So! It’s the gay 80s and everyone is boning everyone else and also doing a ton of drugs and then suddenly everyone has the HIV, except, mysteriously, Dorian (except not mysteriously to you, Knowing Reader, because you know that the video installation Baz Hallward made of him will be growing gaunt and Kaposi-Sarcoma’d while the flesh-Dorian remains fresh-faced and whole). The plot unfolds exactly as expected, with an epilogual TWIST.
Ambition the First: Self is no Wilde, and his Wotton’s bon mots are not as bon. Furthermore, his Wotton’s bon mots are EXCEEDINGLY conscious of how bon they are supposed to be, and the pressure is more than they can bear.
Ambition the Second: There are parts of this book that could be read as Teh Gays Gave Us All Teh AIDS. I mean, everyone is having a ton of sex and doing a ton of drugs and then everyone gets the HIV and one of Dorian’s favorite debauches is to infect people. This is sort of a problematic undertone, especially given:
Ambition the Third: Self is a self-identified straight man. I FEEL like, objectively and in a perfect world, this wouldn’t matter, right? Because if all people can write about is their own distinct experience, we are going to have a ton of novels about writers hacking away at their typewriters and drinking coffee. But let’s go back in time to 1993 (Dorian was published in 2002) when Self interviewed Martin Amis about Amis’ book Times Arrow. Self first identifies as ‘half American Jewish’ and then claims to have ‘a very prickly sensitivity for any gentile dealing with [the holocaust].’ And yet, he feels ZERO qualms about dealing with what his own narrator calls ‘the cellular Auschwitz of AIDS.’
So. And then there’s the epilogue. Here be spoilers, but they’re necessary for what I think Self is trying to do. In the epilogue we find out that the preceding two-hundred pages have been a manuscript written by the dying Henry Wotton, and that the real Dorian is an upstanding public figure and an out-and-proud homosexual. The epilogual Dorian is understandingly furious about the way his fictional self has been portrayed, and is all ‘He’s taken colossal liberties with the truth!’ to which Lady Wotton replies ‘But it’s a novel, Dorian.’ Like, novels are supposed to take liberties. Creative license is not as much a right as a responsibility.
And while the epilogue’s Dorian isn’t the narcissistic murderous monster of the manuscript, he’s pretty vain and kind of mean. He’s pissed because ‘Henry had seized upon his friends’ foibles and made them into glaring faults,’ which Self seems to see as the satirist’s MO (going back to that 1993 interview, he says ‘satire is a form that depends on comic exaggeration, and on stereotyping’ before admitting that he is ‘unquestionably a satirist’). For Self it seems that fiction is the magnifying glass by which you embiggen your friends’ flaws so that we can all see them better.
Which brings me back to rights of representation. For the record, I don’t think Self is criticizing the riotous living of (some) homosexual men in the 80s. I think his beef lies with the epilogue’s Dorian, this puffed-up, mainstream, successful gay man who has lost touch with his roots. I think his hero is Henry Wotton, who has a lot of sex and does a lot of drugs and then has a lot of AIDS and continues to do a lot of drugs and then dies, belligerent to the last. Vive les cantankerous! Which, *sigh* but just because Self’s Ultimate Hero is not my Ultimate Hero does not make him wrong.
My squeamishness comes from the fact that it took me two reads to get that, and that most casual readers will only read it once and be like yikes. My professor and I both read it assuming Self was gay, because you figure that no straight man would dare. It’d be like me telling a Polish joke. It is, I guess, a bold maneuver, and I can’t bring myself to say its unconscionable, but it makes me feel distinctly shifty in my skin. Which I think would please Self immensely.
What say ye? Is there an inherent problem with a straight man portraying a whack of gay men? Is there only a problem if he makes them all super-rowdy? Is that problem obliterated when we find out it was all a
dream novel-within-a-novel? Can authors do any damn thing they please in the name of art? Opine, please.
The book itself gets five caterpillars (see: Self not being Wilde but trying really hard).