BY Natalie Ferris in Profiles | 18 FEB 15
Featured in
Issue 169

Art, Auctions and Storytelling Meet in Valeria Luiselli’s Latest Novel

A combination of memoir, fiction, art criticism and autobiographical reflection, The Story of My Teeth is a remarkable story about stories

BY Natalie Ferris in Profiles | 18 FEB 15

Valeria Luiselli, 2014, photograph by Zony Maya

Cavities, in the work of the novelist, translator and essayist Valeria Luiselli, are as much a disposition of language as they are the affliction of a facade. A cavity implies a recess within something solid, like decay that eats into a tooth: in Luiselli’s work, by contrast, language, like landscape, is tremulous. Born in Mexico City and raised between South Africa, India and South Korea, speaking both Spanish and English, Luiselli has been exposed to many forms of script, place and voice. This has led her to produce writing keenly aware of its limitations; elisions in meaning or irregularities of experience pervade her urban landscapes. In her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd (2013), Luiselli performs what her narrator calls ‘a horizontal novel, narrated vertically’, in which the three fragmentary, first-person accounts of a young translator, a young mother and the dead poet Gilberto Owen begin to elide. ‘Novels need sustained breath,’ the mother tells herself, but in her small apartment she can only recount her slowly devolving existence in ‘short bursts’. Digging for definitions of the inexplicable – the gaps that pervade attempts to communicate – Luiselli settles on the word relingos: ‘absences in the heart of the city’. These vacant lots are not empty; for Luiselli, every hole is a reminder of what was once present – the 1985 earthquake that scarred the Mexico of her childhood or the associations that crowd behind words – and recovery is part of the act of writing. Writing, she remarks in her book of essays, Sidewalks (2013), is ‘making relingos’ – allowing a little light into a hushed corner. While babies babble to make sense of the world before they can speak intelligibly, cities stutter in their propensity to fester, fall and rebuild. ‘Perhaps learning to speak’, she writes, is ‘realizing, little by little, that we can say nothing about anything.’

This intriguing proposition is reconsidered in Luiselli’s newest novel, The Story of My Teeth (2015), in which it becomes possible to say anything about everything, and eventually everything about nothing. A combination of memoir, fiction, art criticism and autobiographical reflection, this is a remarkable story about stories, in which the ‘best auctioneer in the world’, the charismatic Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, relates a life told through the fortunes of his teeth and the misfortunes of his collectibles. Born with four premature teeth, Sánchez Sánchez, affectionately known as Highway for reasons never revealed, had an obsessive need to collect: from amassing envelopes stuffed with his father’s pared fingernails to accumulating skills and qualifications whilst working as a security guard at the Jumex juice factory. Highway never opened his mouth to expose his unsightly enamels which, by the age of eight, were ‘as wide as shovels’. For Highway, teeth are pearls of wisdom, revealing the characters of their owners: the kind-hearted adulteress Azul laughs with ‘disconcertingly long canine teeth’; the factory executives have the ‘sinister smile’ of those who have ‘paid many visits to the dentist’; while the dentures that are to become his own, the teeth of Marilyn Monroe, have a ‘sacred’, ‘yellowed’ glow.

Highway becomes an auctioneer in order to raise the money to replace his teeth and, in the process, develops his own sense of value. Renouncing his role as a ‘seller’ who binds objects to their exchange value, he seeks to ‘reform the art of auctioneering’ and to be a ‘lover and collector of good stories’. Storytelling is the ‘only honest way’ that Highway can conceive of ‘modifying the value of an object’. The degree to which language can change an object is a central preoccupation of the novel, which began as a commission intended to accompany an exhibition at the Galería Jumex, a contemporary art gallery on the outskirts of Mexico City, next to the eponymous juice factory. Curators Magalí Arriola and Juan Gaitán asked Luiselli to imagine a story that could ‘narrate how the artworks that comprise this exhibition communicate between themselves and the environment that surrounds them’. Perturbed by the proximity of the gallery and the factory and the extent to which sales of Jumex juices subsidize the exhibition space, Luiselli suggested writing short fictions for the factory employees. Written at a rate of one instalment per week, the stories were distributed as chapbooks. Some workers met weekly to discuss each offering. These conversations were recorded for Luiselli, who listened to them before writing the next part. The writing grew, influenced by the memories and opinions of the collective. The most animated of these sessions, Luiselli recalls, concerned the problem of what determines the value of the artworks on display. 

Galería Jumex, Ecatepec, Mexico City

Value, for Highway, is neither innate nor preordained, but is a construct created in language. Words become circuits within which he can animate himself and his objects. Auctioned from a church pulpit, Highway’s ‘Hyperbolic Lots’ – including the ultimate offering of a person, Highway himself – are a ‘chant’, intoned to demonstrate the value of ten small rotten teeth. Practiced in the art of hyperbole, Highway refers to the lots as a ‘metonymic relic’, a collection of objects which can ‘transfer their powerful qualities’ to their owners – much like the rhetorical treaties or philosophical essays of the figures to whom they belonged. The teeth of the ‘notorious infamous’ – those of Plato, Plutarch, Michel de Montaigne, Virginia Woolf and Enrique Vila-Matas, amongst others – are tokens of the stories that amount to their value: objects that come to signify something grander than the jaw from which they came. Described in its opening pages as a ‘treatise on collectibles’, Luiselli’s book similarly circulates its stories as if they were objects, with each of its five sections reiterating one of a number of rhetorical and literary tropes that govern the novel: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics and elliptics. Emanating from and repeatedly returning to the figure of Highway, the book shifts in orbit between the ‘hyperbolic lots’ of his auction; the parables of his prodigal son, Siddhartha; the circular conversation between Highway and his biographer Jacobo de Voraigne; the ‘Allegorics of Ecatepec’, which reconstruct artworks through appropriated stories; and Luiselli’s personal account of Highway.

This process of retelling and reworking stories raises inevitable comparisons with the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, whom Luiselli admires. Borges surfaces as the penultimate lot in Highway’s auction – a ‘crocodilian tooth’ of ‘mystical melancholy’. However, The Story of My Teeth does not rewrite; instead, it recycles familiar images, titles and fictions to address the contested nature of objects and the stories constructed around them. Where the more quotidian objects in Highway’s collection are enhanced by hyperbolic descriptions, works by artists featured in the Jumex exhibition – including Olafur Eliasson, Peter Fischli and Damián Ortega – are possessed by parallel ‘found’ tales. A Duchampian delight in everyday objects remade within the gallery is here reversed, severing the artwork from its gallery context. Highway conceives of his allegorics as ‘postcapitalist, radical recycling auctions which would save the world from its existential condition as the garbage can of history’. Luiselli creates a highly allusive prose, an aspectual form of thinking illustrated by the proverbs, epigraphs and quotations scattered across the book and through various strategies of estrangement, as when Highway quotes from the works of his familiar family members: Uncle Marcelo Sánchez Proust, second-uncle Juan Sánchez Baudrillard, Uncle Eurípides López Sánchez. The Story of My Teeth is a testament to eccentricity, to the willed inclusion of a discourse that Highway considers to be ‘infinite’ in its permutations and ‘illuminated’ in the resplendence of its references. If eccentricity is deviation from a known curve, then Luiselli has created an exceptional ‘novel-essay’ that irradiates beyond the orthodoxies of literary genre.

is the English Editor of the architecture journal SPACE. She works at Enitharmon Press & Editions and is a freelance writer. In conjunction with the Royal College of Art, London, UK, she is organizing a conference to take place in 2013 to celebrate the life and work of Christine Brooke-Rose.