us to consider how they were made? Enter The Story of My Teeth, the third book by the New York-based, Mexican-born writer Valeria Luiselli. In 2013, Grupo Jumex, the Mexican juice company that is home to one of the largest private art collections in the world, commissioned an essay from Luiselli for one of its exhibitions. Instead, she wrote a story for the Jumex factory workers to be read on site; a reading group formed, whose feedback Luiselli recorded and incorporated into subsequent revisions.

The results are a dizzy, wacky romp narrated in wryly hilarious deadpan. Gustavo (Highway) Sanchez Sanchez is the self-professed "best auctioneer in the world," a wizard of the well-worded swindle. His techniques, learned at the Missouri Auction School under the tutelage of masters Van Dyke and Oklahoma, comprise parabolic, hyperbolic, circular, allegoric, elliptic and chronologic strategies of coercion; these also provide names for the novel's sections – the first chapter is titled simply, "The Story (Beginning, Middle and End)."

The prized items among Highway's collection are the teeth of, he claims, Plato, Michel de Montaigne and Virginia Woolf, among other luminaries – though they are in fact his own, ripped from his mouth years before. The scripts of the resulting auctions provide some of the most entertaining passages in the book: "Our penultimate lot, ladies and gentleman," begins one of the Hyperbolics, "exudes an air of mystical melancholy. The tooth itself is crocodilian, but its aura is almost angelic. Note the curve, it is like a wing in ascent." The Allegorics, meanwhile, are short narrative passages that read like miniature fairy tales; in one, 19th-century Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno (who appears elsewhere as a creepy adulterer) fails to buy his peg-legged wife the right eggs, and another features Hegel pestered at a Chinese restaurant by a succession of weeping midgets impersonating the giants of Russian literature.

What else? Absurdist fortune cookies ("Put your words in the mouth of your stomach"), Marilyn Monroe's teeth crafted into dentures and plenty of literary allusions, or at least name-dropping: The Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra runs a nursery and the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario owns a newspaper stand. All this is framed as Highway's first-person memoir – which is then recast by the book's actual author, Voragine, whom Highway has commissioned as narrator. "When Highway first began to recount his stories to me," Voragine claims in the book's penultimate chapter, "I thought he was a compulsive liar. But then, living with him, I realized that it had less to do with lying than surpassing the truth."

The same idea is echoed throughout the book. "In other words," Highway, via Voragine, explains, "as the great Quintilian had once said, by means of my hyperbolics, I could restore an object's value through 'an elegant surpassing of the truth.' This means that the stories I would tell about the lots would all be based on facts that were, occasionally, exaggerated or, to put it another way better illuminated." What Highway (and Luiselli) is really hawking is fantasy, a sort of shared experience of faith in the improbable – the art of storytelling, essentially, to which The Story of My Teeth pays manic veneration.

Luiselli worked closely with her translator, Christina MacSweeney, on the English versions of her two previous books: Sidewalks, a collection of essays, and the stunningly good novel, Faces in the Crowd. The translation of The Story of My Teeth includes a final chapter not just adapted but written by MacSweeney, who provides a "Chronologic" timeline that contextualizes the novel's fiction with relevant historical events. "This book began as a collaboration," Luiselli writes in the afterword, "and I like to think of it as an ongoing one, where every new layer modifies the entire content completely." It's a capacious, exciting way to think of fiction: A story that offers a dynamic space for every reader and interpretation, forever shifting what the novel might mean.

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