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Sam Riviere: Dead Souls review – whip-smart literary satire with a techno tinge | reviews, news & interviews

Sam Riviere: Dead Souls review – whip-smart literary satire with a techno tinge

Sam Riviere: Dead Souls review – whip-smart literary satire with a techno tinge

A poet-turned-novelist hunts for the real thing in an age of fakes

Sam Riviere: the truth of poetry

In 1992 Martin Amis published a story, “Career Move”, in which the writers of sensational screenplays with titles like Decimator and Offensive from Qasar 13 read their work to empty rooms in shabby pubs. Meanwhile, wealthy and fêted poets pen verses entitled “Composed at – Castle” or “To Sophonisba Anguiscola” and their agents immediately juggle megabuck offers from LA: “In poetry, first class was something you didn't need to think about. It wasn’t discussed.

It was statutory.” Dead Souls, the first (almost) conventional novel by poet Sam Riviere, shares Amis’s engagement both with male literary rivalry and comically topsy-turvy, alternative-world scenarios. 

However, life and literature have moved on a generation. Dead Souls belongs to a moment when art, money and technology now tangle in “complex processes of exploitation” that even Amis in his SF guise never foresaw. Riviere’s poetry collections (81 Austerities; Kim Kardashian’s Marriage; After Fame) have burrowed deep into the digital domains that colonise our outer, and inner, lives; into the difference, or kinship, between “real” art and media simulations in a wired culture; into the quest for, or dream of, authenticity among the paranoiac mirror-games of cyberspace. Dead Souls – Its Gogol-ian title alone a hubristic act of theft, like calling your fiction debut Tristram Shandy or Moby-Dick – puts all these forces into play again. Then it cunningly aligns them into a remix of the dystopian literary satire that both reflects and distorts the way we live (and read) now. 

The world of this novel exists at a knight’s-move away from our shared reality. On the South Bank of the Thames, poets flock to the “King George Hall” for the 26th “Festival of Culture”. Along the river stands the HQ of “MI7”, as fleets of drones hover around the bridges. Poetry has turned into big business after a “crisis of confidence” in mass-market publishing genres. The gulf between London and its coveted “payzones” and the rest of England has grown into an abyss, and robot-controlled agribusiness makes unpeopled prairies of rural East Anglia. Along with these dystopian touches come some (arguably) more utopian shifts. A Ukrainian dissident bard will draw a thousand-strong audience to the South Bank. These days, “poets were making real money”, while the tote bag bearing the name of a not-so-little magazine or indy bookshop “had replaced the band T-shirt”. 

Our nameless narrator, an editor at a mid-sized magazine, steers the story – or rather, acts as the conduit for the confessions he hears – over one, unbroken, 300-page paragraph. First, on the Thames-side terrace, he learns from a droning minor-league publisher about a scandal that has engulfed the poet Solomon Wiese. Then, in the all-night bar of a Travelodge near Waterloo Bridge, the disgraced Wiese himself recounts his rise and fall, through the medium – trustworthy or not – of the editor who tells his tale. The narrator’s polyphonic monologue surges onwards with a tidal energy that makes this seemingly esoteric form into a mesmeric (and often mordantly funny) read. Fans of the great Austrian curmudgeon Thomas Bernhard will recognise the style. I also thought – in a book much taken up with questions of influence, hommage and appropriation – of other modern masters who capture the cataract of consciousness in serpentine syntax: László Krasznahorkai; Javier Marías; even WG Sebald (Riviere comes from Sebald’s adoptive Norfolk). And, of course, this shaggy-dog story about the delusions and misadventures of obscure, self-mythologising poets cannot help but evoke the Roberto Bolaño of The Savage Detectives

