If you are writing a comedy about imitation, plagiarism, or simply the monotonous sameness of so much contemporary literature, so much contemporary discourse, it makes sense perhaps to borrow the title of your work from one of the most celebrated novels of all time and to write it in one of the most radical and recognizable of modern prose styles. So the English author Sam Riviere’s first novel, Dead Souls (after Gogol), unfolds in a single three-hundred-page, one-paragraph monologue, deploying with an infallible ear all the obsessive rhythms, italicized repetitions, and general spirit of scandalized denunciation and acute insecurity that we immediately associate with Thomas Bernhard. To make it clear that the strategy is unashamed and deliberate, Riviere offers an epigraph from Bernhard: “It is the absurd ideas that are the clearest ideas, and the most absurd ideas are the most important.”
The absurd idea around which Riviere constructs his pitiless, often hilarious satire is the invention of the “quantitative analysis and comparison system (QACS),” a cutting-edge antiplagiarism software for literary publishers that not only picks up borrowings of extended sequences of words but also, “using quantitative analysis and comparison of a sophistication hitherto not imagined,” makes it
possible to identify such features as the machinations of plot, the structural dynamics of narrative and perspective, the balancing of metaphor and the density of descriptive language, tactics of rhetoric such as repetition, assonance, anaphora and apostrophe, the intersecting arcs of major and minor characters and the patterns of their outcomes, the pacing and delivery of dialogue, the physical laws of fantastic worlds, chronological distortions, and even the biologies of imaginary creatures.
With a specific nod to the novel’s own strategies, we learn that QACS’s designers
also had in their sights that most elusive quality, the style of the work, which would be objectively defined at last, locked down, taking into account the frequency and emphasis of specific words, the frequency and emphasis of specific sounds, and perhaps even—the engineers refused for now to be drawn on this point—the indivisible emotional components, below the surface, underpinning everything.
A crisis of confidence has swept the publishing industry, a debilitating atmosphere of “uncommunicated insecurity” that prompts even the most experienced literary agents and editors to doubt their own judgment. Unable to find sufficient titles for their lists, two major publishers are found “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 ensuing scandal leads to the deployment of QACS, which, applied to every text submitted for publication, will “ensure that no work is brought before the paying public that runs the risk of being exposed as a sham.” After fierce pushback from authors, who fear they are to be made scapegoats for their publishers’ misdemeanors, a compromise is reached: “A submitted document must achieve a score of ninety-six per cent or more, across its listed categories, in order to qualify as unacceptably derivative.”
Setting the bar so apparently low—only 4 percent “originality” required—neatly sets up the absurdity of taking a numerical approach to questions of creativity. Surely no one could fail to pass this test. But Solomon Wiese, a poet “in his early twenties” who is “still at the start of his emergence,” submits a long poem that returns “a score of ninety-six, on the nose” and is consequently “grey-listed,” his career compromised. “It may seem bizarre,” we are told, “to those uninformed of recent developments in literary publishing, that a poem was subjected to such intense scrutiny, when the commercial return on such a product was ordinarily so slender,” but one effect of the collapse in confidence in the publishing industry has been a “surprising rise in stock in works of poetry,” which “the reading public turned to” as if poetry necessarily harbored “some innate form of truth.” “In this assumption,” the narrator reflects, “the reading public was of course gravely mistaken.”
