Reading Like a Writer: Telling Slides to Showing and The Story of My Teeth
The Story of My Teeth, written by Valeria Luiselli and translated by Christina MacSweeney, chronicles the adventures of Highway, the world's greatest auctioneer. Or perhaps he's the world's greatest storyteller. As another character says, "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." The book is also a type of ongoing collaboration, circling big ideas about art and storytelling.
The following paragraph appears a few pages into the book.
I was born in Pachuca, the Beautiful Windy City, with four premature teeth and my body completely covered in a very fine coat of fuzz. But I’m grateful for that inauspicious start, because ugliness, as my other uncle, Eurípides López Sánchez, was given to saying, is character forming. When my father first saw me, he claimed his real son had been taken away by the new mother in the next room. He tried by various means— bureaucracy, blackmail, intimidation— to return me to the nurse who had handed me over. But Mom took me in her arms the moment she saw me: a tiny, brown, swollen blob fish. She had been trained to accept filth as her fate. Dad hadn’t.
This paragraph struck me on first read. It felt so odd. I didn't quite believe it—because how could Highway know these things?—yet I didn't doubt it either. I think the peculiar effect is related to the way it moves between telling and showing.
Because it's common in literature, an "I was born" statement is not very interesting. We don't read it as action but as biographical data. It's more like saying "I'm from Pachuca" than anything else. And so it's telling, rather than showing.
The "four premature teeth" and "body covered in a very fine coat of fuzz" are also biographical facts about the narrator. But because these details are concrete and sensory—especially that fuzz—we can see and feel them. The summary starts to feel a bit like a scene.
In the next sentence, "was given to saying" describes a thing that repeats over a long period. And so we glide into continuous time, a slippery place between telling and showing. It's technically telling, but it feels like showing because what it summarizes is a sequence of small scenes.
Finally, at the end of the paragraph, scene takes over. "When my father first saw me, he claimed his real son had been taken away by the new mother in the next room. He tried by various means— bureaucracy, blackmail, intimidation— to return me to the nurse who had handed me over." The word "first" is crucial because it indicates a single occurrence. There's also a bit of dialogue, even if it's indirect, and some specific actions of the father.
We also meet Highway's mother in scene. "But Mom took me in her arms the moment she saw me: a tiny, brown, swollen blob fish." The word "moment" emphasizes that this happens in a particular space and time. Details such as "tiny, brown, swollen blob fish" help us imagine ourselves into that place.
So an instance of telling has transitioned into one of showing. But why does this matter? Why couldn't Highway simply tell us the way his father and mother feel about him? Who even cares if it's a summary of biographical data or actual scene?
Here's what I think: When Highway tells of his birth in scene, he's implying a first-hand account, as if it's something he remembers. He's putting himself in the room just as he puts the reader there. This is remarkable because Highway can't possibly remember his own birth. He must have heard stories from other people and have worked those stories into his own autobiography. (See Highway's later conversation with Voragine for more fun with his ideas of autobiography.)
So we read the story of Highway's birth as an implied collaboration. That's important because Luiselli sees the whole project as collaboration. As explained in the afterward, she sent a serialized draft to a group of factory workers and incorporated their suggestions and stories into the novel. She also considers it an ongoing collaboration with translators. In this English version, the translator has added an entire section.
Luiselli not only introduces us to the idea of collaboration but does it Highway style. A simple fact expands to a wilder—and more auctionable—story. Highway repeats this pattern throughout the book.
It's hard to know how much of Highway's birth story is collaboration and how much is the "surpassing" of truth. But that ambiguity is perfect for this novel; it's the slippery space in which all of Highway's stories are situated.
When have you encountered stories that occupy that slippery space of "surpassing" truth? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss's stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.