RHC 2019: The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman.

Alternate: An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America.

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.

I originally picked this out after listening to an interview with Valeria Luiselli on the First Draft podcast. I’d been thinking it would be my pick for the Mexico/Central America own voices challenge, but after reading it, it felt more in the spirit of the book to use it for the translation task instead.

I enjoyed this before I read the concluding remarks from the author, but MAN does that author’s note drive the point of the whole book home. On its surface, The Story of My Teeth is the story of Highway, an accomplished auctioneer offering a series of auctions of his own teeth at varying levels of postmodern absurdity.

I hadn’t read much postmodern absurdity in a long time, and the thing I need to stress about this book before I get much further is how much fun it is. Highway is a funny narrator and a pleasure to spend time with. All of the textual gamesmanship feels like it has its arms wide open for the reader, who always feels enthusiastically in on the joke and not like she’s taking a test.

Highway’s rambling interior monologue is informed by an encyclopedic international knowledge of art, literature, and culture. More than once, I thought about how nice it would be if there were some sort of wiki companion to the book. So I was delighted to find a timeline at the back which impressively manages to tie every single reference to Highway’s narrative arc. It was created by the translator Christina MacSweeney, and added a really nice dimension to the novel (not to mention visible evidence of the collaboration inherent in translation – Luiselli has stated that her work gets considerably revised during translation, whether she or someone else is doing it).

I was aware that I was reading an incredibly smart essay about art disguised as a novel, but I wasn’t aware until I got to her author’s note that I was essentially reading a work of performance art. On the off chance that you read this book before seeking out any other reviews, I won’t spoil that surprise, because I was completely enchanted by it.

Overall, this was a smart, funny, and unexpected experience for me, and I’m excited to read more by Valeria Luiselli (who, to be clear, most of the world has been incredibly excited about for years before I stumbled on her by mistake).

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