Paul Theroux: “Incident in the Oriente”

07/28/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, July 2011.

Here we are, following a private contractor’s employee from job to job, as he relates the anecdotal story about his boss, Max Moses. Theroux’s a good writer, but he seems to be channeling a little Ayn Rand here, from his metaphor about operating like a traveling circus (picking up and disposing of labor along the way, with a few specialists remaining on board) to his all-business personality. That is, he cleverly introduces Moses to us as a man with “terrifying vitality,” then dips back to suggest the man’s flaws (a “slight speech defect” that gives him a “babyish innocence”), only to turn these things around as underestimations, pieces that help Moses to catch people off-guard and to put them under his thrall: “His tenacity and godlike resourcefulness in getting people to obey him seemed to enlarge him.” Money is power, power is money, and Moses has both.

It’s a very short story — under three pages — and so Theroux can be forgiven for being so to-the-point, particularly since that’s fitting for his narrator and for making the larger points about the story. He’s notably stripped the pleasure from this piece, which makes the story coldly effective: disliking it, in a sense, means that you liked the message. Disapproving of the message, on the other hand, gives you the chance to wrestle with the story, struggling with Moses’s choices and the way in which he settles the work-interfering friendship between Tafel and Silsbee. But this is where the length and directness get in Theroux’s way: after our narrator discusses Moses’s situation with a co-worker, eliminating the most obvious of solutions and concluding that no matter what, “the problem wouldn’t go away,” Moses gives Tafel an order — to shoot Silsbee’s dog — and with that accomplished, the two are back to work. If it were that easy to get Tafel to murder his best friend’s pet, surely Moses could have found other ways to resolve the situation.

What does this story teach us, really? That we must define and carefully weigh out the value of our play (“talking, laughing, lollygagging”) with that of our work. The final image in the piece is that of our narrator consciously tuning out the joyful barking of a dog in the background, and smiling at Moses so as to convey how he, too, can focus: “I was not surprised when he didn’t smile back at me.” He has won something, money, perhaps, but he has also lost something, emotion, perhaps, and whether one appreciates this story or not depends on how active you prefer your morals to be. (The more demoralizing, the better?)

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