Sam Riviere, we discover from a brief author bio, is himself a poet and a publisher of poetry. So is the unnamed narrator of Dead Souls. The opening encounter of the novel, where we first hear of Solomon Wiese’s predicament, establishes the setting of the monologue, which unfolds in the space of a single night, more or less the reading time of the book, and offers a first suggestion as to why imitation and sameness might be especially acute problems in our times. We are at London’s Southbank Centre, beside the Thames, celebrating “the biennial Festival of Culture” (the acronyms QACS and FOC sputter like so many petards throughout the novel). The narrator is in conversation with a man described only as “the head of the small publishing company,” a formula repeated seventy-four times with mesmerizing and reifying effect:
Before [he mentioned Solomon Wiese] I hadn’t really been listening to the head of the small publishing company, although outwardly I was nodding, saying “Mmm,” and even occasionally generating an entire sentence. There were two reasons that I hadn’t been listening to the head of the small publishing company, apart from the obvious ones—that the head of the small publishing company was not a particularly enthralling conversationalist, for example, or the atmosphere of generalised boredom that mists these kinds of encounters…
The heavy irony is inspired by the nature of the relationship:
Despite the friendly, if unemphatic, tone of my conversation with the head of the small publishing company, we were representatives of rival organisations, meeting on the field of action with the purpose of exchanging tactical information.
The men are competitors. In the world of Dead Souls, authors, poets, and critics are all ferocious competitors:
In other words, a game of incredibly low stakes was taking place, but…the lowness of the stakes only made the players keener and more ruthless in their conduct—this ruthlessness was a given, we both understood, a principle of the industry, and the centre that we vied around.
In order to compete, participants must play the same game and share the same terms of comparison, which, in this case, despite literature’s presumed vocation for profundity and complexity of vision, are unerringly understood as numerical: the number of books one has written, prizes one has won, readers one has. Solomon Wiese, for example, was very likely “drawn to poetry as his medium of expression” because of the new fashion for poetry. “Poetry was flooding the market.”
The sheer number of competitors in a game that few can win breeds desperation. “My proprietorial instincts,” the narrator tells us of his younger self, “were keen enough that if I noticed someone in a café or on a train writing in a journal or on a laptop in a way that suggested their activity was literary…I was seized by a jealous rage.” Some people believed that “the more writing produced the better for the culture in general, that more writers equalled more readers.” Our narrator is not impressed: “There were more readers…but they were readers on the hunt for ideas, for workable models, for styles to crib, for plots to adapt—predatory readers with the eyes of trophy hunters.” He himself “read only as a rival producer, in other words as a cynic, an opportunist.”
In such circumstances an alignment, even homogenization, of minds becomes inevitable. Of his relationship with the three friends he lived with at university, all would-be poets, the narrator recounts:
We became adept at anticipating and rebutting one another’s opinions, at attuning ourselves towards or against one another’s perspectives…. It always seemed to me, after hearing my friend’s opinion, that he had just expressed my opinion.
Nevertheless, “the truth was that, on some level, I wanted to see them destroyed, my friends…just as I knew that they wished on some level to see me destroyed.” Later in the book, literary competitiveness poisons the only intimate relations described. Of one male poet and his poet girlfriend we hear that “at times [he] almost felt as if he were interviewing [her], while eating dinner in her flat this feeling had come over him, that he was interviewing [her] at some kind of literary event.” It is an interview that soon becomes “awkward and combative.”
Now older and more sophisticated, the narrator does not wish to see “the head of the small publishing company” destroyed; he enjoys their battle. On the other hand, he has no intention of “relinquishing a millimetre” of the advantage he believes he has over him. So despite being intensely drawn to the story of Solomon Wiese that “the head of the small publishing company” is telling him, he deliberately abandons the conversation “without hearing the conclusion of the affair,” a feigned indifference that “reset our relationship to its proper imbalance.”
Though this dog-eat-dog struggle is the felt reality, declared values are quite different. The narrator, a supporter of the “red team” rather than the “blue team,” as he tells us, reducing left/right ideological affiliations to a form of hereditary fandom, must now go to a poetry reading to recite, in translation, the “politically sensitive” work of a Ukrainian poet whom he publishes and who will be unable to attend the event herself because she was detained that morning at Heathrow. “An audience of close to a thousand spectators” is expected, all “eager to soak up statements of political dissent” before enjoying “a glass of wine afterwards.”
