The take-off point for Stephane Michaka’s novel is the agonistic relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. I recoil from movies based on a “true story”. I just want to see a good movie. It means nothing to me if it’s based on yesterday’s headlines.
So while reading Scissors, I tried to forget that the character “Raymond” in the story was based on Raymond Carver. But I couldn’t do it…not entirely. Scissors is a dark mirror. In the background, it’s reflecting shadows of our “true” world, while in the foreground, in the keylight, is Michaka’s novel.
Embedded in Scissors are four short stories written by the fictional Raymond. These stories are wonderfully Raymond Carver-like but they were written by Michaka. I did have a moment of reader’s self-doubt when I wondered if I was making a total ass of myself and the stories really were by Raymond Carver. They’re like the Black Swan in Swan Lake. They seem to be the real thing but they’re sort of demonic doppelganger standing in for the real thing. Just like you feel lulled when you get careless reading Scissors, into thinking you’re reading about Raymond Carver. Then you pull yourself up short and remember you are reading about a fictional character, a writer named Raymond.
Douglas, who’s playing proxy in the novel for Gordon Lish, is Mephistopheles in the publishing house. He makes a Faustian bargain with Raymond. I’ll see that you’re published. I’ll get you a grant and a teaching post so your family won’t starve. And in return, you’ll let me speak with my editorial voice from inside your stories. The editor as a ventriloquist.
Douglas takes Raymond’s story ‘Petunias’, which you can have the sincere pleasure of reading in this book, cuts its 15 page length to 2 ½ pages, and renames it ‘Compost’. Douglas substitutes words, changes characters’ names and cuts out major incidents from Raymond’s stories. He’s a literary vampire, using his writer’s manuscript to vent his own frustrated creativity.
But Douglas’s radical rewrites might be making Raymond’s good stories into great ones. That’s what pulls you up short again. That Douglas might be improving Raymond’s stories with his revisions. Then you come across Douglas’s request to Raymond that he ratify the edits unseen. All Raymond gets back from Douglas is the revised manuscript minus the original text. Raymond has to do a page count to get a sense of how much Douglas may have altered.
Raymond is gratified to see that one small gem of a story has not been changed. When he mentions this to Douglas, the editor points out that he did change the very last sentence, reversing the word order. You stare at this change which seems to be of no significance. The editor has altered the sentence as a way of putting his fingerprint on the story.
The significant others in Raymond’s life also seem to want their fingerprints on his literature. His first wife, Marianne, wants to see her life with Raymond in the pages of his stories. And Joanne, his sympathetic lover, who credits herself with getting Raymond out of the death spiral of alcohol addiction, sees Douglas as her rival in the role of literary executor…as Michaka wonderfully puts it: literary executrix. Not being one, everyone wants to live off genius, like gods sipping stolen nectar.
How far Douglas is from my idea of an editor! Book bloggers are supposed to be excellent readers. But editors are the most distinguished of readers. They’re the readers with the authority to alter what they have read, like cardinals in the church of literature.
There’s no greater literary treat than talking to an editor about a book they have published. I’d rather talk to the editor than the writer. The writer isn’t going to tell you much about their work except to mystify you even more. I’d rather talk to the midwife of the story.
The pathos of Raymond, struggling with his working class resources and self-doubt. His editor using that struggle in an attempt to harness genius for his own ends. Raymond as the tragic Mozart of the short story, being supported and acclaimed only when it’s time for him to leave the stage.
Since we can’t understand genius, only stand up in its presence, let’s leave the last word to the editor. Douglas says he loves to observe writers on great occasions. He loves to observe their ties. If the tie is fastened perfectly, it means that someone has helped them with it.
Stephane Michaka in Scissors has edited Raymond Carver as a literary angel. There’s something Rilkean in what he has done, riffing the Raymond Carver legend into a brilliant, original novel of his own. Raymond Carver might have loved it. From Nan Talese over at Random House, available on August 13th.