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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Stéphane Michaka

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To purchase Scissors

Title: Scissors
Author: Stéphane Michaka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 202 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Scissors - US
Scissors - UK
Scissors - Canada
Ciseaux - Canada
Scissors - India
Ciseaux - France
  • French title: Ciseaux
  • Translated by John Cullen

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Our Assessment:

B : never quite far (or close) enough from/to the source material

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 3/12/2012 Bruno Corty
Publishers Weekly . 17/6/2013 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Que l'on ignore tout de Carver et même de ses livres importe peu. Le talent de Stéphane Michaka suffit à river le lecteur à ses mots, à cette attention qu'il porte à chaque personnage. Et à donner du souffle à ce trio qui tourne autour de la figure centrale de l'écrivain, de l'homme sans certitude dont l'œuvre, bien que charcutée, passera à la postérité et sera mondialement connue le jour où un certain Robert Altman l'adaptera sous le titre de Short Cuts." - Bruno Corty, Le Figaro

  • "(T)his novel from Michaka plods ponderously through a morass of sources (duly noted in the bibliography) in order to offer an unremarkable reconstruction of the difficult and critical period before the acclaimed short-story writer made it to the big time." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       An Author's Note at the beginning of Scissors explains:

Scissors is a work of fiction. Although I have used some publicly known facts from Raymond Carver's life and from his relationship with his editor, Gordon Lish, the characters in this novel are loosely based, rather than closely modeled, on real-life figures. My characters' words, as well as the four short stories included in Scissors, are all my invention.
       The novel switches between various characters' perspectives -- the four voices of the novel belonging to Raymond (the Carver stand-in), Douglas (Gordon Lish), Marianne (Maryann, Carver's first wife), and Joanne (Tess Gallagher, Carver's second wife). Despite the name changes, and Michaka's invented dialogue and fiction (four complete stories written by the novel's Raymond are presented along the way), Scissors hews terribly closely to real-life, following Carver's career from the beginning of the Carver-Lish collaboration, and continuing past his death, to Tess Gallagher's 2009 publication of some of his stories as he had actually written them, and not in the form they had originally been published in -- cut to the bone by editor Lish. And so, while Michaka maintains that Scissors is fiction, fact constantly intrudes: the book feels far more biographical than in any way fictional.
       It is, of course, a fascinating story: an editor sees something in a writer's work -- but feels the diamond in the rough is only revealed when the work is ruthlessly pared down, all excess cut away. The writer allows his stories to be radically cut in this way -- and suddenly finds himself successful. But the writer isn't really happy about what is being done to his work. In this (Raymond Carver-based) case, an unhealthy dose of alcoholism and family-dysfunction further complicate matters.
       The manipulative, controlling, assertive Douglas/Lish is, of course, a more intriguing figure than the mess of a man Raymond (whose brilliance we have to take everyone's word for, while Douglas' defining characteristics -- what he does with people and words -- are spelled out nice and clearly). While understandably billed and sold as a novel about the better-known Carver, the title suggests who it's really about: as Douglas notes: "People in the business call me "Scissors"."
       As Douglas observes at one point: "If Raymond hadn't existed, I would have had to invent him". And, of course, Carver arguably is essentially entirely an invention of Lish's. In this sense, Michaka's reliance on the factual in his fiction cleverly reinforces the idea he's trying to convey: these characters, even though based on real-life figures, are entirely his invention. He has molded them entirely to his purposes -- just as Lish arguably did with Carver.
       Douglas explains that he has: "an ideal in my head" -- and:
I have a chance to approach my ideal. By constructing it myself.
       The pathetic, booze-weakened, malleable Raymond is, he recognizes, the perfect vehicle for him. Douglas is easily able to do whatever he wants with Raymond's words and work -- and can stomp down whatever timid opposition Raymond might display, helped by the fact that it's largely a long-distance relationship (and with Raymond already running scared from so many people and things).
       It's only far too late that Raymond recognizes the devil's bargain he's agreed to, as he finds he's basically lost all control and say over what he once thought of as his work:
     And speaking of those cuts: I got a slight chill from your last letter, from the request that I ratify your changes without even looking at them. I know you're under time pressure, but I'd like at least to glance at the manuscript before giving you the green light.
       Ultimately, Raymond tries to disentangle himself from Douglas, recognizing that he's just the frontman for what has become Douglas' work:
I don't want my stories to be published in their present form. [...] Put simply, they're no longer my stories.
       And then he dies, which leaves pretty much just the legend constructed by Douglas (until the grieving widow tries to resurrect the work of the man she knew).
       Raymond Carver's stories, in their originally published form, make for a fascinating case-study of the question of authorship, and Scissors tries to examine some of the personal dynamics behind that. It's a lot to chew on, however, and the overlaps with reality muddle the possibility for any really incisive consideration of the matter. Hamstringing himself in this way, Michaka can never make the characters truly his own, tying himself too closely (and yet also not entirely) to Carver's biography. So while the story he presents is of some interest and appeal, it's overwhelmed by the reality that overshadows it.
       The voices of the two women in Raymond's life are something of a distraction; they do help illuminate a bit more of Raymond's personal side, but a more concentrated two-hander might have allowed the central theme to be explored better. As is, the biographical detail about Raymond often comes to feel like clutter, rather than helping develop a clear sense of the man. (The fact that it's pretty limited detail doesn't help, either.)
       Intriguing but frustrating, Scissors reads well and quickly but is barely more than a fairly superficial gloss on the lives and work of Carver and Lish, or the question of authorship. Michaka never quite manages to make the material truly his own.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 August 2013

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Scissors: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Stéphane Michaka was born in 1974.

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