“Dead Souls,” by the English writer Sam Riviere, is hard to stop reading because it’s written as a single paragraph almost 300 pages long. Never in my life have I so missed the little periodic indentations of ordinary prose. It felt like wandering around the mall for six days looking for a place to sit down.
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.
Sam Riviere’s debut novel, “Dead Souls,” depicts a fantastical, alternate-world version of London in which poetry has become the city’s major cultural product. (“There were rich poets,” we read incredulously.) But the capital’s ascendant literary scene is embroiled in scandal. Sophisticated detection software created at the behest of publishers — the quantitative analysis and comparative system, or QACS — has confirmed that the poet Solomon Wiese, a rising star, is a plagiarist. Paranoia engulfs the commentariat. Who else might be bound for the so-called gray list?
Swanson, a contributing editor at Harper’s and a winner of a 2015 Pushcart Prize for his short fiction, serves as a candid and empathetic narrator, guiding us with restrained cynicism and enticing prose as he interrogates the stories we tell ourselves to paper over truths we’d rather not face.
In US author Rivers Solomon’s previous two novels, themes of memory and repression shaped stirring sci-fi narratives. Now comes Sorrowland, a gothic techno-thriller in which the trauma of the past is parried with defiance and a thirst for understanding, as embodied by an electrifying young hero.