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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "I'm the Meat You're the Knife" by Paul Theroux

Due to the fact that I'm way behind on my New Yorker fiction reviwing, this week I'm doing a special "Review-a-Day" series until I get caught up. Today's review comes from...

Issue: Oct. 7, 2013

Story: "I'm the Meat You're the Knife"

Author: Paul Theroux

Plot: A middle-aged writer, Jay Justus, comes back to his home town for his father's funeral,only to find his high school English teacher, Murray Cutler, is also terminally ill and days from death. Jay goes to visit the dying Cutler and we begin to see that there lies more beneath this relationship than meets the eye. It is apparent, though never explicitly stated, that Cutler used his position of authority to have an inappropriate relationship with Jay. Now a grown man, Jay visits the dying Cutler and tells him a series of suggestive stories until the dying man realizes who Jay is. Jay realizes he became a writer in order to escape the pain of having been taken advantage of by Cutler.

Review: I'm a big fan of Paul Theroux's short fiction. Why? Because his prose is simple and concise -- he lets the ideas and the plot carry the weight, not the "prettiness" of his writing. And his stories almost always have a dark twist, sexual under (or over) tones, and a satisfying emotional payoff or "button." Theroux's stories are very "filmic," if you will; structurally and image-wise you can always very easily imagine them taking place on the big screen.

This particular story carries with it a bit of "meta" significance, since the main character is a writer. Theroux does not always write about writers, but his characters are often artists. However, Theroux does not merely cast his main character as a writer out of laziness. No, in this story, Jay's profession is intimately connected to the plot.

Jay became a writer so that he could "write" himself out of the humiliating and painful situation of having been the target of his teacher's inappropriate advances. Jay became a writer so that he could experience the power he felt robbed-of as the victim of sexual abuse. Later, he uses this same story telling power to torment the dying Cutler as a way to pay him back.

On one face of it, this is a short, simple, straightforward story about a man exacting a cold and barely-comforting revenge in the only way he knows how, using the only weapon he has. On another face, this is a sort of homage to the power of "story" in our lives and the ways we use it. It is also a statement on storytellers and why certain people become storytellers: to claim and exercise a sort of power using the skills they have available to them. Another, different kind of man might have become a bully. Another might have absorbed himself in destroying companies. Who knows.

Not all writers are victims of sexual abuse, but we are all in love with Story and its power over our lives and the lives of others. Though we may come to writing for different reasons, we are united by that overpowering affinity.


sloopie72 said…
So glad you're writing a review a day - it's always nice to see one in my feed ;)


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