VALERIA LUISELLI'S unlikely second novel, The Story of My Teeth, is initially told through Gustavo "Highway" Sánchez Sánchez, a tall-tale auctioneer who has Marilyn Monroe's teeth implanted in his mouth, and will auction anything off. "I used to come out of public sales with the desire to sell off everything: the cars I saw in the street, the traffic lights, the buildings, the dogs, people, the insects that distractedly crossed my field of vision," he says.
Highway's portion of the book is handled with playful ease, a having-fun-on-the-page sort of exuberance that's perhaps most akin to Richard Brautigan. It's tangential and absurd, with a good amount of space spent on auctioning teeth. It's when Highway stops narrating that the book takes on a life of its own. First, a young writer recruited to write Highway's "dental autobiography" takes over, and we get an outside perspective on the story we were just told. This is followed by a photo series of actual sites that factor into the story. Next, the book's translator gives a timeline of Highway's life among the sometimes-microscopic world events that could have influenced his story.
Finally, Luiselli's afterword unveils the book as a collaboration with juice factory employees whose work funds a contemporary art museum in "the marginalized, wasteland-like neighborhood of Ecatepec outside Mexico City," inspired by the "tobacco readers" who read to cigar factory workers, and the serialized 19th-century novels of Balzac and Dickens. What we suspected all along is true: This is more than a story about teeth.
Most clearly, it's an exploration into how value is altered through the stories we tell. The consumer desire of wanting to assign a history to an item is taken to its logical conclusion by the story's end, when Highway starts auctioning off stories without objects attached to them. The book also considers the unique ways that high and low culture can converge (the literary references in the easy-going tall tale, the juice factory that funds the art museum).
Luiselli's greatest achievement here is that she's made something so undeniably weird relatively accessible. It's clear and entertaining even as it blurs the lines between fiction, history, and social commentary. The result is a book that isn't exactly a novel, but something more entertaining.