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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A completely unrealistic novel - but so what?

Your appreciation of Valeria Luiselli's novel the provocatively titled The Story of My Teeth, from the respected Coffee House Press, one of the few surviving literary houses, will entirely depend on whether you can tolerate a completely and willfully eccentric and unrealistic narrative, and I'm not talking about magic realism, although some may see Luiselli in this context (she is a Mexican writer, writing in Spanish) - rather hers is a pointedly absurd narration: the narrator's story of his life - and of his many obsessions - including teeth. He has a multi-hyphenate name, as do all of the characters in this novel, but he goes by the moniker "Highway" - no idea why - and his aspiration in life was to become an auctioneer, which he does after a course of study in the U.S. He tells us he is the world's greatest auctioneer and has learned that he can sell anything if he makes it part of a story (yes, he is in this sense the "meme" of an author of fiction - this novel is abundant with sly literary references and winking allusions). All this could have been much more interesting (to me) if, a., we learned what he learned and how he learned it in auctioneer school or at least, b., if we could see him at work in an auction. Well we do see him at work: his big auction is selling an old set of teeth to a crowd of elderly bidders, and he tells them the "story" of each one - each was supposedly (a complete fabrication of course) a tooth from a famous writer or thinker. Sadly, there's nothing at all interesting of persuasive about Highway's narrations. Highway himself had all of his teeth removed and replaced with a set of teeth that he's told had been Marilyn Monroe's. At one point in the novel, while he is asleep, someone steals the teeth from out of his mouth. With me so far? Most, maybe all, of the characters have literary names - his son is named Siddhartha, and other characters' names include literary patronymics like Sanchez-Proust or Garcia-Walser (I can't remember the exact names), but to no apparent purpose other than winking to the reader and sparking the joy of mutual reference. In other words, there's not a thing I believed or even cared about in this novel (I read slightly more than half), although others may find it witty and entertaining. But truly, I wonder, is there a thing Luiselli herself believes about this novel? It has the feel of an improv - a novel that plays completely by its own rules - and though I didn't get to the end I could see it coming, a big "So what?" Coffee House - glad you're taking risks, but you could do better.

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