The Story of My Teeth
What do Marilyn Monroe, Plato, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and Virginia Woolf all have in common? Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez has their teeth. In the latest novel, “The Story of My Teeth,” by acclaimed Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, and translated by Christina MacSweeney, Highway is a lovably optimistic protagonist who finds himself with a singular goal and a bizarre plan to achieve it.
Highway, somewhat late in his adult life, decides that he wants to earn enough money to buy himself a new set of pearly white teeth to go along with the smile he knows is buried within him. And so he does the only logical thing he can think of: he becomes an auctioneer. But he’s no ordinary fast-talking salesman. “I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects,” explains Highway, “but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.”
Luiselli beautifully allows Highway the freedom to sell the reader chapter after chapter through the uniquely bent and expertly twisted stories he tells. It is a poignant novel in that in the twenty-first century when people are zipping past each other with noses buried in their cell phone screens, here is a man enthusiastically interested in his neighborhood and the people who inhabit it. Highway lives in stark contrast to the people at the pulpits and podiums today. “That’s politicians for you,” he laments, “clergy included: their heads are so full of themselves that they aren’t the least bit curious about other people’s lives.”
And so, while enjoying the company of his friends and the rush of another successful auction, what should Highway come across for sale at another auction, but the teeth of Ms. Marilyn Monroe herself. This sets him on a quest and passion to collect, and ultimately auction, the teeth of famous philosophers and writers, along with the stories, mostly surprisingly true, that accompany them.
While selling Hyperbolic Lot No. 8, a tooth belonging to the famous Virginia Woolf, Highway explains to the eager buyers, and reader, “When she was just thirty years old, a psychiatrist posited the theory that her emotional ills were due to an excess of bacteria around the roots of her teeth. He decided to extract the three most seriously affected ones. Nothing changed. During the course of her life, several more teeth were extracted, but it made no difference.” The simple fact that many of the mastication-related tales that are tied to the sales pitches of each tooth are true, make the individual stories all the more fascinating. Perhaps the most meta moment of the book is when Highway sells the tooth of living Spanish meta-fiction novelist, Enrique Vila-Matos in a subtle nod to one of Luiselli’s literary forebears.
Each of the seven chapters ends with a fortune cookie fortune, poetically summarizing a theme such as, “When the wind changes, some people build walls, others windmills,” or “There never existed a philosopher who could bear the pain of a toothache with patience.” As Highway builds his collection and stories, he passes through intersecting story lines of old friends, new acquaintances, and his estranged son with a sinister plan of his own.
Luiselli, the ultimate storyteller of this novel, seems to share her passion with that of Highway. He probably most succinctly phrased it when he said, “What auctioneers auction, in the end, are just names of people, and maybe words. All I do,” like Luiselli, “is give them new content.” The reader will even find the author herself woven into one of Highway’s tales connected with a rat and mouse costume up for auction as “The young lady Valeria Luiselli, a mediocre high school student.” The story itself is too good to reveal here.
Both Highway and Luiselli, selling teeth or novel, enchant us with the rich tales they tell. She allows the reader to find him or herself as a tourist in a suburban town on the outskirts of Mexico City listening to lines you never thought you’d hear, yet crave for more, such as of Rousseau’s tooth: “This piece, in particular, is like a spiral staircase to a skylight once covered in plaque.”
And much like one of the last quotes in “The Story of My Teeth” - “You take nothing with you when you go” - Highway leaves nothing on his plate when you’ve finished reading. He’s an artist who gives all he has for his stories and, for the price of the book, you will have purchased “an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth.’”