Our narrator has his doubts about this operation:
Hadn’t the poetry of Zariyah Zhadan been converted, in these palatial buildings, with their lighting rigs and sound systems and multilevel restaurant and bar facilities, seamlessly into inoffensive, or even officially mandated, entertainment?
Is he perhaps “appropriating Zariyah Zhadan,” he worries, to fortify his “own egotistical brand”? Reassuring himself, after pages of fretful elucubration, that he is doing neither more nor less than “what was required” of him, the narrator is pleased that the spotlighting on the stage allows him “to remain more or less oblivious of the audience” throughout the reading, during which he imagines his listeners as thrilled that his “pained, beleaguered figure” is reciting “authentic missives from a suppressed artist.”
However, as he launches into the second-to-last poem, the atmosphere of cocooned complacency is disturbed by a high-pitched whine—not microphone feedback, he eventually realizes, but someone deliberately running a damp finger around the rim of a wineglass to produce “a resonant, unmodulating tone”; at once he experiences “a feeling of being caught out.”
Nothing, we understand throughout Dead Souls, is more dangerous to the protected mindset under scrutiny than interruption. Not only do the novel’s many characters all speak in the same way; they all prefer monologue to dialogue, wrapping themselves in elaborate extended syntax made shiny with elevated or savvy diction. But the merest intrusion of ordinary circumstance threatens to burst these bubbles of self-importance. Even a moment’s awareness of the humdrum surroundings in which a monologue is conjured up can be destabilizing:
What purpose did [the poetry reading] serve, I wondered as I passed a food stand selling savoury Brazilian pastries…. Wasn’t this kind of thing simply assisting our own complacency and impotence, I thought as I shouldered through a group of teenagers carrying skateboards.
The narrator recalls that he had suffered the same kind of interruption—the whine of a finger on the rim of a glass—when reading his own poetry as a university student many years ago. The perpetrator was one Christian Wort (Riviere has much fun with his naming), a hick “who still read books in their entirety” and boasted an “overt brand of heterosexuality [that] was a regular source of embarrassment to the rest of us.” Surrounded by an “old-world atmosphere,” Wort could not understand that his poet friends moved in a labyrinth of “micromanaged profiles, thread wars, network expansions and subscription packages,” and that their “flirtations rarely happened face to face, but consisted of a range of light touches landed over various media.” Reminder of a red-blooded reality that the novel’s writers shun, it was Wort who delivered “the first serious blow” to the narrator’s pride by producing that “resonant, unmodulating tone,” and Wort who strikes again at FOC during the recital of the Ukrainian poet’s “controversial” work.
Electronic media reinforce the condition of collective narcissism, if we can call it that, in which the characters operate, removing them from physical reality and locking them into vicious competition with one another. The peculiar combination of isolation and embattlement typical of the Bernhard monologue is thus no longer the preserve of the especially sensitive loner but common property. In any event it is electronic media that provide Solomon Wiese with the opportunity for a spectacularly successful comeback.