Forgive the blizzard of names, but Riviere – in the past, and here again – bothers a lot about the meaning of originality, or its absence, in a tech-driven culture of infinite reproduction. The plot turns on the ejection, or cancellation, of Solomon Wiese from the poetry world after he has failed an industry-wide computerised plagiarism test, QACS. It has been put in place by publishers after readers lost faith in the truthfulness of literature. In Riviere’s book-world satire, the motif of “crimes against originality”, and their automated detection, displaces the actual reasons why authors today risk and fear discredit, shame and exile. To a degree, Riviere’s plagiarism scandals serve as a proxy for the kind of alleged offences, “in between legal and social transgressions”, that may now shake or topple pillars of the arts. Sometimes his smart, knight’s-move evasions of our own institutional crises look like a broadening of perspective; sometimes, they can feel coy, mealy-mouthed or wilfully abstract. Dead Souls lands plenty of sly blows on the careerism, privilege and hypocrisy of the culture business, with its market-led cycles of “cynical production and senseless waste”, and its "vying young creatives" who back the "red team" in politcs but can never admit that parents keep them financially afloat. Still, Riviere isn’t quite acting as the cross-Channel Michel Houellebecq here. Perhaps somebody should. 

After his first cancellation for copying, Wiese has returned to the Eastern counties; specifically, the Norfolk town of Diss (Classical underworld-mythology alert, although plenty of actual writers do live near there). He has rebuilt his career as a crowd-pleasing performance poet who recycles, but somehow transforms, the neglected works of old-fashioned local versifiers. So the plagiarism charges that bedevil him revive, but in another key. Riviere, as real-world satirist, targets the “relentless suction” of London and its hollowing-out of provincial culture. Meanwhile, wearing his futuristic hat, he invents a popular app called Locket – a sort of genteel Tinder for old poets – that allows Wiese to rescue his starry reputation, for a spell, through a new online persona. 

Other poets and writers, with their various conceits and mishaps, intrude on Wiese’s story. We hear of his involvement with a sinister couple of data pirates. They now mine information for profit after an earlier, anarchist spell of hacking into networks “with the intention of disturbing the agreement of facts in the public domain”. We meet the gnomic canal bargees, perhaps father and son, who cherish a sort of sacred book that holds fundamental truths and gives readers “a glimpse of the real plan”. We encounter another poet’s brother in the Norfolk flatlands, a leisurewear fashion victim entirely – but happily – consumed in a “fantastical vision of so-called luxury brands, synthetic stimulation and neuro-affective competitive entertainment”. And we revisit the narrator’s manipulative youth among a gang of versifying wannabes in the pubs of Bury (St Edmunds in Suffolk, it transpires, not the black-pudding citadel of Lancs). A paranoid, secret-hunting mindset converges in these episodes with an aching nostalgia for lost authenticity in literature and feeling. The pair of data pirates, refugees almost from a late Don DeLillo novel, scorn all modern cultural activity as a “largely pointless after-image” left over from the true work of the past. 

Civilian readers might also wonder why they should care about an upscale coterie entertainment – especially one prompted by the rumoured narcissism and paranoia of this corner of the literary scene, where games of “incredibly low stakes” (we hear) are played at Mafia-grade levels of rancour and cruelty. Well, the sheer brio and tumbling intelligence of Riviere’s narration lift almost every page. Once you catch the spuming surf of his prose – and, as with Bernhard or Marías, it does take a little time – you’ll want to ride the wave to the shore. He’s wickedly sharp about the pious deceits, and self-deceptions, that fuel the culture industry like oil. And he grasps that, in the era of endlessly networked art and emotion, all culture may come to resemble the poetry subculture: gossipy, parochial, panic-prone, intimate, addictive, yet somehow never really there. Mainstreams and margins now switch or fuse. Popular genres look increasingly marginal or hermetic – poetry-like. Even this year’s Oscars felt like some twitchy, cliqueish, sanctimonious verse-circle event (thank you, Martin Amis). Shelley wrote of poets as “the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present”. Regrettably, so Dead Souls wittingly and hauntingly suggests, he might well have been right. 

 

  • Dead Souls by Sam Riviere (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99)

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