Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Paul Theroux’s “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” was originally published in the October 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
“I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife,” by Paul Theroux, is terrific. It’s a horror story, with an echo of Poe, and it’s a story about story-telling. It’s about betrayal, and betrayal’s concomitant rage, and it’s about the alienation and distortion that result from rage. And it’s about grief. I read it with a mixture of fascination and dread, and I enjoyed it all, but there’s more: it struck me deep. It’s masterful and deft: it feels true; it takes a moral stance; it makes a seamless read, but it is deeply puzzling; and in that puzzle lies its moral depth.
In his Page-Turner interview with Deborah Treisman, Theroux says this:
The impulse to write comes, I think, from a desire — perhaps a need — to give imaginative life to experience, to share it with the reader, not to cover up the truth but to deliver it obliquely. “Above all to make you see,” as Conrad said.
I like it that the evil character is Murray Cutler, that the avenging angel is Jay Justus, and that the story is not as simple as all that. I love the tone: Theroux’s narrator is by turns detached, funny, sardonic, wry, sympathetic, thoughtful, and restrained, all while executing a unique revenge.
Justus is a writer, but the entire story consists of him telling stories.
The frame is that he is in Medford because his father has died, but in between the picking out of the casket, attending the funeral and helping his mother write thank you notes, he makes up a series of stories. There are several he makes up to relieve his mother’s grief, and they make her laugh, and they made me laugh.
But these are a diversion from the story’s real push: the stories Justus makes up to take revenge on a dying former English teacher. Justus sneaks into the hospice, and he tells the man a series of stories intended to slowly awake the man to a sense of his own evil — that he preyed upon his student.
Through the blur of selfishness and pain, the old teacher slowly understands who it is that has come to visit him. (He has forgotten Justus.) As Justus spins out his stories, however, the old man views his visitor with increasing dread, and the reader feels increasing satisfaction at where this is all headed.
Each story Justus tells is another turn of the screw. Theroux himself says in his interview that he hopes the reader will sense the violation in every story.
The revenge on an abusive teacher is a great story all by itself, slowly spun out, with just a little more revealed at each turn. It is a great story because Justus makes it clear it was a story he was never supposed to tell, not to anyone, and especially, not to his father. When Jay sobs at the end, I feel the sob in my own throat, and I feel the heightened emotion viscerally. Cutler has stolen Jay’s innocence, but he has also stolen him from his father and his mother. Cutler has also taught him how to rape, left him volcanically angry, and it is possible Cutler has thus stolen him from any possible spouse he might have ever had.
The way in which Theroux weaves the story of an aid worker in Africa into the mix raises the level of discussion. There is an echo of the rape of Africa Conrad details in The Heart of Darkness, except that this time it is in terms of benevolence, education, and the temptation to grandiosity, as well as probable rape. (Theroux actually mentions Conrad in his Page Turner piece.) Similarly, the story is provocative companion to Robert Coover’s “The General’s Daughter.” The story is also in Nabokov territory: there is an echo of Humbert in both Cutler and Justus, and also an echo of the sorrow of Lolita. And then, there is the echo of Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Hamlet has already said, “For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak.”
The man who has drifted into teaching in Africa had a favorite saying: “Mimi nyama, wewe kisu.” Translated as “I’m the meat, you’re the knife,” the saying is idiomatic for I am at your mercy.
The story is paradoxical: Justus insists upon visiting the old teacher and telling the truth in his oblique stories, a truth which the old man dreads and which we may assume kills him. After his last visit, Justus tells his mother a story about a writer “forgiving” a man who had hurt him. It is as if telling the truth is a necessary partner to forgiveness, except that Justus appears to be more relieved than forgiving at the end, but more alive. It is only after he has confronted the abuser that he sobs, but what grief he feels is global to the situation — perhaps grief for what he has become, perhaps grief for what he has not become, perhaps grief for the innocence he lost, perhaps the grief for having to speak in code all these years, perhaps grief for how the old man had stolen him, perhaps grief for the loss, particularly, of his father. Or grief for all of it.
There is, in addition, a question in this story about the nature of mercy and the nature of forgiveness. There is also the problem of evil in a nice suit. Justus is an anti-hero, or perhaps even a villain himself. There is very little about him that appears to be conventionally good, except that he knows evil when he sees it, and the retribution/forgiveness he exacts coincides with his howling sorrow at the end. The story glances at religion, glances at teaching, glances at pedophilia, glances at Africa, glances at the abuse that power invites. It also glances at Justus as a man of ice — until he has exacted his retribution.
The layers of sorrow that frame this story make it rich and make it great. “The Furies,” published in The New Yorker earlier this year was entertaining and clever: it was food for the wit. “I’m the Meat and You’re the Knife” is on a different level. It offers a bitter contemplation for the soul, and it speaks uniquely to the sorrows of the times.
Theroux is coming out with a book of short stories entitled Mr. Bones next year. But I also notice almost twenty pieces published in the past twenty years in The New Yorker. I want to take a look at them, too.