Dorian by Will Self

Dorbook The Picture Of Dorian Gray, retold by Will Self. The portrait becomes a video installation because the story has been updated to the 1980s and 1990s. What this does, brilliantly, is to allow the cautionary myth to play out against the backdrop of the ravages of AIDS in New York and London. Drug-taking and gay sex (there’s lots of both) are the principal activities: Dorian remains the beautiful boy while his acquaintances (the poisonous Adonis doesn’t have any friends) find their bodies closing painfully down. Death is everywhere, although there is a certain bleak humour to it all. Dorian’s trajectory becomes ever more depraved. From the South of France to Manhattan, via the King’s Road and the Cotswolds, no-one is safe from his nihilistic mission to infect and destroy. Men and women are captivated. Epigrams, some taken wholesale from Oscar Wilde’s original, abound. The late Princess of Wales has a walk-on. Dorian’s paranoia turns him progressively more murderous and Self does a great job of tracking the impossible youth’s chilling mental disintegration. The law is on to him and the part where the police find the corrupted artwork and briefly ponder on who this ruined old person actually might be is both moving and shocking. Self seems to lose his nerve by the end, straying unconvincingly into meta-fictional territory before seeming to tie the whole thing off with a slipknot that casts doubt – ta-dah! – again on everything that has gone before. The great thing about building a career on being too clever by half is that you can explain this sort of thing away by saying that, if you think it’s a mistake, you just didn’t understand it. But the author knows deep in his most Dorianesque, secret heart that he should have just stuck to what he was doing. The author has skilfully constructed the story in large part from bedside reminiscences as Henry Wotton, Dorian’s first sponsor, waits for his fate, talking to visitors. This is hard to get right, and Self does. Fortunately, the final narrative misstep doesn’t really spoil the overall effect. The author perhaps benefits from having a framework to keep his less disciplined side on rails. It’s a lot of queasy fun.

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