I recently read TEETH by Hannah Moskowitz. By recently, I mean, I finished it today and I am in awe. It’s easily the best book I’ve read in several months and it is by far the best book I’ve read this year. It’s incredibly well done. It’s deserving of all the starred reviews it is getting and I hope it makes some of the Best of 2013 year end lists that will happen.
DISCLAIMER: Hannah and I are friends “in real life”.
APOLOGY: There’s more I could say and I don’t write reviews very…coherently? Also, the photos are all mine, with my phone, in crappy bookstore lighting and then Instagrammed 😉
At night the ocean is so loud and so close that I lie awake, sure it’s going to beat against the house’s supports until we all crumble onto the rocks and break into pieces. Our house is creaky, gray, weather stained. It’s probably held a dozen desperate families who found their cure and left before we’d even heard about this island.
We are a groan away from a water death, and we’ll all drown without even waking up, because we’re so used to sleeping through unrelenting noise. (1)
And so opens TEETH, the stunning new twisted magical novel by Hannah Moskowitz. From the start, TEETH sets us up for a book where water isn’t just a metaphor but it’s a life taker as much as it is a life giver. Like the prevailing water metaphors in John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, the water in TEETH is attached to illness. We find out that the narrator, Rudy, has a younger brother who suffers from cystic fibrosis (or, in narration classic to a Moskowitz character, “my little brother, who has cystic fibrosis and this fucked-up chest and can’t scream at all”). But there’s more here than the typical water metaphors, even ones attached to illness.
The rest behind a cut for length and for spoilers!
This opening page reminded me distinctly of the Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by Tennyson:
…I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
The same sad, nostalgic romanticism and lyricism opens up this novel and the same overbearing sense of dread. Rudy is detached from almost everything around them, pulled from everything he knew and understood, dismembered from his family who revolves around his ailing younger brother, and isolated, literally and metaphorically, on an island rumored to have magical healing fish for children with illnesses. Like the narrator of Tennyson’s poem, Rudy does not believe that his existence on the island is meaningful (I do not think that they will sing to me) or important. He exists on the periphery. And as the poem ends, so begins this novel with a pervasive sense of mounting dread and hopelessness that becomes washed away only as Rudy’s life becomes simultaneously more muddled and more vibrant. It’s the dichotomy that as hope grows for Rudy’s brother Dylan who suffers from cystic fibrosis, Rudy feels a decreasing amount of hope for his own life.
This is certainly not the first time Moskowitz has written a book about a sibling who exists in the shadow of his sibling’s overwhelming needs (BREAK (2009), INVINCIBLE SUMMER (2010), and, arguably, ZOMBIE TAG (2011) because when your brother is the undead, you definitely exist in the shadow of that). It isn’t necessarily that this common thread from her is boring or repetitious, or even predictable. Her narrators all feel very different but Rudy certainly embodies a few of the common characteristics: he loves his brother (“Because fuck, it’s Dylan,” is repeated several times throughout the book), he struggles to balance his own needs to be someone with a unique identity (“I feel more camaraderie with her, when I catch her eye at the market-place, than I do with anyone else here, my family included. I can tell she’s here because she’s obligated,” pg 7), he does not understand his relationship with his brother at all (“It’s hitting me that I have no idea what the hell I am to this kid,” page 188), and he struggles with his parents’ decreased relationship with him because his sick brother sucks up all of their energy (“Though I have to admit that something in there plucked me in a way I wish it hadn’t. Because it sounds stupid to say that I’m my parents’ second favorite. I’m too old, anyway, to give a shit whether or not Mommy and Daddy love me best. Give me a break. It’s stupid,” pg 114).
This commonality between Rudy and Moskowitz’s other overshadowed narrators is not without its truths. Almost every teenager feels lost and insecure in the world, and family should be a reliable grounding mechanism (for better or for worse). So when your family is wildly unstable (“I wish the house would finally crumble into the sea, just to make noise, just because it’s going to happen someday anyway, just to be something else to think about. I wish we would all just fall apart so I wouldn’t have to listen to the downfall happen, so slowly, so painfully. Clawing at us,” pg 142), a teenage boy in particular may reach out in ways that are unconventional.
