It is always refreshing to read a short story that is worth effusing about.
Today at the Library, I picked up last week’s edition of The New Yorker ( I know I am late) and began flipping through. Now, I have so much respect for this journal, but I often find its fiction a bit boring, lacking in suspense, and a tad too drawn out. However, Paul Theroux’s piece changed all of that for me.
With a name such as “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife,” we have to give ten points to him for such an attention grabbing title. Theroux introduces this story with an encounter between two former schoolmates. One is in town for a funeral and the other is trying really hard to make small talk. Along the story their small talk is revealed as the main plot of the story while the funeral, which one may initially assume to be the thrust of the piece becomes a sub-plot.
This may sound confusing, but that is all the spoilers I will be giving. The suspense maintained throughout this story cuts through sharper than a two-edged knife and the number of pages left before the end becomes inconsequential. The story has at least 10 stories in one, but Theroux never loses focus on the main plot.
There is even some mockery of the English Language as the writer introduces a couple of words that are taught but never used, one of which is “transpicuous” (to show you how unused it is, WordPress has it marked as a Spell-check error). Adding greater flavor to this piece is the use of well-chosen words that resonate long after they have been read. Some examples are “Sometimes, bad news takes the form of a greeting” and “Family tangles, bereavement, and failure send us home, seldom happiness.”
What I especially love about this story is the amount of room it creates in the reader’s imagination. Theroux refuses to provide an ending that ties all the loose knots together as he leaves unanswered, the recurring question, What really happened? One is left to assume an answer and I doubt if the writer has one too.
There is also the element of humor that is not forced. The mini-stories (as I would like to call them) have dialogue that will make you burst out in laughter, taking you a moment to recover. Then, there is confusion that produces furrowed eyebrows and you are spurred on to read faster to get to the end. When the end comes, you realize that this is a story to be re-read and you do so immediately to see if you missed a beat along the way. You didn’t. The story is complete.
As I got deeper into the plot, I thought to myself: I want to write with similar honesty, fluidity, and suspense. I can’t believe that this is my first Theroux read for he has been writing since the 1960s. His language prowess is displayed here as he furnishes the answer to my unasked question of how to include a foreign language into a piece without derailing the reader. This was effortlessly tackled by Theroux and I was surprised to discover that even the story’s title is a translation from another language.
My ears will definitely be kept close to the ground for the upcoming collection, “Mr. Bones” that features this story among others. Paul Theroux deserves a thundering applause for not only captivating his audience with this genius piece but providing a mini workshop for writers in the short story genre.
You can read the opening to “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” at http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2013/10/07/131007fi_fiction_theroux
Also, his Q & A with The New Yorker’s Fiction Editor, Deborah Treisman at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/09/this-week-in-fiction-paul-theroux-im-the-meat-youre-the-knife.html