Dorian: an imitation, by Will Self

Outdoing Wilde in sex, excess and snobbery
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The Independent Culture

It's been done before, but not like this. Five years ago, Jeremy Reed's novel (also Dorian) provided a sequel to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Gray survives the mutilation of his portrait and flees with Lord Henry Wotton to France, where they encounter their maker, released from Reading Gaol.

Will Self updates the tale to 1981. "The Royal Broodmare" – Diana – prepares to marry Charles, while a clique of snobs, drug addicts and deviants serve their time in Chelsea digs. "Baz Hallward", Henry Wotton's artist friend, returns from Warhol's Factory to find the stunning Gray, who becomes the subject of Hallward's most daring video installation piece.

The triangular relationship between Wotton, Hallward and Gray spectacularly implodes in Self's version. Two things are missing: a rigid set of class relations, which the Eighties setting renders impossible, and the sexual reticence, or discretion, on Wotton's part, which might confirm his power over Gray. Reticence and discretion aren't in Self's palette.

As with Sade, reading about excess proves duller than taking part. Self leaves the married Wotton a worrying closet case – out of time, but still more out of his milieu. The pretence that he might corrupt Gray, rather than the reverse, isn't sustained.

Fans may appreciate Self's prose daubs and will indulge the "daring" misogyny that bleeds from the male protagonists. Suddenly, Wilde looks naive. Gray rejects one suitor for "the generally insulting curvaceousness of her". He desires boyishness in either gender, as Self requires adolescence in the reader. Both are consumed by a longing to resuscitate the smug self-regard of public-school snickerers who trade filthy tales about women, gays and others.

The punters are lads in this together. They won't care if the detail goes wrong, as when the lyrics of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" are misquoted. Perhaps they'll indulge the routine drug stuff: all those "flushed works full of green blood".

HIV haunts the Groucho, and Gray leaps the Atlantic in pursuit of baser thrills: "I've never used a condom in my life! Some nights I've taken it in the arse from twenty heavy-hitters." This grotesquerie has been served up before, as anyone familiar with Oscar Moore's A Matter of Life and Sex will know. Wit? Try terminally ill Wotton feeling "gothic with disease – as if Cologne Cathedral were being shoved up my fundament".

Gray and Self share the misconception that they need not take responsibilities. But the artwork that frames Gray does change, and Self's period fixation obsolesces. Plots become creaky; jokes grow stale – and novels-without-values can be given them, as Wilde discovered.

Shamefully, Self does not even stand by Dorian's serial transgressions of taste. A fumbled epilogue reworks the preceding pages as Wotton's lying manuscript, born of his jealous, virus-laden imagination: "It wasn't simply that Dorian hadn't contracted Aids, it was also that he'd genuinely cared for those who had." But the rictus sneer of this book isn't so readily reversed, nor its cheap flippancy concerning Aids, and its hostile prurience towards homosexuality. This novel is more mired in the selfish misanthropy of the 1980s than its author understands.

The reviewer is writing a biography of Ronald Firbank