The Story Of My Teeth

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Packed with dead-pan humor, enigmatic literary references and wildly original writing, THE STORY OF MY TEETH calls to mind an over-stuffed suitcase belonging to a post-modern circus clown.

The author, Valeria Luiselli, was born in Mexico but as the daughter of a diplomat grew up in South Africa, Costa Rica, India, Spain and France. Now married, she lives in NYC’s Spanish Harlem where her funky, cosmopolitan view of the world fits right in with the surroundings.

Luiselli, who has published two previous books (Faces in the Crowd, Sidewalks), wrote THE STORY OF MY TEETH for the workers in a juice factory outside Mexico City which has an art gallery attached to it. “There is, naturally, a gap between the worlds: gallery and facility, artists and workers, artwork and juice,” she confides in an afterword. “How could I link the two distant but neighboring worlds, and could literature play a mediating role?”

She answered these questions by employing the technique of a “tobacco reader,” which originated in a l9th-century Cuban cigar factory, when “in order to reduce the tedium of repetitive labor, a reader would read aloud to the other workers while they made cigars.” (Emile Zola and Victor Hugo were favorites).

Luiselli wrote a novel in installments for the juice workers, who then read it out loud in the factory. The discussions that followed were relayed to Luiselli in NY, who then took the comments into account before writing the next chapter of TEETH. “The formula, if there was one, would be something like: Dickens + MP3 + Balzac + Jpeg,” she said.

The resulting tale is every bit as fantastical, exhilarating and ground-breaking as its origins, with a hero, “Highway” Sanchez, who walks around the streets of Mexico City, smiling at people with the teeth of Marilyn Monroe implanted in his gums. And that’s just for starters: the novel becomes even more imaginative, outrageous, and blissfully entertaining as it unfolds.

(Coffee House Press, ppbk. $16.95)