Upon the loss of the great writer E. L. Doctorow, the majority of obituaries examined his many literary masterpieces, from The Book of Daniel to his last novel, Andrew’s Brain. Considerably less was written about Doctorow’s decades as a gifted and generous teacher. At New York University’s graduate creative-writing program, I was fortunate to have a chance to study with him, taking his legendary course “The Craft of Fiction.” During this class, Doctorow urged us to read in earnest, explaining that deep readerly engagement was part of the writer’s job, and that the acts of reading and writing were of equal importance. As we discussed some of his favorite authors—from Heinrich von Kleist and Virginia Woolf to Jack Kerouac and Jayne Anne Phillips—he asked: “What can you steal from these writers?” Offering himself up as an example, Doctorow told us that his best-selling Ragtime was an appropriation of and homage to Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas, explaining how he had borrowed the work’s plot and transported several other of the story’s elements to fin de siècle New York City. He encouraged us to be ambitious, to move past our personal borders of experience, time, and place, and to explore the possibilities of literary ventriloquism—to reach far into other people’s lives to construct memorable stories.
This fall, it’s exciting to discover two young female authors, Ceridwen Dovey and Valeria Luiselli, doing just this with their inventive works of fiction, Only the Animals: Stories and The Story of My Teeth, respectively. Both writers demonstrate an impressive range via their protagonists’ distinctive voices: in Dovey’s case, those of ten different animal narrators and, in Luiselli’s, that of an aging auctioneer obsessed with the changing origin stories of his teeth. Previously published works by established and lesser-known writers also influence and, to some degree, shape both narratives. Dovey and Luiselli each take bold, creative risks and succeed in portraying the true nature of empathy in whimsical and melancholy ways.
Beyond their natural storytelling talents, the two writers share literary achievement and a cosmopolitan perspective: Both were named among the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” (Dovey in 2009, and Luiselli more recently, in 2014). Both have life experiences that extend across national boundaries. Dovey was born in South Africa and raised between there and Australia before studying at Harvard and New York University. She now lives in Sydney. Luiselli was born in Mexico City but grew up in many countries (including Costa Rica, South Korea, South Africa, and India, among others) and currently makes her home in Harlem, New York.
The stories of Only the Animals, Dovey’s thought-provoking collection, together span more than a century—from 1892 to 2006—and move through a series of significant human conflicts, from the frontier wars of Australia to the Israel–Hezbollah War. Each story is told from the perspective of a different animal that has died during the violence. The book follows her highly praised 2007 novel Blood Kin, a parable-like narrative told largely in the voices of three men employed by a dictator in an unspecified time and place. (It was published in fifteen languages.) Similar to her first book, Dovey’s short stories embrace an allegorical spirit. Given the animal chroniclers, the new work may sound like the literary offspring of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but the impressive collection is something else altogether. Story by story, Dovey pays homage to one author after another—from Colette to Franz Kafka—and, in some cases, seamlessly integrates the intonations and words of respected writers. (For the curious reader, the author provides a comprehensive list of her sources on her website.)
As was true for Doctorow and Ragtime, Dovey isn’t merely borrowing from her literary predecessors. The collection opens with “The Bones,” a story told by the soul of a camel on a Christmas night near the end of the 1800s, during the frontier wars. After picking up a poet named Henry Lawson on a journey through Australia’s desolate backcountry, the camel listens to Lawson’s drunken ramblings. As it happens, the real Henry Lawson is considered one of that country’s best short-story writers, and his iconic “The Bush Undertaker” is referenced more than once in “The Bones.” Quickly, Dovey slips the reader into the camel’s perspective: “The three of us were nodding off around the campfire, the queen’s yellow bones in a sack beside my owner, when I saw the goanna watching us again, the same one that had stalked us through the bush for days.” Though not the most successful story of the collection, in it Dovey effectively paints a moving portrait of the camel’s last breaths before being shot by his intoxicated owner, Mister Mitchell (also the name of a recurring character in Lawson’s fictions).
