Wednesday, 9 September 2015


Will Self Dorian (2002)
I should probably point out that I've never read Oscar Wilde's version, and I use the term version because it seems there are a million riffs on The Picture of Dorian Gray out there - as Google is my witness - not least being a series of audio dramas released under the banner of The Confessions of Dorian Gray. The series in question comes from Big Finish productions and not only features former Doctor Who actors but they've managed to coax none other than Gary Russell to write a few of these tales which, from what I can work out, delineate the adventures of that mysterious traveller in time and a bit of space known only as Dorian Gray, for example:

Taking a much-needed trip to the coast, Dorian finds himself intrigued by two old men playing a peculiar game of chess along the pier. However, it isn't long before he finds himself caught up in a long-standing family feud, and becomes embroiled in a far greater game…

No honestly - I'm sure they're absolutely tremendous. Really.

Anyway, this version began life as a screenplay which was eventually finished as a novel for reasons I can't be arsed to look up a second time. I gather Will Self had the manuscript laying around for a while before its full potential dawned on him. Of course, the mere notion of a contemporary update of The Picture of Dorian Gray hardly constitutes a stroke of genius, but Self goes one better, pinning the established narrative to the brief period of the celebrity of Lady Diana Spencer and, by association, all else which amounted to English culture during that era; and the fit is perfect. It probably helps that a significantly apposite segment of that era saw the rise of AIDS with all its attendant media hysteria; and the reason for the fit seeming so perfect, at least to me, is the shared theme of Aestheticism, Dorian's pursuit of sensuous pleasure as both ideal and end in itself in both incarnations of the novel. The Aesthetic ideal of surface as content, medium as message, seems particularly relevant to the AIDS hysteria of the late eighties given that the stark imagery and invocation of just deserts delivered unto those who hath sinned more or less became its own incorporeal phenomenon, almost entirely divorced from the community to which it referred. So this time, whilst Dorian remains pure and gorgeous, the terrible cost of his lifestyle is confined to his image as captured in the form of Cathode Narcissus, a video piece by the up and coming Baz Hallward, and this image is mainly what the rest of us saw for most of the decade, particularly in the right-wing press.

This being Will Self, there's no flinching from the raw material of his subject revealed in his love of grit and texture - as distinct from mere shock effect - from which angle Dorian becomes a near Burroughsian conga-line of buggery, smack, fisting and leather clubs. I must admit to having had initial doubts about the apparent extremity of this aspect of the novel, it amounting to more or less what the Daily Mail told us about those people and what they get up to™ - aside from the obvious fact of there being an element of revelry or celebration in all the sweating, grunting, thrusting, and sharing of needles. Of course, Self was criticised for writing what reads a little like a grotesque caricature. 

Setting my version in the aristocratic, gay, druggie milieu of the 1980s wasn't too difficult, as I'd spent quite a lot of the eighties in – surprise, surprise – an aristocratic, gay, druggie milieu. So it was with considerable annoyance that I confronted a member of an audience whom I read to at last year's Soho festival. This woman said to me, 'I enjoyed your reading, but I find your characters altogether unbelievable. I mean people like Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray couldn't possibly exist, could they?' Ignoring the fact that these fictional characters were Wilde's rather than my own, I snarled at her, 'Just how many repressed, homosexual, aristocratic drug addicts have you hung around with in your time?' And when she conceded 'None', I rested my case.

For my own purposes, the case is effectively rested in the novel's initially peculiar epilogue wherein the story so far is revealed as a fictional text read by the real Dorian Gray, a widely admired philanthropist and entrepreneur, a gay icon and dear friend of Tony Blair - actually kind of similar to the fictional Dorian, the squeaky clean, eternal Adonis whose sins are passed on to his own degraded video signal, yet somehow our New Labour Dorian is so much more repellent. I take this as referring to perception of the homosexual in contemporary society, or at least the d├ętente by which we consent to approve, providing we don't have to hear about what they get up to at the weekend. Our new gay friend is sanitised and sanitary, welcomed with open arms providing it's the right kind of gay we're talking about here, because we don't want to know about any of that other stuff, thank you very much; but maybe if we only accept gay as a variation on Pat Boone, we haven't actually really accepted him at all - referring to the masculine here principally because that's what we have with Dorian. Sexuality is defined in part by sex itself, and everyone knows the joke about sex being dirty, or at least it is if you're doing it right. So whilst the gay - and male in this instance - can be about marriage and flowers and sunsets, sometimes it's also about cocks and arseholes and even terrifying clubs, because we don't get to pick and choose just the nice pastel bits to which we lend prissy approval; and if that makes any sense whatsoever, I think it is in part what this Dorian is about.

I was a little confused by the inclusion of a character identified as David Hall, sharing a name but no other discernible qualities with the late pioneer of video art - and my old head of department at college as it happens - so I assume this was either coincidental or nothing more significant than a tip of the hat, given the role of video art within the novel. Equally, I can't quite tell how it all relates to Lady Diana Spencer, although clearly it does by some means. I've come to regard Spencer as the perfect victim in the Pre-Colombian American sense, the innocent who takes on the sins of the world and is subsequently destroyed on our behalf, the role of innocent in this case being something which seems very much to have been imposed on her after the fact, not to be confused with any inherent quality. In real life as in this novel, she led a relatively short but undeniably charmed existence very much in parallel with that of Dorian, but it feels a little like an arbitrary association to me.

Nevertheless, this one does more than most authors manage in a lifetime, which isn't bad going considering it's essentially a slightly fancy cover version, so I'm not inclined to complain; plus, with all it has going on, like Cathode Narcissus, I wouldn't be too surprised if the novel tells a slightly different story next time I pick it up.

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