The Empty Spaces: The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
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There is something astonishing that the Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli has achieved across the space of her three books — Faces in the Crowd, Sidewalks, and her latest The Story of My Teeth — by writing into and out of relingos, the forgotten, inexplicable open spaces of Mexico City.
The Story of My Teeth, Luiselli’s latest offering, is told from the point-of-view of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, the self-proclaimed greatest auctioneer in the world and owner of Marilyn Monroe’s teeth.
“This is the story of my teeth,” Highway tells us on the first page.
And my treatise on collectibles and the variable value of objects. As any other story, this one begins with the Beginning; and then comes the Middle, and then the End. The rest, as a friend of mine always says, is literature: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics.
The tale that follows is formed into seven books: The Story (Beginning, Middle, End), The Hyperbolics, The Parabolics, The Circulars, The Allegorics, The Elliptics, and The Chronologic — the last actually written by Luiselli’s English translator, Christina MacSweeney. Teeth is by no means a perfect novel, what it is however, is an ambitious look at the state of modern Mexico and a hilarious satire of the art world. It asks the eternal questions: Who is a storyteller, what is a story — and how do we tell them?
“I am going to recount for you the fascinating stories of all these teeth,” Highway says as he auctions off his old teeth to a group of senile retirees in the middle of a church.
… and I would urge you to buy them, take them to your homes, use them, or simply cherish them for persecula seculorum. That is, for forever. Otherwise, I continued, slightly overstating the case in a menacing tone, if these relics don’t find owners by the end of this session, they will be sold abroad. And the last thing we need is for the little we have to be carried off by others.”
The slim novel, as with the other books of Luiselli’s, meanders, loosely plotted. It is Highway’s story, but also that of the Ecatepec slum, one of the largest in Mexico City and the location of the Jumex Juice Factory and it’s attached art museum. The setting and the story, like so many things in modern Mexico, are almost too bizarre to believe. Teeth, Luiselli tells us in the afterword, actually derived from a collaborative storytelling project with the workers of the juice factory. And it is at the Jumex Juice Factory that “Highway” starts his journey from lowly security guard to master auctioneer when a worker collapses in seizure and Highway comforts him. Luiselli admits she wrote not about the factory workers but to them and it’s easy to see their influences on the story. What is the most absurd thing their corporate bosses would ever think to do?
“The Senior Executives had decided that, from then on, I would have a chair and a desk of my own, and my job would consist of comforting any member of staff who required this service.”
Highway takes his new job and starts attending courses to help him prepare for any unforeseen panics. He marries a woman, “Flaca”, becomes a dancer, leaves his cushy job at the juice factory and has a son Flaca names Siddhartha, born during the infamous Mexico City earthquake of 1985. Like the earthquake that shook the city to its core and killed thousands, Siddhartha will ultimately prove as disastrous for Highway. Highway one day learns that his successor as the factory security guard has become a successful auctioneer and sets off to track down the Auctioning course. He gets a grant and goes to America to study with a master auctioneer.
I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.
Then Flaca leaves and takes Siddhartha. Highway travels the world buying and selling goods and once rich returns home to Ecatepec and builds a house and warehouse on Calle Disneylandia. Then one day he attends an auction in Miami, Florida and buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. He returns to Mexico and has them installed into his own mouth. Thus Luiselli and Highway end Book 1, The Story.
The following six books recount the ensuing decades of Highway’s life, merging into and out of parable and fable, falling into and emerging from the lives of the factory workers. They are stories within stories, some direct, some askance, all delightfully odd and unclassifiable. One quickly learns in Luiselli’s hands to accept the shaking earth beneath one’s feet and revel in the odd snippets and anecdotes that invade the story of Highway’s life. Other writers are a constant presence in Teeth, used as both high comedy and building blocks for a new kind of literature.
At one point in Book III, The Parabolics, Highway tells an anecdote about his cousin Juan Pablo Sánchez Sarte, “Who…would inevitably tell us — around the time dessert was being served — that we were hell.” Later he refers to an uncle, Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky and in book V, The Allegorics, hilariously tells self-contained allegorics about the contemporary stars of Latin American literature (Including one with a character Valeria Luiselli, “a mediocre high school student” who suffers a horrible stammer and overuses the suffix-ly.) Yuri Herrera, Alejandro Zambra, Francisco “Paco” Goldman and others make appearances.
Teeth seems to evoke the idea of prose as experience. We don’t always quite understand it until we release ourselves from the obligation to solve its riddle. Luiselli has a talent for satire. She puts us in the room with a pile of old teeth — as Siddhartha has put Highway’s old teeth in the Jumex Juice Factory Art Museum — and shows us how far people will go, how a story is the only thing that gives objects value. A book without a story is worthless paper, we know deep down. The pleasure of reading, and living, exists in traversing the passages of the labyrinth and not in discerning the route to its center.
Perhaps my favorite book in Teeth, Book VI, The Elliptics, tells the story of Highway from the perspective of a young writer, Voragine. It’s through him we begin to understand the great auctioneer and storyteller as the story of Highway comes to an end.
“…he described objects, none of which were actually there: collections of teeth, of course, but also antique maps, car parts, Russian dolls, newspapers in every imaginable language…He gave me a febrile tour of what he called his grand collection of collectibles. It’s hard to say if those were sad or luminous moments.”
Teeth is not an easy novel, it eschews most plot and overflows with literary references. It is in many ways a writers-writer novel. But if one looks past all the allusions, it is possible to enjoy the simple pleasure of Luiselli’s words. We place value in normal objects because of the stories they hold within. The spirit of the person who gave them, the words that flow back to us in memory. Auctioning is storytelling, Highway would tell us and storytelling is auctioning. We live in a world where things without value can be given value with the flick of a wrist, the simple turn of a beautiful imagination.
by Valeria Luiselli