One of the most entertaining stories in the collection taps into the rhythmic spontaneity of Jack Kerouac and On the Road: “Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would Be Handed to Me” charts the life and death of a mussel (yes, a mussel!) during World War II. “I first met Muss right when I’d decided that everything was dead,” writes Dovey in the story’s opening sentence, “when I was sick of putting down the world with theories. Muss turned up overnight in our circle with a bit of the ecstatic in him, a joyous prophet, a conman curious about everything.” Later in the story, the narrator continues: “And then, in the morning, we found it. The battleship. A beautiful thing, vessel of adventure, her dark shape blocking out the sunlight in the water above us, and we all felt it, a tingling promise. It was what we’d been looking for, the gorgeous chance to be tested, to leave it all behind, to join the brotherhood of those prepared to risk it all at sea.” The intrepid mussel, along with his cohort, travels to the Pacific and eventually is killed during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In “Plautus: A Memoir of My Years on Earth and Last Days in Space,” an adventurous tortoise changes many hands—from Leo Tolstoy to Virginia Woolf (in a section humorously titled “A Terrarium of One’s Own”), George Orwell, and the Soviet space program, which launches him into space (his lifelong dream that doesn’t exactly end well). Another idiosyncratic story in the collection, “A Letter to Sylvia Plath,” is, in fact, a letter written to the famous author by a dolphin (with several mentions of Ted Hughes’s animal poems). “I don’t think you will mind, Ms Plath—you understood the cathartic uses of a good cleansing female rage,” says the dolphin. “But I must tell you how I lived, and how I died, in order to keep my place in this modern menagerie of animal souls.”
The collection’s concluding “Psittacophile” centers on an agitated parrot that begins to pluck out his feathers after witnessing the bombs falling on Beirut from his apartment window. (In an interview, Dovey said this story was inspired by one of her professors at New York University, whose parrot reacted similarly after the second tower fell on September 11.) The author writes from the parrot’s perspective: “She watched in despair as I self-mutilated, ripping out my own plumage, plucking myself bare. My feathers accumulated in layers on the floor of my cage.” Because of the bombings, the owner has no choice but to flee, on one of the last boats, to Cyprus. “She dragged her suitcase with one hand, clutched my cage with the other, and made her way slowly to the pet shop many blocks away. It was dark inside, locked up, display windows emptied…. What choice did she have but to hook my cage to the awning overhead and leave as quietly as she could, before I realised I was alone?”
The strength of these stories lies in Dovey’s ability to create distinctive first-person voices for the animals of her menagerie—voices that are at once human, playful, and sad. Given the depth of literary knowledge the author applies to these stories, a reader couldn’t unlock all of the allusions and homages without a semester full of reading, but this, I think, is exactly Dovey’s point—to press her readers to read widely and deeply. Taken altogether, the stories articulate many moments of empathy and humanity for the creatures and humans alike who persevere during times of terrible conflict.
Literary ventriloquism and the in-spirit presence of other writers are also at play in Valeria Luiselli’s innovative The Story of My Teeth, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. Following the author’s debut 2012 novel, Faces in the Crowd, and her essay collection, Sidewalks, from 2013, the new book represents something of an unusual collaboration. The work that became The Story of My Teeth was for an art exhibition sponsored by the Mexican juice company Jumex; as a result, Luiselli wrote the narrative in six installments, which were published as chapbooks and distributed to the workers employed by Jumex in a factory near Mexico City. These were read aloud by the workers, then discussed among them, and MP3 recordings of their conversations were sent back to Luiselli. The author noted the workers’ reactions and thoughts and allowed these to influence subsequent sections of what would later become the book. As a result, many of the workers’ stories and comments are integrated into the narrative.
The Story of My Teeth begins with a lively introduction of its charismatic protagonist: “I’m the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man. My name is Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, though people call me Highway, I believe with affection.” Highway exhibits other unusual talents, too: After a bit of liquor, he can impersonate Janis Joplin, he can translate the Chinese aphorisms neatly folded into the hollows of Chinese cookies, and he can position an egg upright on a table, just like Christopher Columbus. Similar to Dovey, Luiselli embodies the voice of her unconventional narrator with authenticity and confidence.
Early on, the reader learns Highway’s personal history: He was born in the Beautiful Windy City of Pachuca, “with four premature teeth and my body completely covered in a very fine coat of fuzz.” At a young age, Highway cultivates a passion for collecting: first, his father’s discarded fingernails, and then drinking straws. By twenty-one, he is working as a security guard at a juice factory and is soon promoted to the role of a Personnel Crisis Supervisor, acquiring the responsibility of comforting other employees when needed. After taking auctioneering courses and fathering a son from whom he becomes estranged, Highway leaves the juice factory and becomes a successful auctioneer.
