The Short Version: Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez is an old-school raconteur, an auctioneer of incredible skill, and the possessor of a rather unique set of teeth – several sets, in fact. This is his story and the story of those infamous teeth.
The Review: We come to the object of the book with the subtle pleasure of approaching a well-designed cover. The deep tan with a touch of olive, the sketched teeth, the inset type – something about the book sings out to the reader before they’ve even picked it up. Inside, they might notice the marbled pages separating the chapters, sensing another almost-unnameable draw towards reading the book.
And what a strange, delightful, unique book it actually is. We are introduced, in his own words, to a character known commonly as Highway. In the opening book, we’re given a sketch of his life and how, rather late in it, he came to be the possessor of a set of teeth reportedly belonging to Marilyn Monroe. Armed with these new teeth, he sets out to become a world-renowned auctioneer after training with a near-mystical teacher who instructs him in four types of auctions (to which he adds a fifth). These auction types make up the remaining books and, in each of them, Highway gives us an example of what such a type of auction might look like.
He also embarks on a picaresque journey, full of absurdity and oddity: he auctions off teeth reportedly belonging to everyone from Plato to Virginia Woolf, he’s held captive in an art gallery by a strange installation involving video of clowns, and he strikes up a friendship with a young writer in the hopes that this young man will write Highway’s “oral autobiography”. On the surface, it seems like a sort of oddly comic romp – and, to be sure, the novel is often quite amusing. Highway is certainly quick with a simple, funny line and the mounting absurdity of his auctioneering technique can’t help but draw a laugh.
But Luiselli isn’t interested in the surface. Each successive book upsets what we came to understand about the previous book – sometimes casually, in a minor way, and sometimes quite tremendously. The penultimate book, “The Elliptics”, sees a narrative shift that completely rewrites what’s come before in the way that makes you want to go back and flip through to see how things actually played out – or, perhaps more interestingly, to question if either of the descriptions are in fact true. Of course, this is the big question throughout the book: what is ‘truth’, exactly? Highway, in his auctioneering, often inflates the value of an object (often quite dramatically) – but that’s how he manages to pull in thousands of pesos for a single tooth that the rational mind has to know couldn’t possibly be one of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s teeth. Could it?
It’s that turn, that moment of doubt, that Luiselli explores and in so doing prods at our understanding of what makes storytelling into art. We’re being sold a story much as Highway sells his teeth and other objects and that’s what makes the revelations of the last two books so revelatory: we bought, hook line and sinker, what we were told in the early going and when it’s revealed to be just so much hyperbole and quixotic embellishment, we feel briefly cheated before realizing that we should’ve been prepared from the start.
Interestingly, Luiselli’s afterword reveals certain other tricks up her sleeve as well: this book was written in conjunction with workers at a juice factory in Mexico, using some of their stories and lives as well as being workshopped by their reading. And when names like Cesar Aira, Alvaro Enrigue, and even Valeria Luiselli show up in the text as examples of Allegoric auctioneering, we have to wonder if those stories are somehow theirs or if Luiselli is purposefully playing with the reader, dropping just enough potential metafictional business into the novel to make you wonder where the line actually lies, between truth and fiction.
Perhaps most interestingly is the fact that the seventh and final book is not by Luiselli but rather by her translator, Christina MacSweeney. This timeline of Highway’s life again radically alters our perception of what came before – and it does so with the added bonus of forcing the reader to confront their perception of the author/translator dichotomy. Luiselli had this in mind, it seems, based on what she writes in her afterword and I’m tremendously excited by her willingness to engage with the form of fiction in what is, for me, a genuinely new way. This book, so deceptively titled, is one of the most exciting and subtle experiments I’ve ever read – and it also manages to retain a deeply compelling story, too.
For behind all of the trickery and masterful higher thought lies the very real life of one Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez. And if Gustavo was not real to us, if we did not see him as a figure just as tragic and compelling as Don Quixote or Clarissa Dalloway, then the narrative derring-do would just be coldly academic as opposed to in service of storytelling. The revelations of each successive book/chapter affect us because we care about this quirky old man and even as we perhaps know that he can’t really be trusted, we’re willing to go with him anyway. It’s rare to see such humanity combined with such seemingly-effortless formal experimentation – and I have the sense that this is only an early taste of an exceptional author’s hopefully-very-long career.
Rating: 5 out of 5. This one hit me with such sweetness, such sheer joy (not happiness, but joy) in the storytelling. It’s telling, I think, that the blurbs inside are all from booksellers – because they’re readers first and foremost, not necessarily writer-peers or famous names. This is the sort of book that might not get shouted from the rooftops but is, instead, passed along purely by word of mouth and hand-to-hand exchanges. It’s a strange little book at times, but contains such depth in its short page count – depth of humanity, depth of formal experimentation – that you can’t help but find it impressive. It’s silly, it’s sad, and Luiselli pulls off the double-trick of showing us, literally in the book itself, how storytelling can be art… while also delivering a story that is, most certainly, art at its finest.