“A stupendous amount of poets had assembled in the capital for FOC” and are staying at the Travelodge for the simple reason that it is “the only establishment in the area with a twenty-four-hour alcohol license.” Given their lifestyle, alcohol, or some other drug, is necessary “to overcome [the poets’] innate awkwardness, and the bitterness of their resentments.” Entering the Travelodge bar, the narrator offers proof of his savviness:
To my left…I saw Alex Warrington, author of The Good Son and Giving Grace, latterly editor of Albion Poetry, in conversation with Bea Fielding, author of Visiting Songs, winner of an Ern Michaels Award and the Simone Horowitz Award, whose back was almost touching the back of Claire Cluny, author of Back to La Mancha and The Harbourmaster’s Ruin, also winner of an Ern Michaels Award, who was talking animatedly to Daniel Wake and Esther Foley, authors of Wide World and Limn, among other publications, and winners between them of Ern Michaels and Preface awards, who parted to allow Frankie Tipton through, author of Mirage Property, which was shortlisted for the Shaw, Preface and Matlaske prizes, who had just left a conversation with George Corley, author of Five to Eight Chipmunks, Hannah Peach, author of Quick Fix, and Isobel Berger, author of Marquee Croquet; behind them I could see the back of Jake Clemence’s head, the author of sadder and my problems are slowly becoming your problems, which was winner of a Playhouse Award, and, in profile, Kacey Brathwaite, author of Sea Chart, winner of the Preface Award, and A Tune Below, among other publications; to their right, in a tight circle, I spotted Lindsay Stonebridge, whose collections included Fire Milk and Hear/Say, and who had been nominated three times for the Matlaske Prize without actually winning it…
The sentence continues for another half-page or so. But among all these intensely connected people the narrator is drawn to an isolated figure sitting at the bar, or rather two isolated figures: Solomon Wiese and his girlfriend, Phoebe Glass, are being ostracized (the Jewishness of the poet’s name is perhaps not incidental). The next two hundred pages are Wiese’s monologue, which incorporates various other monologues, as remembered and reelaborated in the narrator’s monologue while sitting over beers at the Travelodge bar for “six or seven hours.”
Wiese has his own explanation for his 96 percent QACS plagiarism score. Since earliest infancy “he had had a desire to disappear,” and on experimenting with disappearance, hiding from his family in the garden, for example, he discovered an area of “nothingness” in himself, to which he was constantly drawn and which he came to associate with poetry: “The writing of poetry was…like deleting something…like pointing at something to make it disappear.” Or again: “Poetry was the gradual replacement of things in the world with their absence.” Later, tormented by the obsessive thought processes that the poetry he was reading set in motion, he had “regurgitated these words,” “thrown [the poetry] up onto the page to make it disappear, because it was making him sick, he thought, and he wanted to get rid of it—he wanted these old poems nothinged.”
That this yearning for oblivion is related to a highly competitive world becomes clear through the narrator’s affinity with Wiese. “I would never resent or begrudge anyone,” he tells us, “who exercised their right to turn away from these all-consuming conflicts…. My sympathies would always be with the deserter.” Certainly, the whole drift of Dead Souls suggests a desire to have the literary world disappear, be “nothinged,” if only by dint of remorselessly presenting its absurdities. “Before tonight,” the narrator confesses, “I had managed not to attend a poetry recital for close to five years.” It can hardly be a coincidence that in three hundred pages about poets and literature, not a single line of poetry or literature is quoted, nor does anyone speak of their pleasure in reading poetry or literature.
But conflict is addictive; it is hard to stay away. Abandoning London after his disgrace, Wiese eats humble pie in the provinces. At great length he recounts meetings with other obsessives of various kinds, each episode exploring different possibilities of relation between written text and reality: a miraculous book that describes exactly the immediate world of any reader; an ex–prison guard who achieved inner peace and even economic wealth by repeating over many years, in a language he didn’t know, the poetic lines learned from a prisoner in solitary confinement. These stories take on a fabulous, even gnomic status.
His meeting with Max Mikkaels brings Wiese back to the fray. Mikkaels has assisted in the development of a media platform, Locket, that allows provincial poets to “easily connect with other creatives in your immediate vicinity.” The peculiarity of Locket is the “pendant-shaped window next to the user’s profile picture,” which, when opened, will display the image of whatever other user’s work this user has “genuinely engaged with.” This happens automatically; it cannot easily be manipulated, and hence becomes a powerful promotional tool, providing users with an “authentic picture of…patterns of interest.”
Mikkaels is bullish about the platform’s growing popularity—“In his estimation it was not putting it too strongly to say that poets who were not listed on the Locket app would effectively cease to exist”—and sanctimonious about the need to punish anyone who seeks to use it “in [a] calculating and cynical way.” But no sooner does he learn about Wiese’s outcast status, combined with the fact that the poet has recently come into a small fortune (through his meeting with the prison guard), than he agrees, indeed proposes, that in return for an immediate bank draft, he will create a Locket profile for Wiese and recruit “a host of artificially generated profiles to the platform to form Solomon Wiese’s new legion of followers,” a process he calls “a migration of souls.” As Gogol’s Chichikov sought false importance by buying up the souls of dead peasants, Solomon Wiese will gain notoriety by appearing in the “locket” of vast numbers of nonexistent fans.
