or, a hyperbolic meditation on the ways in which literary reviews manipulate value and affect sales
The coveted starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a steadier buzz-generator than an electric toothbrush, set a high valuation bar for The Story of My Teeth when it was published in March. For starters, the reviewer understands the novel’s structure and references, without self-congratulation. It is unfortunate more reviewers of this novel didn’t look to PW’s succinct plot summary, instead of being taken in by Highway’s claims that the teeth he auctions in “The Hyperbolics” belonged to famous writers, when they are in fact his own, original teeth (from before he has them replaced by Marilyn Monroe’s). By latching onto one of the novel’s most delightful images, “one of the most unforgettable images in any book this year”—that of Highway flashing his Monroe grin—PW sells the hell out of this novel, without resorting to hyperbole.
Despite its inauspicious publication date (September 11) and chronological confusion in the opening paragraph (that PW review could have helped!), Jim Krusoe’s review makes an original and excellent point, augmenting the already high value garnered by his publication venue with an additional $2 million in value: “Unlike much fiction, whose purpose is to mesmerize a reader, this book is porous. It allows the world and its readers to enter its conception.” Perhaps Krusoe’s haziness on the novel’s plot is owed to his admiration for the parts of the book that come after the narrative’s end, including, curiously, translator Christina MacSweeney’s “Chronologic,” which could have helped him with said plot. No matter. Calling Luiselli “a cartographer […] interested in finding areas still unmapped,” whose writing is “as airy and open as a soccer field,” Krusoe invites readers to get inside her novel—with their money and their minds.
Krusoe’s review might have been more evocatively titled “The Empty Spaces,” as Geoff Bendeck’s review, with a similar thesis, is in Electric Literature, a journal especially equipped to navigate the spatial construction of Luiselli’s novel. The title is in fact borrowed from Luiselli’s essay “Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces” from her 2014 collection Sidewalks, and Bendeck continues to assert his knowledge of her body of work by conflating the space of Luiselli’s three books as work “writing into and out of relingos, the forgotten, inexplicable open spaces of Mexico City.” With a requisite critical remark and expertly shortened title (“Teeth is by no means a perfect novel”) adding credibility to Bendeck’s overall assessment of the novel as “an ambitious look at the state of modern Mexico and a hilarious satire of the art world,” “Empty Spaces” will fill out the openings in the discerning collector’s Luiselli line-up.
HYPERBOLIC LOT NO. 4: “‘Dickens + MP3 ÷ Balzac + JPEG.’ Valeria Luiselli produced her novel The Story of My Teeth under peculiar stars.”
WRITER: Amanda Katz
PROVENANCE: The Slate Book Review
Amanda Katz, an editor at The Boston Globe, which Lucina grew up reading, argues that Luiselli is better described as the auctioneer of The Story of My Teeth than its author. For best capturing the novel’s allegory of “the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature,” Katz’s review is valued at a high of $8M (Luiselli). With the most compelling title cataloged herein, astutely borrowed from Luiselli’s afterword (the best titles are always hiding within the source text), Katz opens her review with a lofty gloss on the physical forces that govern our world—and the rules that govern novels. Foregrounding her esoteric literary background, she compares The Story of My Teeth to Raymond Roussel’s 1914 constrained novel Locus Solus, which deals with the life of objects “like a weather-powered machine assembling a mosaic of discolored teeth” (a simile worth a cool $50K). “Locus Solus can hardly be called a good novel,” Katz says, thereby increasing the value of The Story of My Teeth in comparison. Not only does Katz understand the more complex forces at work behind the novel, she perfectly captures the irresistible charm of Highway “a Baudrillard-citing guy (or, OK, Sánchez Baudrillard–citing guy) who fundamentally just wants to be able to chew his food.”
Perhaps because of its publication venue’s relationship to radio, Heller McAlpin’s review of The Story of My Teeth at NPR is wonderfully sonic. The acquirer of this sought-after summary will have the pleasure of ruminating over such alliterative phrases as “philosophical funhouse,” puns such as “not only isn’t experimental fiction dead, it needn’t be deadly, either,” and onomatopoeia like “Filtered through Luiselli’s brilliant, polymath imagination, there’s nothing icky about all those ‘ics.’” McAlpin aptly credits the “bonus sixth ‘ic’” to “the book’s agile translator” Christina MacSweeney, increasing the estimated value of this review by a projected $400K. The following quotation is representative of the harmonious coupling of sound and meaning in McAlpin’s review: “Among Luiselli’s talents is an ability to combine complexity with clarity and solemnity with hilarity.” Indeed, a most astute assessment of Luiselli’s work, if ever there was one. McAlpin does wonder about the toothy theme of the book, however—“What is it about writers and teeth? […] Is it because teeth are necessary for speech — not to mention bite?”—a question beautifully answered by another reviewer in this catalog.
