At the Border of the Novel

The Story of My Teeth

by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House, 195 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Faces in the Crowd

by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House, 146 pp., $15.95 (paper)


by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, with an introduction by Cees Nooteboom
Coffee House, 110 pp., $15.95 (paper)
Patrice Helmar
Valeria Luiselli, New York City, January 2019

Although Valeria Luiselli lives in New York City, she isn’t herself American—not by birth (she was born in Mexico), nor by upbringing (her father was a diplomat, her international childhood nomadic), nor, to a significant degree, in her literary influences and style. But the five books she has written so far expand our understanding of American literature. Lost Children Archive, her third novel, is the first that she has written in English (her first two were very well translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney), and it is a passionate, if complicated, American novel—or, perhaps more accurately, a novel of the Americas.

For all their inventiveness, neither of her earlier novels could have led readers fully to anticipate this ambitious, somber, urgent new work. Her first, Faces in the Crowd (2014), is the artfully fragmented account of a young woman who, as she writes about her husband and small children, creates apocryphal translations of poems and extracts from an autobiographical narrative by the (actual) Mexican poet Gilberto Owen (1904–1952). Luiselli plays with reality and literary convention (in a manner familiar from European and Latin American fictions from Pirandello to Borges to Bolaño) and combines that play with an often ironic, intermittently autofictional recording of daily life’s more banal moments, in a way popularized in contemporary North American fiction by women writers like Sheila Heti or Jenny Offill.

Luiselli’s second novel, The Story of My Teeth (2015), is driven by the inimitable voice of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, an auctioneer whose tall tales about the literary provenance of his own teeth (he claims one belonged to Saint Augustine, for example, and another to Virginia Woolf) and whose different styles of storytelling salesmanship engage the reader in a lively narrative dance. Filled with absurdist literary allusions (“My uncle Marcelo Sánchez-Proust once wrote in his diary…”), the novel was in fact commissioned by the Galería Jumex, an art gallery outside Mexico City, as a serial narrative for the workers at Mexico’s Jumex juice factory, part of an exhibition exploring connections between the gallery and the Jumex empire. In an afterword, Luiselli explains that “many of the stories told in this book come from the workers’ personal accounts—though names, places and details are modified.” The almost frothy quality of the book’s pacing arises in part, surely, from its conception as a serial: we are buoyed along by episodic comic surprise.

Between The Story of My Teeth and Lost Children Archive, Luiselli wrote a slim, memorable volume of nonfiction, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), expanded from an essay that appeared in Freeman’s magazine in 2016. (This was her second nonfiction book: her first, Sidewalks, from 2010, is an allusive and, again, cleverly fragmented series of meditations on topics ranging from Joseph Brodsky’s grave, to bicycling, to the empty…

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