In Delivering a Classic Tale to the Age of AIDS, Will Self Crashes and Burns
It's tough to point fingers when criticizing Will Self's Dorian. The body of the book is written by a fictional novelist. It's based on another book by Oscar Wilde. And it's about gay subculture during the outbreak of the AIDS virus. So anyone who criticizes Self may wind up stepping on the toes of one of his characters, of a literary classic, or of a sexual orientation. That's all pretty clever, but even with an introductory quote by Arthur Schopenhauer, Self doesn't quite cover his ass.
As the title freely acknowledges, Dorian is a remake of Wilde's fin-de-siècle The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). This version starts in the gay 1980s and heads to the gray '90s, as a bunch of coke-snorting, crack-smoking bohemians bring about their own demise. As we begin, English video artist Baz Hallward meets pretty boy Dorian Gray and captures his shallow beauty in a work titled Cathode Narcissus, a nine-screen video that displays him in various postures. Dorian, meanwhile, is so fascinated with his own beauty that he claims Cathode as his own.
Baz's friend Henry Wotton, an upper-class fop, is transfixed by this young Adonis. As Henry puts it, Dorian is "the ultimate fag." Dorian's ability to pick up and dispose of people and personae turns him into the life of the party, which climaxes in a frenzy of pill-popping, buggery, and bickering. "Dorian can be whatever you want him to be," Baz declares in the middle of a crack-smoking session. "Sometimes I think that it's Dorian who's the true retrovirus." Thus Dorian, as the image of male beauty, takes on the mantle of the virus itself, and literally so. In the novel's next section, "Transmission," we fast forward to the '90s, when most of these middle-aged fops have been infected by this blond-haired, blue-eyed Typhoid Mary. Which brings us to the Wildean enigma: Having transmitted the virus to everyone around him, why is Dorian in perfect shape? And, when all is said and done, what's left at ground zero?
This isn't simply a reworking of Wilde's thesis, though; it's a painstakingly accurate reprise of his plot and characters. Even the names of most of Wilde's characters remain the same in Dorian. Self's satire usually draws on the love/hate relationship the English seem to have with their own bodies and urges. In that sense, he really is an acolyte of Wilde. But Dorian gets into deep water when Self uses his mentor to give us a perspective on the rise and fall of gay sexual liberation. Frankly, it's putting the cart before the horse: He knows what he wants to say, and then he gets Wilde to say it. That's why Shakespeare didn't use Ovid to explain the bubonic plague; it's why James Joyce didn't turn Homer into a bard of Irish Nationalism. A global epidemic is a global epidemic; nothing is going to be gained by trying to micromanage it as a gay bathhouse of the human soul. And that's exactly what Self does:
"They say now that those damp bath-houses and fetid gyms, the bloody meat racks and the shitty cottages were the perfect places for the virus to fester . . . but for those of us who were there it was simple. Simple to observe that for men who were meant to be free, how readily they draped themselves in chains."
Linking a deadly virus to moral turpitude is weak material for satire. And couching this slightly offensive material in earnest aphorisms leaves Self sounding like Socrates at a circle jerk. And no matter how much philosophical punditry he sprinkles through the novel, Self never manages to shovel himself out of his morally repugnant premise: that AIDS is a metaphor for corruption of the soul.
Now there's nothing wrong with putrefaction; just don't make it sound boring, and don't approach it with moral equations that Jerry Falwell would be proud of. After a dull incantation of what he calls the "ever lengthening conga line of sodomy," and after numbingly repetitive descriptions of heroin and coke use, Self runs out of steam. Since this book, without its derivations and its technical guides to freebasing, would be pretty thin, it's possible that Self came to the same conclusion.
In his earlier Great Apes, Self drew on Franz Kafka to color his own approach to the body/soul theme. Fine. But Self isn't paying tribute to Wilde here; he's taking him on a bar crawl through one of the age's greatest tragedies. The snootily Self-absorbed meanderings of Self's upper-class wags are neither ironic nor detached, nor are they as piquant and clever as Self seems to think they are. Dorian is filled to the brim with requisite fags, hags, and heroin sheiks; but in the end, Self lacks the subversive edge that any account of the truly debauched requires. Oscar Wilde, rotting away in Reading Gaol, would probably have agreed.