The Art of the Novel-Essay: Valeria Luiselli’s Radically Collaborative ‘The Story of My Teeth’

US literary culture has a way of marginalizing works of collaboration, especially when they’re written in conjunction with art exhibitions or “politicized” groups, like workers or prisoners. Seen almost as apocryphya — or as weird,  French-seeming side hustles — collaborative fictions are especially ignored for the way they mess with form; if the novel is still a private, historically bourgeois artifact that tends toward straightforward “realism,” the collaborative work is often a broader or stranger or more inclusive thing. This is not to say that collaboration is a virtue in and of itself, but it can be virtuous — particularly when it’s sensitive to other minds and other lives without waiving its author’s intensity of self.

“This book is the result of several collaborations,” Valeria Luiselli writes in the afterword to The Story of My Teeth, her second novel to appear in English, again through the work of translator Christina MacSweeney. Or, rather, we should follow Luiselli in calling her book a novel-essay, one that grew out of a commission to write a work of fiction for an art exhibition at Galería Jumex in the “marginalized, wasteland-like neighborhood of Ecatepec outside Mexico City.” Noting that the Jumex Collection owned by the gallery is among the most important of all contemporary art collections, and that the collection itself is funded by Grupo Jumex, a juice factory, Luiselli chose to write her novel-essay for the factory workers. Their labor, acknowledged or not, is linked to the high valuation of renowned works of contemporary art.

With this in mind, Luiselli constructed the book as a collaborative project, a serialized fiction that invited the input of the factory workers. The process was simple. She wrote an installment of the novel, and the factory workers organized a space to read and discuss it. Recordings of their commentaries, as well as images of local landmarks, were then sent back to Luiselli, who would listen to their notes and view the pictures before writing the next section. The formula for the novel, as Luiselli describes it: “Dickens + mp3 ÷ Balzac + jpeg.”

Luiselli proved with her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, that she can phase shift between literary forms. (Her novels somehow remind me more of the form-bending essay films of José Luis Guerín than any contemporary writer). And the results here are similarly impressive. At most every turn, in fact, The Story of My Teeth breaks faith with the prevailing notion of a collaborative work as a sideline and asserts itself as a fleet, allusive, often humorous novel-essay. What begins as the engaging story of the life and death of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez — known to most as Highway — becomes, by the end of this short book, an ars poetica or ars rhetorica, an imaginative treatise on “the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature.”

How it does all of this is not easy to describe, but it’s safe to say that The Story of My Teeth begins with a story, one that is uncomplicated and charming. Crudely put, it plots the life (and death) of “Highway” Sánchez of Pachuca, a somewhat lucky man who works variously at a newspaper stand, as a security guard at the Júmex factory in Ecatepec, and later as “the best auctioneer in the world.”

Along the way, Highway is instructed in the ways of auctioneering by Master Oklahoma, a stoic Japanese guy who teaches him about the four types of auctions: circular, elliptical, parabolic, and hyperbolic. (Later Highway adds a fifth: allegoric.) Not long after meeting Master Oklahoma, Highway ventures abroad to continue his studies in auctioneering. After spending time in the US, he settles back in Mexico, but not before buying Marilyn Monroe’s teeth at an auction in Miami. Still later, after collecting (and auctioning) yet more teeth — teeth that once belonged to Petrarch, for example, and Montaigne and Rousseau and Virginia Woolf — Highway meets Jacobo de Voragine, a writer he asks to record his “dental autobiography,” or what Highway might call The Story of My Teeth.

Much of Highway’s story, I’ll add, is told in the novel’s first book, which is titled “The Story.” Later books contour the plot according to Highway’s auctioning styles — the parabolic section, for example, not only describes a number of items in the shape of parabolas (a literary joke on Luiselli’s part), it also tells of Highway’s predicament in the form of a parable. It’s Luiselli’s way of exploring a thesis, of measuring the relation between readers and the forms they value. An auctioneer, after all, augments the price you’ll pay for an item by telling you its story.

Early in the book, I’ll admit, I wondered what Luiselli (the auctioneer) was selling. Inasmuch as the novel was written for the factory workers, I was bothered that she might be issuing a lesson plan, a description of their struggle. (The exploited, after all, need few if any lessons about their exploitation.) But as the novel eased forward, it occurred to me that she was doing the opposite. The tone of The Story of My Teeth is never didactic, and the essayistic moments appear and fade, like the marks of a forgotten bite.

If anything, The Story of My Teeth excels as a fiction because it is committed to its allegorical project without becoming high-handed, but also because it puts the reader and the author on the same level, in the space of two minds who shape a story, who translate each other in order to unite.