I picked up Dorian as something narrative and entertaining that was tangentially PhD-related (and, thus, a guilt-free read). The novel was first published in 2002, and it offers a modern update to The Picture of Dorian Gray, resetting the action in the 1980s and ’90s with a familiar but creatively reimagined cast. Basil becomes a slightly pathetic, needy installation artist (nicknamed Baz); Henry a drug-addled fop; Dorian a homicidal sadist, using HIV as his preferred weapon; Baz’s paean to Dorian becomes a video installation comprising multiple tapes and screens; the wealthy, drug-driven gay scene replaces Wilde’s Victorian aesthetic circles.
In rewriting Wilde’s classic, Self offers allusive (and often self-referential) narrative layers that merit deeper thought than his pacy writing style would intimate. Spoilers below!
At times riotously funny, as the narrative ricochets across decades, Henry, Dorian and Baz all alternately repulse and beguile. The book’s subtitle is An Imitation, and Self recycles a surprising amount of Wilde’s original, taking not only plot, character and location, but phrases, epigrams, and dialogue directly from the source. This sense of repetition is intensified by a suite of circular images.
The new medium for Dorian’s portrait — the circular loop of the video tape, the numerous copies — draws attention to the theme of repetition and divergence, that there is nothing new on the planet. The text returns to various fixed points, such as the dualing of Dorian and the doomed Princess Diana, or the perpetually fecund garden surrounding Henry’s home. With each repetition, Self prompts the reader to construct a sense of circularity.
The metanarrative that Self layers atop Wilde’s tale calls attention to the written nature of the text, suggesting that Dorian’s story is the febrile, malicious scratchings of a dying Henry before ‘revealing’ that this metanarrative is itself a fiction conjured by Dorian in a panicked state as he is about to get his comeuppance. The conclusion suggests that the initial narrative (perhaps, or perhaps not, a fiction of Henry’s) was partially ‘true’, although the point of divergence remains elusive. Just as Wilde’s original was read as an indictment of its author, the space between the lines of The Picture of Dorian Gray scrutinised for revelatory power, the final twist of Self’s imitation invites the reader to spot the exaggeration, the slight twist or turn, that might be veiling the ‘real’ behind the fictional.