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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars art imitating life imitating art ..., 7 Feb. 2003
This review is from: Dorian: An Imitation (Hardcover)
Will Self naturally leaves himself open to critics who wish to compare his work to Wilde's original, but there is no need constantly to assess how the one stands up against the other. Surely he wasn't intent on writing this particular novel to prove himself a better writer than Wilde, but rather to make his own statement on beauty, the passing of time and the general zeitgeist. Time for a reworking of an old classic? Why not?
Will Self impresses as a wordsmith. And what he creates is an illusion: we are not to take his characters seriously; indeed, they all find it difficult to take themselves seriously. The overabundance of exquisite similes and metaphors allows the author to hide behind language,to create an illusion; that is to say that the world he describes - an excess of sex, vanity and drug use - is a disgusting one, but their vile impact is much attenuated by Self's use of words. Just as the Cathode Narcissus is an illusion of eternal beauty (even the VHS tapes of the Narcissus wither with age), so too Self's language creates an illusory sense that all is rosy in Wootton's world. We aren't to take anything at face value by a long stretch. We might try to read Dorian, perhaps, as one might watch a film from the surrealist era: it is difficult to differentiate in the novel between what is real and what is imagined: can there really be a 'jiggling man' who spends all day rocking back and forth? Can it be possible for anyone to say so young and free from the ravages of time and disease as Dorian? Can a magical piece of art like the Cathode Narcissus possibly exist in a real world? All very unlikely and yet portrayed by Self as perfectly real.
You can almost tell that, as he writes, Self is having fun - he enjoys the act of writing and creating a novel. From the quips uttered by Wootton to the alliteration of some tripartite descriptions of dream sequences, it would be absurd to ignore the fact that Self is totally self-conscious as he writes; he's having fun and there is no reason why we should get overly obsessed with the substance and ignore the style. I'm not applauding Self because he's slightly more difficult to read than your average contemporary author - it's more that this difficulty becomes a treat since it seems to come so effortlessly to the writer and, eventually, becomes highly accessible to the reader. And, to repeat the point made above, the substance or themes of the book are so concerned with illusion versus reality (Henry making a show of his entire life, Batface ignoring the sham of their wedding, Baz struggling to come to terms with his illness, the garden's obstinate refusal to recognize the passing of the seasons, drugs and the way they have of corrupting our image of the world outside and of ourselves, etc.) that if the style of the writer can help reinforce the point, so much the better. A style obsessed with the act of illusion or dissembling used to describe a world intent on lying to itself as it refuses to recognize the passage of time. And if ever there was a desire to refuse the 'surrealism' of the work, the epilogue settles it - it tries to pass off the whole story as the creation of a bitter, dying AIDS sufferer, but ends up confusing Wootton's creation with the real world and the reader is left wondering which is which?
And then, you can discuss the 'themes' until you're blue in the face. Is Self's description of the London homosexual scene lacking in credibility? Undoubtedly. Ditto the drugs scene. I doubt he was aiming at a true representation of these; rather, as with everything else, Self exaggerates unashamedly to give life and fun to his novel - no nuclear families going on a weekend trip to the park in a Ford Mondeo for Mr Self, it would be far too dull.
If you want to pick holes in the novel, there are plenty of places to start - compare it to Wilde's, bemoan his slapdash approach in describing contemporary Britain ... and so on. I thought it was fantastic - he's set himself limits in what he wants to describe, how he's going to describe it, how's he going to write about it. His characters are too shallow for you? They're supposed to be, we live in a shallow world where any idea of depth is, for Self, illusory. The deceptions and conceits we use to describe our world are far more exciting than the world itself and, anyway, whatever is hidden always ends up by being discovered - the murders are solved, death catches up with all the characters who seek to deny its existence and so on.
All remarkably taut and, for the reworking of an idea, not a bad addition to the original idea at all. What I mean is, when you read some of the drivel that gets the Booker, you wonder why slightly risqué or original authors like Self (or Julian Barnes) don't get a look in. I'm glad I read it.
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