But the structure is not the most daunting aspect of Riviere’s novel. There’s also the matter of its subject: “Dead Souls” is an exceedingly cerebral comedy about the viability of contemporary poetry. One of the book’s blurbs claims it’s “gut-wrenchingly funny,” which may be true for a certain subset of lute-playing spoken-word baristas in Brooklyn, but others should temper their expectations.
This is not a negative review.
Indeed, I think “Dead Souls” is one of the wittiest, sharpest, cruelest critiques of literary culture I’ve ever read. Riviere unleashes a flock of winged devils to tear apart the hermetically sealed world of privilege, praise and publication in which a few lucky writers dwell.
The story begins in an era that arose from the ruins of a world-shattering crisis when the publishing industry was afflicted by “widespread, debilitating anxiety.” Editors, publishers and book reviewers — even book reviewers! — lost all faith in their own judgments. As panic spread, the industry was rocked by “an annihilating spiral” of disasters: “Two of the main commercial houses had been proven to have released several fixed books, that is, to have sold, as new, publications that were revealed to be reprints of earlier publications, with minimal changes implemented to disguise this fact.”
The public reacts to this revelation of publishing malfeasance as though it were Watergate, the Gunpowder Plot and the Teapot Dome scandal combined. “Every aspect of the industry’s architecture came under intense scrutiny,” Riviere writes in his perfectly modulated tone of mock horror. “Every major player in the field received challenges to redress and redesign, as shockwaves moved up and down the once proud edifices of publishing, shaking loose careers and reputations.”
As Facebook has taught us, every social and political ill can be cured with better algorithms. And so, the publishing industry, desperate to regain the public’s trust, devises a computer tool: the Quantitative Analysis and Comparison System. QACS analyzes all aspects of a work of literature — “the machinations of plot, the structural dynamics of narrative and perspective, the balancing of metaphor and the density of descriptive language” — to identify elements of plagiarism. No infraction is too small to escape QACS’s notice. It can detect the felonious reuse of “children who die in the first twenty pages. Descriptions of the light in western Scotland. Easter as the story’s climactic and final date. Friendships resulting from traffic accidents. Giant plants” — in short, all the various “crimes against originality” that authors are wont to commit.
But Riviere is just getting started with his deadpan satire. “Dead Souls” opens in the aftermath of this cultural obsession with literary crime. Horrified by the deceptions perpetrated by novelists, dramatists, historians and biographers, the reading public turns in desperation to poets. “Poets were making real money,” Riviere says. “Poetry was flooding the market. There were rich poets.” In this surreal time, poetry has finally attained the central position that poets are always telling us it possesses.
What no summary can convey is the hypnotic effect of Riviere’s relentless prose. The entire novel comes to us as a fevered confession delivered by an unnamed “editor at a mid-circulation literary magazine.” He begins, “I first heard about Solomon Wiese on a bright, blustery day on the South Bank.” The tone feels like an homage to Kint’s wandering tale about Keyser Söze in “The Usual Suspects.” On and on, this mid-circulation editor talks about Solomon Wiese, the most famous and unrepentant poetry plagiarist of them all. Soon after the narrator spots him at a literary conference, he meets him at a bar, a coincidence that feels both natural and surreal, the way we meet people in dreams. “I knew at this point that he must be Solomon Wiese, or I knew it without knowing it,” the editor says. “It had simply become obvious that every development pointed in that direction, that the familiarity of his face mirrored my recent awareness of his name.”
As “Dead Souls” evolves, Solomon Wiese begins telling the captivated editor the manic story of his literary anarchy. It’s the tale of an angry poet-terrorist determined to demolish the culture of poetry by seducing it with its own mediocrity.
Riviere has written a satire that hunts down artistic pretensions and assassinates them one by one. He’s particularly brutal toward poetry anthologies, which no one ever reads, and the “deadly words of praise” offered at poetry readings. He skewers the way woke men graciously acknowledge their dominance of the cultural sphere instead of graciously not dominating the cultural sphere. And the inanity of Instagram poets is wickedly lampooned with his description of an app called Locket, on which poets assemble vast virtual crowds to listen to and praise Solomon Wiese’s stolen verse.
Deadly as it is, I suspect the kill zone from “Dead Souls” has a fairly small radius. But if you’re in the poetry world or you aspire to be or you escaped it, this is an astute, wildly original novel that talks trash about everyone whose success galls you. And there’s nothing quite so delicious as that.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Sam Riviere
Catapult. 291 pp. $26