If you’re the type of person who finds Beckett and Kafka as hilarious as they are grim and feels strangely compelled by the best moments of David Cronenberg’s nauseous sensuality, a new book from Will Self must seem like a custom-written gift. You’d be hard-pressed to find equivalent characters anywhere else: Cock and Bull’s Carol, who sprouts a penis just above her urethra, or the uncannily savage and surreal Fat Controller from My Idea of Fun. And the way this writer’s take on the weird, sick, and twisted sometimes jumps out of control — one of Carol’s more brutal moments finds her raping a man, and within a few pages of My Idea’s opening, the narrator " addresses " himself sexually to the neck of a decapitated corpse — is something you’d forgive, choosing to overlook excess for the energy at work on the page, the fierce intellect, and the wicked comic slants. You’d also forgive a lot of unevenness. If he’s ever written a wholly sympathetic character, Self has kept him, her, or it quarantined. Plot development isn’t always his thing, and even for the most perverse among us, his compulsion for the off-the-chart gross-out can border on the puerile. With Dorian, a reworking of Oscar Wilde’s canonical The Picture of Dorian Gray, there’s all that to forgive, but there’s also good deal of pleasure to take away.
Self gathers Wilde’s characters — Henry Wotton, Basil " Baz " Hallward, Dorian Gray — and transplants them out of fin de siècle Britain and into the gay demi-monde of 1980s and ’90s London and New York, letting nothing remain coded or hidden, as it was in Wilde’s novel. The players, whom Wilde had languidly puffing opiated cigarettes, are blasted out of their skulls on heroin and crack; the unnamed debaucheries Wilde attributes to Dorian are, in Self’s hands, unflinchingly portrayed in " conga lines of buggery, " murder scenes worthy of Bret Easton Ellis, and the willful, sociopathic transmission of HIV.
Except for those elements and a few other modernizing flourishes — Wilde’s painting of Dorian takes shape as a video installation, and Self adds an ending extending beyond the original — we’re left with the same story. What with their flair for the decadent and their sympathy for the gothic, Self and Wilde are a good fit. Where Wilde riffed in multiple levels of meaning (the nature of art, appearance versus reality), Self concentrates on the fetishization of beauty. Self has previously written about the profound influence that Ireland’s great foppish dandy has exerted on his work, but this novel still begs the question: why redo what didn’t need redoing? Dorian Gray mightn’t be flawless, with its unending stream of self-conscious quips and one-liners, but it’s aged just fine.
Of course, you could also ask Gus Van Sant about his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, or Pussy Galore about their song-for-song redux of Exile on Main Street. The answer from all parties — including Self — might well take in brinksmanship, reverent homage, and a punky thrill for demolition, but I’d also bet that they all had a blast. The glee that came off the page in the more gruesome passages of Self’s previous works is just as palpable in Dorian, and that’s probably why the book is all over the place: the guy is simply having too much fun running over a literary hero’s terrain to stick to the straight and narrow. Self breaks narrative voice, plays with linearity and time in a series of jump cuts that betray his novel’s origins as a screenplay, and indulges in some downright sloppy writing — who needs a few hundred words to say that one of your characters is clairvoyant?
But there are good parts, too, like this Burroughsian description of a drug den: " Dorian reclined beside a half-open sash window on a bank of organic detritus. Filthy clothes, rotting banana skins, used syringes, stale crusts of bread. He stared past the wan sun of a forty-watt bulb, dangling on its furred fifteen-foot length of flex, to a postage stamp of ceiling which sweated toxins. " Or vicious rejoinders like " ‘But you also have to remember, Baz, that along with HIV another plague hit our sceptered isle in the mid-eighties, courtesy of your American friends. This was a pandemic of pecs and an outbreak of deltoids. Every underemployed faggot in town began to " work out, " as if to raise a sinewy standard against the wasting disease.’ " And in Baz, Self creates his most likable character to date — a man palpably torn by the creative impulse of art, the self-destruction of drugs, a deep-seated self-loathing, and a hopeless obsession with Dorian Gray.
Will Self reads at WordsWorth, 30 Brattle Street in Harvard Square, on Tuesday, February 25 at 7 p.m. Call (617) 354-5201.