Sunday, April 03, 2016

Surpassing the truth

After all, as Quintilian says, a hyperbolic is simply "a fissure in the relationship between style and reality."
I'd heard quite a bit about The Story of My Teeth, and I'd followed with interest its performance in this year's Tournament of Books, and spurred by the upcoming appearance of author Valeria Luiselli at this year's Blue Met festival, I read it.

It's a strange little book, which has it's own strange little story, but frankly, I don't understand what all the fuss is about.

I've actually encouraged a handful of people to read this. We'll make a night out of it. Hear what the author has to say. Adjourn for cocktails.

Its selling points: 1. It's really short. It clocks in at 134 pages, but there's front matter and back matter and decorative plates and really wide margins. 2. There are clowns. Well, that may scare some people, but I think it's a plus. 3. There are funny bits, where I smiled and chuckled (but no guffaws) — but hard to say if it's at all funny apart from occasionally being clever and pretentious or almost constantly parodic and hyperbolic.

On the whole, however, I didn't like it. Gustavo "Highway" Sánchez, is not very likeable. Not that I have to like a character to like a book. But the book did not connect with me at all, not the character, the story, the tone. There were glimmers of hope, in the humour, in the oddness, in the clowns, but it wasn't sustained. But it is a weird book, in a way that merits discussion.

The story, such as it is: Highway left his wife and son to pursue his calling. He's an auctioneer, who once bought at auction and had surgically implanted Marilyn Monroe's teeth. He returns to Mexico with a fine collection of... of objects, of collectibles, and in the course of auctioning of his collection of teeth, crosses paths with his grown son.

The thing about auctioneering — he creates value, by telling stories.
When Highway first began to recount his stories to me, I thought he was a compulsive liar. But then, living with him, I realized that it had less to do with lying than surpassing the truth.
There are some marvelous insights gleaned from several of Highway's esteemed relations...

I completely disagree with my second-uncle Juan Sánchez Baudrillard when he says that "Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth."
I suppose my uncle Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky was right when he said that insult, after all, is a purification of the soul.
In other words, as my uncle Miguel Sánchez Foucault said in relation to something else, these men and women are "singular lives transformed into strange poems through who knows what twists of fate."
And my favourite cousin, Sartre:
I was certain that I had gone to hell. During the long family meals I had to endure in my childhood, my cousin, Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre, who used to wear white plastic flip-flops and couldn't hold his drink, would inevitably tell us — around the time when the dessert was being served — that we were hell.

One of the more mysterious elements of the book is "The Chronologic," contributed by translator Christina MacSweeney. It is in fact my favourite part of the book, for the great puzzle it presents. For example, why include an entry to mark the date that Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. It presents an interesting framework for thinking about the story, a real-world level of narrative.

The Story of My Teeth stems from a commission to catalog an actual art collection, and was created in large part by collaboration. It was meant to be read aloud and in instalments. Audience feedback was integrated into subsequent drafts. The author's and translator's collaboration mean the resulting book is a further version of the original, not a strict translation.

The Afterword is more of an Artist's Statement, and for clarity's sake, I wish it were labelled as such. This book is like that odd installation at a gallery that you can't make heads of tails of, but you finally find the little placard an you read and you think it makes sense, but you read it again to make sure, but you're not sure, and you look at the art again and something clicks, but just for a second; it's somehow been made more acceptable even if it's not any less opaque.

The problem is: I'm not convinced art should work that way; it should stand on its own, not propped up by justifications. And for some reason, if that art should be literary — it's already full of words — I think it has less right to go outside of itself in order to communicate about itself.

In that sense, The Story of My Teeth "works" as a piece of art, an artefact, an experiment, but not as a real novel, in my opinion. But I do look forward to hearing the author, discussing the book with others, and having my ignorance dispelled.

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