Rudy felt particularly real when comparing his life before coming to the island when he was a self labeled slut (pg 17). Now, without the internet, his friends, and a string of girlfriends, Rudy is despondent. He is, and pardon the pun here, a fish out of water. He’s hopeless because the things that grounded him in the absence of a stable family were torn away from him. The ocean is a particularly apt metaphor here, regardless of authorial intent, because Rudy is a fish out of water, lost a sea, a sailboat without wind. He has no direction and no tide other than his brother. His love for his brother rings true, but the same way that fishermen come to appreciate the tides: they are the constant.
And the metaphors in TEETH do not stop there. Everything in Rudy’s world is colorless and gray—with the exception of his brother’s toys—until Teeth comes into the picture with his silver fins and scales and his emerald eyes quite literally lighting up Rudy’s world. Water comes and goes, as does breath and air, and both are closely tied to Rudy’s state of mind and emotions and the physicality of Teeth. The story also hinges on Teeth and Rudy’s mutual desperation for touch. Rudy’s so desperate for something physical to ground him that he’s making out with a girl he doesn’t care about and he can’t bring himself to care about the fact that he can acknowledge he’s only using her. Teeth is so desperate for touch that he allows himself to be caught nightly by fishermen and tortured.
His voice is quiet. “It’s not like I can have my own babies, you know? It’s not like there are girls like me. Or anyones like me. And I don’t even have the proper equipment. You know that. The fisherman sure as fuck do.”
Now I look at him again. “The fisherman just rip at you.”
And fuck, he lets them because he’s dying to be touched. I know that because I know that feeling.
So I put my hand on his arm, of course I do, before I even register that he might not want that this second, but he fucking leans into it, then shakes his head a little.
He says, “The fishermen just rip at me, but we’re not talking about that right now.” He holds up the fish in his hand as much as he can while still keeping it in the water. “You see him, this little thing, this trusting little thing? These guys are sort of…all I have.”
This would probably be a good time to say, You have a sister and I made out with her. But I can’t tear myself away from that fish in his hands, its empty animal stare. It sees just as well as I do, but I don’t want to think about that. But I am.
But then Teeth is looking at me with these swamp green eyes and going, “So it’s time to stop eating my siblings, okay? Please. I’m saying please.” He swallows. “Magic word and all that.” (pg 94).
The story revolves the Enki fish, magical fish that live only around this particular island, and who are related to Teeth, a fishboy who is half human and half fish after a fish rapes his mother. It is not the first accusation of sexual assault in the story. The Enki fish are miracle fish who can cure illness or keep it at bay so a person can live a normal life as long as he keeps eating the fish. Teeth sees himself as the guardian of the fish who are his brethren, and therein lies our conflict. Rudy befriends Teeth (and eventually, falls in love with him) and Teeth asks him to realize that when Rudy buys fish and perpetuates the cycle of fishing, he is killing Teeth’s siblings, Teeth’s family. Given that Teeth’s family keeps Rudy’s family alive (and subsequently together, because the death of Rudy’s brother would tear his family apart. Later in the story, even the threat of losing Dylan, puts his family on the brink of self destruction), it is an impossible request.
That’s what TEETH is about: the impossibility of reality.
Because fiction likes to make things simple and real for us. Fiction likes to tell us that our world is manageable and that we have within us the strength to persevere, and that things don’t need to radically change to be okay.
Except that’s not true.
To make the impossible possible, sometimes people have to break. Sometimes terrible horrible things happen. Sometimes you have to let go of something that is true and beautiful and real in order to allow something equally true, beautiful, and real to survive.
On TEETH’s cover it says “Miracles come at a price.” And in fairytales, we see Rumpelstiltskin’s price of the first born child and we see pumpkins at midnight and we see dancing shoes. And there are happily ever afters, even in the original non-Disneyfied versions. Cinderella gets the prince and her stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by ravens.
