To my mind, there are two major sets of literary teeth. Vronsky’s in Anna Karenina and Martin Amis’s in real life. Teeth fall into that category of things you don’t really think about until something happens to them and then that’s all you can think about. The suicide of a loved one, addiction, childbirth. As we bumble through life, those are the things that we think, “Oh, those things must be so intense!” But until it actually happens to you? The poignancy, I don’t care how blessedly empathetic you are, is never as intense as when you are experiencing it yourself. So with teeth.
I got into a bicycle accident when I was twenty-one. I was bombing across campus, running late for class, being an idiot, and had a head-on bike collision with a fellow student. The immediate damage was far greater for her. I think she had to have orthodontic work right away. I had 34 stitches in two places on my chin and looked pretty beat up in most of my graduation pictures. That was a rough few weeks altogether, but more on that dark time later.
After my stitches healed and I went to the dentist the following summer for my regular check-up, it turned out that there would be long-term damage to the root system of my teeth. The dentist recommended a watch-and-wait treatment. I obeyed. So, for 24 years I have watched and waited. One tooth in particular became progressively worse, but the dentist said it was always better to keep the real tooth as long as possible. A few years ago I had a root canal. I watched and waited.
The watching and waiting came to a screeching halt Wednesday afternoon when my mother (as mothers are wont to do) took one look at me and said, “What is the matter with your tooth? You need to get to a dentist right now!” Okay! Okay! I called the dentist that afternoon. She thought she might be able to squeeze me into a cancelled appointment. But she never called back. By 5:30 that afternoon, I realized all the other dentists had closed for the night and I would be facing a long night of minor paranoia culminating in Internet searches on grotesque stories of ignored-orthodontia-related deaths. Always good to have Twitter friends in Australia, so that someone is awake for those 2 a.m. moments of I’m-going-to-die-from-an-infected-tooth.
Luckily (by that point I was seconds from death in my mind) I lived until morning and was able to get into a new dentist at 9 a.m. He took one look at the x-ray and said, “This is serious.”
Life is really so predictable in its unpredictability, isn’t it? In the one or two (three, now) “serious” moments of my life, it has always been this way. Lots of seemingly endless time to ruminate, cogitate, whatever-itate, and then BAM! Immediate crisis situation. I guess that’s why I am a fairly optimistic person. Because in my experience, the BAM is totally unforeseeable. Sure, you know it’s coming, but never exactly when. I knew I was going to have to deal with this tooth at some point (or my father’s death, or a pregnancy gone wrong), but I could never prepare for the precision of the exact moment it actually happened.
After the dentist told me what was going on and what I needed to do to fix it, it was a total relief. I realized it had been hanging over me for years—what if it had gotten infected at RWA? What if I had died in Anaheim in July? That probably would have been really good for book sales…I would have become like the John Kennedy Toole of women’s fiction. But I digress.
So here I sit. Happy. Looking up the inventors of the dental implants, the inventors of antibiotics, the inventors of the x-ray, the inventors of codeine, the inventors of the Nespresso maker. Because I am in that giddy state of post-life-threatening joy. I want to thank everyone who ever did anything to save my life yesterday. I know, I know. It wasn’t deadly in the modern sense of the word. But my husband and I have a feeling about those events we would not have survived, say 50, 100, or 200 years ago. I definitely would have died when my appendix burst in 1992, if that had happened in 1892. I definitely would have died when I was diagnosed with gestational trophoblastic disease in 2004, if that had happened in 1954. And I don’t know about the tooth, in terms of medical history, but while I was woozy and out of it I remember the good doctor saying something about implant research beginning in the 1940s and coming into regular use in the 1980s. Whatever the specifics, I am grateful.
Oh, I forgot about my thesis statement and Tolstoy and Amis, didn’t I? There’s already plenty of academic stuff out there about Vronsky and his teeth, and other teeth in literature. Here is one great article in PMLA entitled The Telltale Teeth: Psychodontia to Sociodontia by Theodore Ziolkowski in PMLA, Vol. 91, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 9-22:
Further discussion of Ziolkowski’s article followed in the Forum section of PMLA in May 1976. Here:
Or this one: The Perfect Teeth: Dental Aesthetics and Morals by Ronald Paulson in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 34, No. S2 (Winter 2008), pp. S130-S145:
For the Amis take on teeth, read his memoir, Experience:
Not just for the chapter on teeth, the Amis memoir is one of my favorite all-time reads. The idea that he may have had done to him with many teeth what I had done with only one—and that he was met with scorn and derision for his putative vanity—makes me love him all the more.