Hot on the heels of Valeria Luiselli's two books from last year — her debut novel, "Faces in the Crowd," and companion essay collection, "Sidewalks" — comes an equally inventive third. "The Story of My Teeth" is the Mexican writer's second novel (or "novel-essay," as she terms it in her afterword) and is the result of a fruitful collaboration with workers from a Jumex juice factory on the outskirts of Mexico City and Luiselli's diligent translator, Christina MacSweeney.
Our protagonist is one Gustavo "Highway" Sánchez Sánchez, who announces on the first page that the book we are reading is "the story of my teeth, and my treatise on collectibles and the variable value of objects." The start of that story covers his formative years, his marriage to and split from mentally abusive Flaca and his training to become an auctioneer.
As Highway takes us through the mechanics of his profession — the "hyperbolics," "parabolics," "circulars" and "elliptics" — and the colorful stages of his life, we see teeth are the dominant theme. He is born with four premature teeth. At an auction house in Miami he acquires and installs in his mouth the teeth of Marilyn Monroe. Both he and his amazing teeth are later bought at auction by his son Siddhartha.
Luiselli ramps up the absurdity in a wonderful section where Highway auctions 10 of his original teeth to a group of parishioners, passing them off as the molars, canines and incisors of the famous. His "dental collectibles" include a "tortured tooth" of Virginia Woolf and a "memorious tooth" of St. Augustine, along with teeth from "good-for-nothing rambler" Rousseau and "ne'er-do-well layabout" G.K. Chesterton.
Like its predecessor, "The Story of My Teeth" wears its literary influences with pride. Highway's tall tales and auctioneer's lots come peppered with allusions and direct references to writers and philosophers and their works (and their teeth), and there is quoted wisdom from his uncles Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky and Marcelo Sánchez-Proust.
When Highway commissions a writer to tell his life story, a conflicting series of events emerges that prompts us to question the veracity of all we have been fed. But while Highway may or may not be an unreliable narrator, he is without doubt a humorous one. "Dad no longer has any teeth," he informs us. "Or nails, or a face: he was cremated two years ago." Barbed wit and sly ironies abound, such as his repeated claim that he is "a discreet sort of man" — a claim refuted by his relentless bragging.
On occasion, the book feels like a patchwork of mismatching material — a collage of quotes, photos and mad antics. For the most part, though, Luiselli thrills with her kaleidoscopic mix of narrative styles, metafictional riffs and Borgesian fantasy, and delivers a comic "dental autobiography" and a shrewd meditation on the worth of art and literature.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.