Monday, September 14, 2015

Valeria Luiselli's Delightful Post-Modernism

Post-modernism is in a weird place. It's been declared dead for a decade or more, and yet there is still plenty of interesting work being done in the ground it broke. Actually, that part's not weird. I'd argue there are still plenty of Romantics writing today, plenty of Victorians, even more Modernists, and more Medievalists than I feel comfortable considering. As handy as it is for structuring syllabi, survey courses, and textbooks, literary and artistic movements aren't strictly delineated. But even given that standard-issue, chaos-of-existence inherent weirdness, Post-Modernism is still in a weird space. (Postmodernism? You guys have a hyphenation preference?) We all kind of accept that something new needs to replace it, and yet I don't think there's evidence that any particular philosophy or aesthetic has congealed into an identifiable replacement. Add in the fact that the very nature of post-modernism tore down the structures that are usually used to build, identify, and study literary movements, and you get to a very weird place.

But even though post-modernism is a weird place, or perhaps because it's in such a weird place, a lot of good writing is still coming out of it. Cesar Aira, Mark Z. Danielewski, Kate Zambrano, Blake Butler, and Karen Tei Yamashita (have I written that post about why I Hotel should be considered one of the great giant-post-modern novels along with Infinite Jest, Underworld, Gravity's Rainbow, The Recognitions, Deflategate, and Kim Davis walking out of jail to “Eye of the Tiger?” I'll add it to the list) all spring to mind. And, of course, a few of post-modernism's avatars like Thomas Pynchon and Lydia Davis are still kicking it. Furthermore, not every reader has caught up to post-modernism yet (Shit, not every reader has caught up to modernism yet) and not all the problems in our culture that post-modernism (see above) addresses have been solved, so it's only natural, if weirdly so, for writers and readers to continue the post-modern project even as we concurrently tear it to bits in order to replace it.

In her first two novels, Valeria Luiselli is continuing that post-modern project. Her debut, Faces in the Crowd, featured the author as character, a shifting perspective, problems of authenticity, fraud, and consideration of the nature of art, identity and narrative. Her new book, The Story of My Teeth, is, in many ways, even more archetypally post-modern as it is a collaborative work that complicates the idea of authorship (Luiselli collaborated on it with the workers in a juice factory), structured around a made-up system of categorization, that examines consumerism, appropriation, the cult of celebrity, and the meaning of objects, while referencing art, literature, and history. One of the sections is even a chronology of events assembled by the book's translator. At one point, the main character auctions off himself, to help support a church he doesn't particularly believe in, to his own estranged son. You could almost hear Pynchon kicking himself for not coming up with something like that.

But even if she is continuing the post-modern project, Luiselli's work is different. Her work is not paranoid, corrosively ironic, or toxicly nihilistic. Though post-modernism's decades-long sneer at convention was, in my opinion, productive, vital, and often satisfying and entertaining, it has run it's course. Luiselli doesn't sneer. She grins. In Luisellis' work all the anger, the frustration, and the powerlessness that defined earlier post-modernism, are replaced by delight.

Though present in Faces in the Crowd, especially in the voice of the narrator's child, The Story of My Teeth might be the most delightful book I've read in ages. The delight starts with Highway and the opening sentences; “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 Sanchez Sanchez, though people call me Highway, I believe, with affection.” From there Highway tells us the story of his rise and fall, his marriage and divorce, his estrangement and reconciliation with his son (which naturally involved Highway being locked in a really creepy clown-based multimedia art piece that actually exists), his acquisition of the teeth of celebrities and his auctioning of the teeth of celebrities, and, of course, the philosophy of auctioneering he received from the “grandmaster auctioneer and country singer, Leroy Van Dyke.” Through all his ups and downs, all his triumphs and failures, Highway maintains that same “I am a discreet sort of man,” voice. Despite or because of the weirdness or even silliness of the story, the book is a joy to read and that joy remains no matter how critically you might delve into the book's headier ideas.

The best concerts are those where the musicians seem to be having as much fun as the audience. To me, there is something infectious and exhilarating in watching someone in love with what they are doing. Somehow, Luiselli makes it seem as though the person most delighted by Highway, his antics, his philosophy, his auctions, his bravado, the contorted references to other literature, with the images in the back of the book including a Google Maps image of Disneylandia, the use of art, the intrepid potential biographer, and the play of cultural attribution, narrative, and language, is Luiselli herself. All writers love to write. It wouldn't be worth it if we didn't. Very few writers, however, find a way to demonstrate that love at all and even fewer do it so overtly, so joyously, and so, well, delightfully, as Valeria Luiselli does in The Story of My Teeth.

Post-modernism has spent a lot of time and energy tearing down. I like to think of it as an un-fettering process, in which the ideologies most easily leveraged by systems of power to control the creation and interpretation of art were torn away, leaving the artist totally free to approach the content and method of her art. Since we have deconstructed, now we get to reconstruct. I don't know what we're going to build in the open space created by post-modernism but I think we should all be grateful, that Valeria Luiselli, at least, is going to build a playground.