TEETH is not about happy endings. It’s about true endings. It’s about realism and things that hurt to carry and it’s about carrying on because “the hardest thing and the right thing are the same” (as the Fray say in ‘All at Once’). Rudy notes that “this isn’t a fairy tale, and he doesn’t appear. We stand here for a long time. He really left. Because it was all that we could do. And I don’t know if it was the right answer. But I can picture him sailing away, lonely and scared and safe. And even though this isn’t the ending I want, I feel like singing when I take Diana’s hand and we stare out at the empty ocean (pg 242).” And a few pages later, he says, “It’s fine. It’s whatever it needs to be (244).”
TEETH will resonate with people whose lives aren’t fairytales where neat and tidy endings where the boy always gets the boy/girl, where the outcasts find acceptance in their society, where lost families mend and everyone hugs each other and sings kumbaya.
That should be every one of us.
Teeth is a selfish, stubborn, emotionally stunted boy. He’s the Peter Pan of the ocean. He hasn’t grown up because no one’s asked him to grow up. He hasn’t grown up because no one asked him to make tough decisions and do terrible things that are a part of growing up. No one until Rudy. For Rudy, Teeth kills his siblings. He kills his siblings for Rudy’s brother but no one’s fooled: it’s for Rudy. When Rudy becomes hypothermic, Teeth kills one of his magical siblings and feeds it to Rudy by hand until Rudy recovers. Teeth leaves Rudy not just because Rudy gave him permission, but because Rudy needs him to leave. Rudy needs him to leave on two levels: to give Rudy himself permission to leave his brother when the time is right, and because it would gut (pun unintentional) Rudy to see Teeth killed. Teeth leaves because he is loved. He grows up. He is scared and he is alone and he leaves the best thing that ever happened to him. That’s growing up, isn’t it? Leaving everything we know for something that might be better or might be worse and we have to trust and hold that all will end well?
And Rudy comes into the story as a resentful, pained, shadow character who doesn’t believe in his place in his family and doesn’t question the morality of his world. The book closes with Rudy having confidence in himself, not necessarily a lack of fear but a newfound ability to trust in the unknown, and significantly less isolated in his life. The painful isolation that led him to be desperate for touch (truly, unbelievable, painfully, desperate for touch) did not exist any longer and he’s no longer using people around him as excuses to be touched. He doesn’t use Diana. He doesn’t use Dylan. He doesn’t use his new team mates at the end.
And Rudy is still fragile. He says at the end, “And something small and insignificant inside of me shatters, just like every night, and feelings hit too hard for me to stand. I bend at the waist and cling to the windowsill. I won’t scream. I won’t throw myself against the walls…” (245)
And despite being fragile, he carries on. He says a few lines later, “I’m thinking about sailing, to England or maybe France. The way the wind would feel on my face and the sound of his voice screaming my name through his laughter. The waves would crash like applause. God, I remember when I used to be afraid of the ocean.” (246).
Living is about carrying on. Living is about believing that we will always find the people we were meant to find in this world. Living is about realizing that we will always be faced with impossible choices and impossible moral quandries where the life of someone we love could be pitted against the life of someone else who was also loved in the world and how do you decide who is more worthy of living, of love, in this world? There is no right answer. There are so many wrong ones. There are many hard ones.
Teeth is a book about choices, about love, about touch, about belonging, and about hope. It’s a book whose central conflict is spurned by a boy who cannot breathe and it’ll take your breath away. And you’ll be left hanging, a little bit, and desperately hoping that there are happy endings, but knowing that it can still be okay if there aren’t always tidy happy endings.
At the beginning of this review (which I began before I finished reading the story, so pardon me if this reads in a disjointed fashion), I said that TEETH reminded me of The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock. That remained true. It was an inverted Prufrock. The story begins on the last stanza of the poem, the desolation of human voices and the screams of a tortured Teeth and the frustration growing in Rudy’s misunderstandings of his life.
As his friendship grows with Teeth, Rudy moves into a middle stanza.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
And when they face Rudy’s decision,
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
So I hope, in this inverted despondent love song, that in that world that lives beyond the story on the page, Rudy and Teeth are wandering down “certain half-deserted streets”, or at least swimming in half-deserted waters, somewhere off the coast of France.