Will Self's DORIAN is a "shameless imitation" of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray that reimagines the novel in the milieu of London's early-80s art scene, which for liberated homosexuals were a golden era of sex, drugs and decadence before the AIDS epidemic struck later in the decade. It is "an age in which appearances matter more and more and more. Only the shallowest of people won't judge by them." Young Dorian Gray, just out of school, is a trust funded, impressionable Adonis-like blonde with none of the cynicism of the characters who end up corrupting his innocence even as they love him for it. He arrives in London to help socialite and philanthropist Phyllis Hawtree with her project of running a shelter for young drug addicts. He knows he is strikingly beautiful, that he could be a male model, but he tries not to get too caught up in the "looks thing." Basil Hallward, an artist friend of Phyllis's son Henry Wotton, meets Dorian and immediately falls for him, asking him to pose for a video installation called Cathode Narcissus, wherein Dorian is surrounded by nine television monitors which project images of himself looking into a mirror. In the book's final pages, we discover that Dorian is so taken by the images that he makes a wish that they will age while he remains eternally young. And indeed, Dorian soon swears he sees some faint traces of aging in the images.Meanwhile Dorian is so impressed with the witty, sophisticated banter between Baz and Wotton that he immediately wants to be part of their world (he is described as a social chameleon, easily slipping into the characteristics and fashions and mannerisms of those around him). Dorian, then, breaks up with his college girlfriend and takes up with Baz's friend Wotton, a rich, intelligent but affectless homosexual boozer and cokehead (and careless Jaguar driver) who has a loveless marriage of convenience with the socialite Lady Victoria, a somewhat batty woman who is fine to live in denial of her husband's sexuality so long as their marriage keeps bringing in a flood of party invitations. Jealous of Baz's affections for Dorian and eager to see Dorian "thoroughly pleasure this jaded century" via his unparalleled looks and money, he takes Dorian under his wing and Dorian soon grows to prefer the wild, devil-may-care Wotton over the earnest, somewhat pretentious Baz. ("Baz Hallward the wayward acolyte, seething with energy and bumptiousness; while the younger man [Wotton] played the part of his mentor, consumed with cool, eaten up with indifference.")"Dorian knew his own limitation: he had money but no real style. His upbringing had been here and there, on the fringes of film sets, in foreign hotelsâ€¦ It had given him polish but no shine. He lacked the deep lustre of someone like Wotton." But in truth, Wotton is no better himself: "Henry Wotton was subject to saying to anyone who would listen that the chameleon is the most significant of modern types." And while outer appearance would seem to belie this, the truth was that beneath the Planet of Wotton was a realm of complete flux." The characters to which Wotton introduces Dorian are no better: drug addicts who revere Dorian only for his looks and money. As Dorian gets caught up in this world he becomes every bit as superficial as these people: "Dorian had begun to display talents in the only two areas of life that are worth considering, he was becoming a seducer par excellence, and he was transforming himself into an artificer of distinction, a person who is capable of employing all of the objective world to gain his own end." He eventually falls for a junkie named Herman largely for his beautiful black skin. To celebrate the debut of Cathode Narcissus, Dorian invites Herman over for an orgy with Wotton, Baz, and the others although not as jaded as Dorian has become (and apparently not a homosexual), Herman's craving for drugs is such that he agrees, and at the party he shares a needle with...
In this retelling of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, most of the original's characters are cleverly transmuted into their late-20th-century counterparts: dissolute Henry Wotton, now openly homosexual with a nasty heroin habit; his prot g , eager young video artist "Baz" Hallward; and the title character, the quintessential amoral narcissist and a "seducer par excellence" (of men and, occasionally, women). In the summer of 1981, Hallward captures Gray's youth and beauty in a video installation that he titles "Cathode Narcissus." He and Wotton take Gray under their wing and school him in the ways of profligate London living, early '80s-style. By 1997, all three are HIV-positive, though Dorian, of course, shows no sign of illness. Self uses Wilde's plot to examine post-Stonewall gay life, from its drug-fueled hedonistic excesses to the reckoning of the AIDS epidemic. The novel skewers every layer of British society street hustlers, members of Parliament and the idle rich. Real-life figures also appear, most notably the "princess of bulimia," Diana Spencer. The prose is laced with epigrammatic, lightly amusing pseudo-Wildean wit ("I want my sins to be like sushi fresh, small and entirely raw," says Wotton), but its wordplay and evocation of debauchery also owe something to Evelyn Waugh and Martin Amis (channeling Hunter Thompson and Irvine Welsh). Self's mannered prose can grow tedious, and there's hardly a sympathetic character to be found, but the writer has undertaken and largely succeeded in pulling off a daring act of literary homage.