As the title suggests, this narrative is primarily about Highway’s teeth and his quest to replace his rotting choppers. “I had a clear goal, a destiny: I was going to become an auctioneer in order to have my teeth fixed,” he says. At an “auction of contraband memorabilia in a karaoke bar in Little Havana,” Highway manages to purchase Marilyn Monroe’s impeccable enamel set. “My thin, ungainly body and my rather ungrounded life had acquired serious aplomb with the appearance of my new teeth,” writes Luiselli. “My luck was without equal, my life was a poem, and I was certain that one day, someone was going to write the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography. End of story.”
As the narrative progresses, the reader learns that this story is about much more than teeth. In the chapter “The Hyperbolics,” Highway auctions off his old teeth one by one, to raise funds for a church, by conjuring up stories about their fictional former owners: Plato, Saint Augustine, Virginia Woolf, and others. “Her acquaintances only ever saw her smile at her funeral,” Highway offers as he auctions Woolf’s fictional tooth. “It’s said that, lying dead in her half-open coffin in the center of the living room, her lips were spread in a smile that lit up her sharp, intelligent features. Who will offer 8,000 pesos for this tortured tooth? Anyone?”
By the auction’s end, caught in the fervor of calling, Highway decides to auction himself and Marilyn Monroe’s teeth, and his estranged son, Siddhartha, buys him for 1,000 pesos. What follows is a sad story of a broken-down man with little left to his name. The Story of My Teeth could be described as a narrative about a father-son relationship, but it also explores the value of narrative itself, and how particular stories assigned to objects can actually increase their worth—such as teeth, or the artwork on display at the Museo Jumex, the largest private Latin American collection, adjacent to the factory that inspired the novel.
Luiselli peppers her whimsical novel with references to many literary and philosophical giants via a colorful cast of uncles: Uncle Marcelo Sánchez-Proust, Sólon Sánchez Fuentes, Eurípides López Sánchez, and others. In the chapter “The Allegorics,” Highway’s recycled collectibles are assigned new stories and context: With these yarns, the author nods to many of the important Latino writers, including Argentine Alan Pauls and Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera. In a lot of rat and mouse costumes, the young Valeria Luiselli appears as “a mediocre high school student, stammer[ing] and overus[ing] the suffix –ly.”
Near the novel’s conclusion, a young aspiring writer, befriended by the protagonist, becomes the narrator, and tells a candid version of Highway’s depressing life story. “In his final performances, Highway, who was by no means lacking in ingenuity, learned to take advantage of the moments when his teeth slipped from his control to take them out altogether,” Luiselli writes. “He would hold them between his fingers, like the castanets they use for flamenco dancing and, depending on the occasion, make them speak or chant and tell fascinating stories of the lost objects that had once formed part of his collectibles.”
Chinese characters and fortune translations intersect the various sections of the novel, and the concluding chapters feature W. G. Sebald–like photographs depicting the factory and other locations mentioned in the text, as well as a chronology created by translator MacSweeney. In a slim novel, Luiselli packs in the points of view, forms, references, and visuals; at times it can feel a bit disorienting, like a literary mash-up. That said, The Story of My Teeth defies classification, and underscores the power of storytelling and the importance of reading.
In a recent interview with Literary Hub, Luiselli spoke about her new novel and the artistic sway of the Russian absurdist writer and poet Daniil Kharms, who died an early death while incarcerated in a psychiatric ward in Leningrad, in 1942. “The burlesque nature of the narrative, on the other hand,” she said, “perhaps comes from the fact that I was writing under the influence of Daniil Kharms as much as I was writing under the influence of the factory workers. Kharms, on one side, and the workers, on the other, have an utterly healthy disregard for literary heights.”
With the passing of great writers, another act of passing occurs—of ideas, aesthetics, inspiration. These two young authors certainly continue and expand the ongoing literary conversation on influence and inspiration. And, to varying degrees, they follow Doctorow’s dictum: With their new books, both women reach beyond the margins and give voice to characters and creatures from whom we don’t normally hear. The authors also celebrate the act of reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if, ten or twenty years down the road, young writers were asking themselves what can they steal from Dovey and Luiselli.