Do I like this book? I have no idea. I don’t even know if I admire it much. So I’ll write this post to figure it out.
Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, known to most as Highway, is an auctioneer in Ecatepec, Mexico. But more than that, he is a fabulist. He tells big stories, and the question is to what degree this novel by Valeria Luiselli and translated by Christina MacSweeney is just another of his big stories. Of Highway, Luiselli writes,
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. Highway was one of those vast, eternal spirits. His presence was at times menacing—not because he was a real threat to anyone, but because, in comparison with his ferocious freedom, all the parameters we normally use to measure our actions seem trivial. Highway had more life in him than the usual man.
Highway narrates most of the book himself, with each chapter meant to demonstrate a different type of story: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics. Perhaps I’m dense, but most of these just seemed like regular stories, each one drawn from a different part of Highway’s life. The final two chapters are narrated by Luiselli herself, who shares what ultimately happened to highway, and then by MacSweeney, who puts Highway’s story in a larger context.
The whole thing is a fiction, of course, but Luiselli says in the Afterword that she did get draw some of the incidents in the book from the stories told to her by workers at the Junex juice factory that she wrote the book for and who served as sort of beta readers for the initial draft, which she shared a chapter at a time. This is all very interesting, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good book.
It also doesn’t make for a bad book. This is not a bad book at all. But I didn’t really find much value in the emphasis on the different story types. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes strikes me as trying too hard. Just tell your story!
So how is the story? It’s fine, sometimes very funny, especially when Highway makes up stories about the supposed owners of the teeth (his own!) that he auctions off. His entirely made-up takes on the likes of Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf are goofy fun. And there’s an enjoyable loopy nightmarish sequence involving being locked in a room with talking clowns on every wall.
But the thing that kept me from really loving this book was that I just didn’t care about Highway the man very much. I tend to get impatient with narrators who like to show how clever they are. It’s the same type of narration that kept me from loving fellow Tournament of Books competitor The Sympathizer. No matter how skillfully the author undercuts the narration, unless I’m in precisely the right mood, I’m inclined to just want the narrator to get over himself. (It’s always a him with these books—or maybe I’m only annoyed when it’s a him.) Look back at Luiselli’s description of him, a vast, eternal and sometimes menacing spirit whose stories “surpass the truth.” Does that guy appeal to you?