But a poet needs poems, and all Wiese’s work to date has been “administered out of existence by QACS.” Riviere has a field day describing Wiese and Mikkaels’s visits to “older, all-but-unknown poets, poets who had abandoned hope of recognition,” to persuade them to sign away, in return for a little money, “their rights to assert themselves as the authors of their poems.”
One portrait gives us a dying man who had been resigned to obscurity, “happily digging the garden” outside his country home, until his wife alerted him to the existence of Locket, which renewed his hope and consequently his rancor and disappointment as he became ever more obsessively attached to his computer. Worse, the local villagers discovered his vocation and started commissioning him “to write poetry for any reason that came into their dozy village heads—to commemorate the village fete…or to commemorate their daughter’s wedding.” Needless to say, the poet utterly disdains the interest and respect of ordinary people, just as Mikkaels utterly disdains his yobbish brother, with his baseball cap, tattoos, and “enormous orange trainers.” It is hard to imagine anyone “more alienated” from his environment, Mikkaels observes with unwitting irony.
To avoid the censure of QACS, but also to project a new image of the poet as a person “surrounded” by poetry, rather than a person who publishes poems, Solomon Wiese begins to appear onstage simply improvising poetry, or regurgitating all the poems he has acquired and now wishes to be “nothinged.” Since “the poetry of all these poets was one indistinguishable mass of more or less inert language and feeling,” he hardly needs to memorize them. Rather he takes to chewing the pages they are written on, feeling “more and more as if he could simply open his mouth and the poetry he’d semi-ingested would simply begin to pour out.”
Wiese’s performances are immensely popular. Until, inevitably, someone transcribes the poems from videos circulating on the Internet and QACS pronounces them 98 percent derivative. Then there was “outrage in earnest…. Many felt they had been cheated, misled, duped, exploited, deceived, personally wounded.” Sitting in the Travelodge bar during the Festival of Culture, beside his girlfriend Phoebe Glass, herself a successful poet, who has “led the public excoriation” of her boyfriend, Solomon Wiese is waiting to hear, the following morning, what the creative world’s “alternative justice system” will propose for punishment, though this will then be presented as his “self-nominated punishment.” It will be something to do, Wiese fears, with “the taking of the hands,” this being “the ancient punishment for thieves.” Ominously, he is “unsure precisely what the actuality or interpretation of this metaphor…would be.”
What more would we learn about Riviere’s book if it was run through QACS? Drenched as it is in performative rhetoric and voguish jargon, very likely it would score 96 or above. But I have yet to come across a wittier, more effortlessly unfolding exposé of the unloveliness that underpins much of the so-called literary world and contemporary discourse in general. At times Riviere goes beyond ebullient satire to question the entire nature of our relationship with the literature of the past or our status as agents in the political world. “We realise,” laments Solomon Wiese, “that we are unable to change anything, we have arrived after the fact, it is too late, and all we can do is tolerate this state of affairs, and endlessly interpret this state of affairs.” A corrosive fatalism informs every trivial battle.
Retreating from the Travelodge bar after a long sleepless night, looking back through its windows as the poets gather there for breakfast, the narrator acknowledges his oneness with the world he loathes: “I was nothing but a house for thoughts and feelings about them.” It is highly reminiscent of the conclusion of Bernhard’s Woodcutters: “I cursed these people, yet could not help loving them…. These are my people and always will be my people.” Nevertheless, for all its flaunted borrowings, perhaps because of them, Dead Souls feels fresh, candid, and, though no one dares to use the word in this book, heartfelt.