Following the novel’s epigraphic structure, Rosie Clarke wisely opens her review of The Story of My Teeth with a quote from Carl Jung, which will give the admirer of this story something to chew on: “The symbol of losing teeth has the primitive meaning of losing one’s grip because under primitive circumstances and in the animal kingdom, the teeth and mouth are the gripping organ.” (McAlpin: your answer.) Clarke’s lushly expansive opening charts representations and interpretations of tooth loss across psychoanalytic, literary, and cinematic realms, solidifying her place as a premiere cataloger of obscure and illuminating facts, which by association, add value to Luiselli’s novel project. It should be noted, however, that Clarke’s summary reaches into the territory of spoilers. The review functions best as an explanatory critical afterword to the novel. Moving from tooth loss into a discussion of the novel’s serialized, collaborative creation and metafictional structure, The Story of My Teeth in Clarke’s reading begins to resemble a shark’s mouth with concentric layers of meaning. The review has a small nick in the finish of its subheading—the translation is credited to “Catherine MacSweeney”—that might easily be corrected by a careful editor. Appraised as is.
Tynan Kogane’s review of The Story of My Teeth is a philosophical funhouse, indeed. While it may not be apparent where his mysterious, multidimensional journey is leading, stick with it—all threads will lead succinctly into and out of the heart of Luiselli’s labyrinth. A cataloger of literature par excellence, Kogane builds an enviable patina of literary history over the surface of The Story of My Teeth, comparing it to Don Quixote by way of Thomas Mann (via teeth and New York) and Stendhal (via mirrors). While praising Luiselli’s “deep erudition,” Kogane highlights his own and increases the appraised value of his review—and by extension Luiselli’s text—through further comparisons to Marguerite Duras and Walter Benjamin, the German Romantics, and Werner Herzog’s documentary on livestock auctioneering (“the real poetry of capitalism”)—a point on which Highway would certainly agree. By way of the Don Quixote comparison, Kogane wisely points out that Highway is a picaresque hero, with Jacobo de Voragine as his Sancho Panza. The writer of this catalog, a classmate of Kogane’s at the New School, believes his clear appreciation of Don Quixote may have been influenced by a course they took together. Another she distinctly remembers, “Close Reading,” clearly contributes to both their critical practices.
ALLEGORIC LOT NO. 1: “A Catalog of Reviews of The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney”
WRITER: Lucina Schell
PROVENANCE: Reading in Translation
Lucina Schell, the editor of Reading in Translation, begins reading The Story of My Teeth on a mid-June Friday during an after-work flight to New York. She is going to celebrate her recent Master’s degree in the city of her undergraduate alma mater. During the brief flight from Chicago, Lucina reads books I and II, “The Story (Beginning, Middle, and End)” and “The Hyperbolics,” respectively. She also reads “The Talk of the Town,” along with a long article in a back issue of The New Yorker that she no longer remembers. She remembers The Story of My Teeth. The cover of the book is emblazoned with “Uncorrected Galley. Not For Sale. Publication Date: Sept. 2015,” and before boarding the plane, Lucina imagines her seatmate envying her early access to this forthcoming novel and asking her if she’s a critic, to which she would reply “yes,” although it’s not what she does for a living. Instead, Lucina’s seatmate sleeps for the duration of the flight.
Arriving at 12:30 am (an hour late), Lucina suddenly remembers that Delta flights to and from Chicago had been moved to the Marine Air Terminal of LaGuardia Airport. Lucina had first encountered this when she barely made the flight on which she moved to Chicago three years ago, when she showed up to Terminal A, the main Delta terminal, 30 minutes before her scheduled departure with a bulging suitcase, a purse of random items, and a tote bag full of hangers. “I’ll just forget the hangers,” she said, in response to being told she had too many bags. But the matronly TSA employee would not hear of it, and proceeded to unpack her purse in an attempt to combine the two bags. The hangers of various sizes became irreversibly intertwined as soon as they were ejected from the tote bag, and Lucina was forced to leave half of them behind. Nevertheless, she thanked the woman profusely for understanding that the small expense of new hangers was not one she wanted to pay when there would be so many others in a new city.
