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This week I found Will Self's 2002 novel, DORIAN An Imitation, accidentally on the shelves of my college library. I had forgotten how much I love being inside of the library. A silence so large it is breath, of which I'm only a small version. Libraries for me always feel like a restful futuristic dome, a room at the bottom of the sea, buried in the blue omphalos where I exist, only partially alive, half-blind, floating through the stacks like a ghost automaton, touching and searching.
Self's novel is a portrait of a dissolution of the flesh by decadence, by an age of cultural extravagances, the perils of early debauchery as well as a contemplation and partial criticism of gay culture since the rise of the AIDS epidemic.
"Don't spoil it by renunciations. At present you are a perfect type. Don't make yourself incomplete. You are quite flawless now. You need not shake your head: you know you are. Besides, Dorian, don't decieve yourself. Life is not governed by will or intention. Life is a question of nerves, and fibres, and slowly built-up cells in which thought hides itself and passion has its dreams. . . the world has cried against us both, but it has always worshipped you. It always will worship you. You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found."
These are the words of Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde's 1891 THE PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY, and they give us an insight into Self's contemporization of the classic. Dorian, in the original, is haunted by a painting of himself done by Basil Hallward, which embodies all of the terrors of age, anxiety, debauchery, guilt and crime, while Dorian himself remains a picture of an ideal young beauty. He ultimately murders Basil Hallward, and in an effort to destroy the only piece of incriminating evidence, the painting (which now drips with blood and mortality), knifes his own inky image only to break its spell: the police find a mutlilated portait and the body of an old and wasted man, murdered on a parlour floor.
The original novel helped to incriminate Wilde in the (in)famous criminal case in which he stood trial for homosexuality. Wilde, of course, is the first author to be "gay" as such, and Self's version is a contemporary telling that could have been penned by Henry Miller, for all of its vulgar wit, perfect irreverance and its remorseless descriptions of tasteless and frank sexual decadence. It's deliciously sick. In it, Dorian is the "type" of young gay man all of the media attention about AIDS awareness in the 80's, the MTV reality voyeurism of the 90's, and the flamboyant outing politics of this web-lit decade, has made possible. Dorian is young and beautiful, but also out, sexually fabulous, white-party hip, taking part in all the fashionable drug recreations, having almost forgotten that AIDS afflicted generation of the 80's, but still vulnerable to its very real dangers. He's new to the scene, but part of a generation who feels entitled and unafraid of making a venemous public display.
In Self's version, Dorian is the subject of Basil Hallward's avant-garde video installation--Basil Hallward of Basquiat and Warhol notariety--and also the young pupil of Henry Wotton, the insanely wealthy hedonist, closeted and married, drug addicted, brilliantly supercilious Brit. The story ensues: Dorian remains young and unafflicted by age and AIDS. The invention of Self's version is that Dorian becomes a demon, insatiable predator for experience, drugging, corrupting, even raping and murdering, all under that perfect disguise of the charm of his undying beauty. At his own party he infects both Basil and Henry, and proceeds to travel the world like a mogul socialite while his "friends" are left to discover the truth. Basil struggles, rehabs, falls off the wagon, is taken in by New York Dragqueen Trannies, rehabs and tries to turn a new healthy leaf after he finds out he's HIV positive. Henry Wotton, on the other hand, seroconverts and spends his money and time on drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs and drugs. In his sardonic vision of the world, he ironically tells the truth about Dorian, finding a fictitious version of a murderous, deceitful Dorian more interesting than the real, so he thinks, innocent and all too stereotypical, young twink. "I adore destructive spectacles," he says, sucks on a cigarrete and exhales, "they are the last refuge of the creative."
