LONDON—In Will Self’s latest novel, the bad boy of English letters transposes Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to the late 20th century. But don’t call it an adaptation, Self insists. Besides changing the cravats to Calvin Klein undies, he’s eviscerated Wilde’s book to create his own bittersweet portrait of gay life in the shadow of AIDS—not so much imitation (per the subtitle) as wholesale reinvention.
Last week, at a favorite haunt in London’s Chinatown, the author discussed his work with the Voice. Dorian originated as a screenplay commissioned in 1998 by Britain’s Channel 4 Films; when Self withdrew from the project, he decided to rewrite his script as a novel. Research consisted of reading Dorian Gray once, “analyzing it, and trying to forget it,” though not out of disrespect. The 1891 book, he enthuses, “prefigured the shape of contemporary gay culture” a century later.
In Self’s modernization, the year is 1981. The painter Basil Hallward has become avant-garde video artist Baz (friend to Warhol and Mapplethorpe), the ill-fated picture a video installation called Cathode Narcissus (nine monitors showing a nude Dorian and exuding a “carnivorous, predatory voyeurism”). As in Wilde, the beautiful boy’s wish—that his likenesses grow old and hideous while he stays forever young—mysteriously comes true. But once Baz’s ex-lover, Henry Wotton, corrupts the naive Dorian, introducing him to heroin and his “immensely rich . . . immensely queer” clique, everything starts to go wrong. At one of their drug-fueled (and overwritten) orgies, Dorian’s junkie boyfriend unwittingly infects them all with HIV.
During the next 16 years, as the others fall prey to AIDS and aging, Dorian remains untouched by the disease; only his video selves, locked away in an attic, betray the telltale lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, “his eyes tortured by death and madness, his bald pate erupting with some vile fungus.” The real Dorian, meanwhile, embarks on a lethal pursuit of sexual conquest. “No grouping of people was safe from his attentions: a coachload of Mormons from the Midwest ‘doing’ Europe; a housewives’ club down from the North on a shopping spree; a Sado-Masochist Pride March wending its way through the West End.” Seducing, infecting, then abandoning his victims, Dorian is a serial killer, a cross between Casanova and American Psycho.
Full of snorting, shooting up, barebacking, and bonking, the novel was condemned by some critics on its British release as immoral. To them, Self gleefully responds, “I’ve obviously done my job properly,” noting that Dorian Gray once drew similar fire. (The prosecutor at Wilde’s sodomy trial even produced it as evidence against him.) But despite its outward shock value—which, in 2003, would hardly incense anyone besides Andrew Sullivan—Self’s book maps the history of queerness with surprising sincerity, from the carefree ’70s and early ’80s to the tragic period that followed. “[T]hose few short years between the Stonewall Riots and the arrival of AIDS,” recalls Baz, “were characterised by a mounting sense of liberation. . . . [t]he time had come to be ourselves.” Or, as Henry puts it, “Who gives a shit about being too decadent, when to be contemporary is to be absolutely so?”
Fast-forward from those heady days to 1991, when the epidemic rages unchecked. The last two-thirds of Dorian cover Henry’s slow demise from AIDS, a marked departure from the original. (Wilde’s Lord Henry was the same healthy, epigram-spouting dandy from start to finish.) Though both novels span 16 years, Self points out, Dorian Gray lacks any references to a wider social context: “It’s an airless, claustrophobic room.” In Dorian, by contrast, Baz goes from smoking, smack-addicted alcoholic to clean-living New Yorker, while Henry’s ditsy wife becomes a respected academic and caring mother. Given the tenderness with which Self treats his characters, has the author of the genitalia fest Cock and Bull and the scabrous My Idea of Fun softened with age? He readily assents. “Some of my early work is nihilistic, offering no hope of redemption,” he admits, whereas Henry attains peace before he dies.
If the discovery of combination drug therapy circa 1997 reduced the death count from AIDS, for Self it also marked the end of an era. Having spawned a flurry of art (Angels in America, Philadelphia) and activism, the disease was, in a sense, forgotten—yet the drugs help only those who can afford them (i.e., Westerners) and aren’t always effective. “To write about AIDS now,” he says, “was a useful way of commenting on that willed ignorance.” While mocking the ’80s militancy of groups like ACT UP in Dorian, he equally disparages today’s mood of complacency: “Being gay is a lifestyle option,” just another consumer identity. “Capitalism’s won!”
Self skewers such “uncaring, shallow, wealthy” A-gays in the book’s epilogue, a postmodern jape in which Dorian itself turns out to be a manuscript written by the “real” Henry, who’s liberally distorted the truth about his circle. Dorian is actually a successful design-mag editor, not a deranged murderer; the whole story has been a fantasy. Or has it? “What I want to introduce in the reader is complete confusion,” proclaims Self, “to create fiction that is stranger than reality.” His novel’s most engaging scenes, though, hew close to realism—the simple account of Henry’s last days, the moving tale of Baz’s rehab. In the infamous preface to Dorian Gray, Wilde wrote, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Call me sentimental, but Self’s sympathetic touch makes his remembrance of things past a worthy, if less witty, successor to the original.