The night is black, and sultry with heat. Lucina curses the fact that she forgot about the Marine Air Terminal, since she has no cash with which to pay for the M60 bus into Manhattan, the single Hudson News is closed, and there are no Transit Fare machines. She boards the free airport shuttle and reads The Story of My Teeth while waiting for it to depart on schedule. Looking up, she sees the M60 pull away towards Manhattan. Needless to say, it is another 40 minutes before Lucina finally boards the M60, from Terminal C of LaGuardia Airport. Since Lucina last rode the M60, fare is no longer collected on the bus itself. Instead, you must get a receipt at the bus stop, and can then board through any of the open doors. Fares are checked at random, and if you don’t have a receipt, you can be fined. Fare is not checked at any time while Lucina rides the bus, and she realizes that she could have easily boarded the M60 back at the Marine Air Terminal and no one would have been the wiser.
Near Harlem, a man boards the bus, sits down in front of Lucina, and proceeds to blow his nose into a tissue. The tissue falls and hits Lucina on the knee. Instinctively, she flicks it to the floor, but the man is very concerned that he has littered on the bus and strains to reach the tissue, now under her chair. As Lucina realizes in horror that the man expects her to pick up his dirty tissue, he gets off at 125th St, and she misses the stop where she would have transferred to the A, C, E to take her downtown to W 4th St. As if by memory, Lucina is instead impelled toward her old neighborhood. The bus winds by Columbia University, its tall white buildings forming dark tunnels of humid street. Valeria Luiselli attends Columbia—she might even be in one of those buildings now, but more likely she is out enjoying the summer evening. Lucina hopes so, as she gets off at the last stop, 110th and Broadway, where she once lived.
It is now nearly 2 am, and Lucina walks downtown to 96th St, where she can get the express train to 42nd St, then transfer to the A, C, E. The local comes right away, but she decides to wait the extra 6 minutes for the express. The time passes quickly because she is reading The Story of My Teeth. Sweat drips down the back of her neck. Two teenagers interrupt her to ask if it matters which train they take to get somewhere, and she feels the resurgence of pride she once felt when she lived in New York at having been mistaken for being from there.
At 42nd St, the F train is running on the A, C, E track, and only F trains seem to come. The A, C, E platform is several layers further underground, and Lucina is sure her white tank top has become see-through with perspiration. As Lucina reads The Story of My Teeth, she is distracted by two young women cursing loudly over several children in various stages of sleep, returning home among the other Friday evening partiers. It is 2:45 am when Lucina gets off at W 4th St. She will be staying at her former freshman dorm, once infested with roaches and mice, now a boutique hotel. Lucina has finished The Story of My Teeth.
In the ensuing months, Lucina continues to ponder The Story of My Teeth, and exchanges several emails with the publicist at Coffee House Press, who helpfully answers her various questions (e.g. Are the fortune cookie messages accurate translations from the Chinese?) and provides her with a copy of the Spanish edition in PDF form. She makes many notes about interesting differences between the Spanish and English editions in the Spanish text PDF, and then loses them when she upgrades her computer operating system. Lucina does not manage to formulate an angle on the book, before becoming overwhelmed with planning for her September wedding. She returns from her honeymoon in Italy to find The Story of My Teeth has been reviewed absolutely everywhere, and wonders what different spin she can put on the book in her own review, and whether there is even any point, since the book is clearly doing well.
This review is one of several potential “spins.” Its success will depend on its perceived contribution to the apocryphal spin-offs that have been gathering around The Story of My Teeth from its very inception. In addition, the fact that it references so many other reviews of the book may mean that it is cross-promoted by these other publications, because, let’s face it, we all love self-referentiality, which is quite possibly one reason why The Story of My Teeth has been so successful: through the allegory of auctions it mirrors the way in which reviews validate literature, and reviewers like to see the value of our work acknowledged. That or everyone’s right, and it’s a damn good book. For its lateness to the game, this review has been valued at only “10,” but Lucina once worked in the Art World, and knows well how single- or double-digit numbers, “10,” for example, are understood to stand for “10 thousand” or “10 million,” depending on context—a million so little it is nearly interchangeable with thousand in a sentence.
Luiselli, Valeria. The Story of My Teeth. Translated by Christina MacSweeney. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2015.