DORIAN, in effect, is the lens by which Self examines the era of gay political selfhood. Out of mid-seventies sexual liberation of the bi-dolls, into the confusion of the 80's secret epidemic and into the 90's newfound culture of tops, bottoms, fems, bears, twinks and republicans, a crime story unfolds parallel to the original, complete with Basil's murder, the blackmail of Dorian, and the final distruction of the tapes, on which the AIDS ridden, murderous, despicable Dorian dances around like something out of Dante--the ring of hell where people dance and laugh in madness after eating their own shit:
"Dorian sprinted straight into this garden of earthly delights. He not only accepted the hands grabbing at his crotch, the drinks shoved in his mouth and the tongues pushed into his ear, he revelled in them. . . He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of his watch! And that's exactly what he did: he loosed the strap of his chunkily expensive diver's watch and thrust it into the hand of a deranged clone, one who was so taken by Dorian's beauty that he licked the face. . . They were draped in chains, the men who jostled and clinked in the Stygian chambers beneath the bar-room at the Mineshaft. Dorian penetrated this sphincter of darkness. He stopped to try his cock in a gloryhole, he paused to watch while two men fucked a third at either end, he moved to join a circle of happy flagellators, he critically pissed on a naked performer in a bathtub. On and on he went; darker and danker it became, as wonkily partitioned room succeeded warped vestibule, each filthier and ranker than the last with the odour of faeces and semen and poppers. All around was the thwack of flesh on flesh, with its ragged accompaniment--the grunts and moans of effortful coition."
This novel is titillating, and might catch some readers off guard with its sexual deliberateness, but it's also a smart, lyric, racing meditation on the Keatsian ideal: youth and beauty cursed by a human struggle against mortality. Self's achievement is especially satisfying if you're gay, since it comes to us at the speed of our culture these last few decades, that have so rapidly changed how we view ourselves among ourselves, as well as how we stand in relation to others. Critics might surely accuse Self of indulging in a negative stereotype of gay culture, but he is writing a novel, afterall. I, for one, am grateful to be entertained by my own darkness. Sell self-help and political-moral doctrine to someone else. Anyway, it's not as if this novel doesn't accomplish a real vision of the world as it is, underwriting our own complicated relationship to it. . .
What I love about the ending to this novel is its epilogue. Where the novel could easily and satisfyingly end after the fourth chapter, at the apparent destuction of the artwork, Self's ability to take everything a step further with both satire and a strange, disturbing, critical eye for gay life as a culture, ultimately proves immensely interesting. Without giving away the ending, Dorian survives, for a time, distracted from his true nature by a lifestyle fueled by appearances and capitalism, much like some people I know today:
"Busy, busy, busy. In May alone there were 2,456,707 hits on the CATHODE NARCISSUS website (www.cathodenarcissus.com). Visitors to the site could view Baz Hallward's original installation, together with other examples of the late artist's work. Sponsored and maintained by the Gray Organisation, the site featured links to GRAY magazine, as well as a photo-file of Dorian's own career in modeling. . . Dorian wanted Baz's work to become synonymous with male beauty at the end of the twentieth century. Male beauty and a new mature pride in homosexual identity--not a pride based on militant identification with an underclass, or a persecuted ethnic minority, but the true pride that came with assuming the responsibility proper to an era, when for the first time gay men and lesbian women were openly assuming positions of power. . . As he bickered over the bill with friends--some gay, some straight--in a Greek restaurant by Primrose Hill one Sunday afternoon, it hit Dorian Gray with sickening suddenness . . . All of us childless, Dorian thought, looking about him at the edgy bantering of his social sibling-substitutes. All of us--relatively speaking--rich, all of us unencumbered with any true, organic responsibilitiy. What's it all for?"
And, then, there is the snide voice of Henry Wotton to rebuke him: "You're all completely interchangeable: cocks, arseholes, jeans, brains. That joint you were in last night was like a swap shop at the end of the world, wouldn't you agree?"
Even if you're not interested in a "gay" novel, per se, you're sure to be drawn in by Self's re-telling. It's peopled by characters both straight and gay, curious and compelling, decadent and disastrous. The plotline not only carries the arc of the original, but assumes comedy and wit as it invents contemporary personas in contemporary predicaments. In the end, this is a novel of political description coupled with Self's burning lyricism, a work masterfully driven by the polar twins of our sensual being: beauty and destruction.
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This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
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