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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Will Self

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To purchase Dorian

Title: Dorian
Author: Will Self
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 278 pages
Availability: Dorian - US
Dorian - UK
Dorian - Canada
  • An Imitation

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Our Assessment:

B+ : mordant modern version of Wilde's tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 3/2003 Thomas Mallon
Daily Telegraph . 14/9/2002 Sam Leith
The Guardian A 21/9/2002 Neil Bartlett
The Guardian . 21/6/2003 David Jays
The Independent F 10/10/2002 Richard Canning
The LA Times . 9/2/2003 Lucretia Stewart
New Statesman . 7/10/2002 Hugo Barnacle
The New Yorker . 20/1/2003 .
The NY Times F 28/1/2003 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/1/2003 Sophie Harrison
The Observer A 29/9/2002 Jonathan Heawood
The Spectator C 28/9/2002 Julian Mitchell
Sunday Telegraph D 29/9/2002 Julia Flynn
Sydney Morning Herald . 4/1/2003 Don Anderson
The Times . 16/10/2002 Ruth Scurr
TLS . 20/9/2002 R. Douglas-Fairhurst
The Village Voice . 17/1/2003 J.Y.Yeh
The Washington Post . 17/1/2003 Carolyn See

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though generally at least impressed by aspects of it (and put off by others)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Self would have no chance at all if he couldn't at least hold a candle to Wilde's nonstop cleverness and wordplay. A fool's dare for a writer ? Probably; but Self stays in the game to a remarkable extent" - Thomas Mallon, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Self modestly subtitles Dorian "an Imitation". And so it is. It is an imitation of Oscar Wilde and, outstandingly, an imitation of Will Self. (...) But the principal character, as ever, is Will Self's famously clotted prose, with its cock-eyed similes and contorted sub-clauses, its French-loan phrases and its arcane vocabulary. (...) But the book doesn't fully engage, and it doesn't fully cohere. You leave Dorian frustrated at being exposed to a talent at once as vigorous and as partial as that of Will Self." - Sam Leith, Daily Telegraph

  • "(T)he final twist, extending the story beyond Wilde's own ending, pays full homage to the original's genuinely unheimlich ability to disturb. Once again, it seems, Wilde's text has achieved a perverse, posthumous triumph over the forces of narrative decency. Self's reincarnation of Dorian has taken the fag ends of both an English century and an English myth and given them new, troubling and hugely entertaining life." - Neil Bartlett, The Guardian

  • "Self junks Wilde's pouchy sadness for the queasy seductions of the style decades." - David Jays, The Guardian

  • "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. (...) Shamefully, Self does not even stand by Dorian's serial transgressions of taste." - Richard Canning, The Independent

  • "It's a nasty little book, but ultimately Self seems somewhat to lose his nerve. Yes, Dorian gets his comeuppance, just as he does in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but while Wilde's ending is perfectly crafted, Self's is messy, drawn-out and, like so much of his book, very self-indulgent." - Lucretia Stewart, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The book is as funny, and as entertainingly nasty, as you would expect. Otherwise the object of the exercise remains fairly obscure. (...) The idea of Dorian Gray as a zeitgeist figure, representing a corrupt culture obsessed with youth and appearances, is viable, but too thunderingly obvious to be the real point." - Hugo Barnacle, New Statesman

  • "Mapping Wilde's era onto Thatcher's makes Self's grungy style incongruously mannered (...), as if Nancy Mitford and Johnny Rotten had decided to collaborate. The novel's sub-Wildean epigrams (...), the ceaseless talk, and the preordained plot preclude any satisfying development." - The New Yorker

  • "(A) clumsy, unwitty rip-off of Wilde's classic (.....) (T)he resulting book feels like a dogged mercenary re-write meant to showcase Mr. Self's voyeuristic fascination with drugs, rough sex and wretched excess and his penchant for easy moralism." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Self (...) has a fatal weakness for daffy polysyllables, alliteration and puns. (...) (T)he effect on the page is occasionally that of a man leaning carelessly on a nail gun. Then there is Self's insistence on spelling out all of the nasty bits. (...) (T)he satire and wit are all too easily buried beneath the heaps of ketamine and methyl-dioxyamphetamine and worse." - Sophie Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Whatever Self is trying to say about our obsessive fascination with beauty, and the corrosive power of the establishment, is savage, if not wholly original. It will upset people. (...) But it's not all polysyllables and fisting. Beneath the attention-grabbing fun and games beats the heart of a perverse bonkbuster. Self is infinitely readable, even when adopting someone else's plot and recycling his own jokes" - Jonathan Heawood, The Observer

  • "Dorian ends, like its inspiration, with the unexceptionable if banal conclusion that total selfishness eventually leads to self-extinction. But Wilde reworked without the wit can never be called well-written." - Julian Mitchell, The Spectator

  • "The opening paragraph of Dorian, unquotable in a family newspaper, is so shudderingly awful that anyone picking up the novel in a bookshop will cringe in embarrassment and return the book to the shelf forthwith. (...) The writing improves -- it could hardly not improve -- and, as always with Self, the playful use of language is allied to a willingness to play with big, thought-provoking ideas." - Julia Flynn, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Self is a provocative writer -- unless you are a bigoted, homophobic, misogynist, racist aristocrat, his new novel will make you sick. No one will be more gratified than Self, so shamelessly eager to push satire to the limit." - Ruth Scurr, The Times

  • "At once a homage, a parody and a critical commentary, Dorian provides a set of variations on Wilde's novel which is as supremely mannered as its original. (...) And yet, for all the fizzing energy of individual jokes, the novel as a whole is oddly lifeless. (...) Self leaves so little to the reader's imagination that he also leaves too little room for his own imagination to work in. And that's a shame." - Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Call me sentimental, but Self's sympathetic touch makes his remembrance of things past a worthy, if less witty, successor to the original." - J.Y. Yeh, The Village Voice

  • "This is a very ambitious work. (...) The scope here is panoramic but the loathing undermines the ambition. How we hate the diseases that come from sex ! And, under all the titillation and exploitation and pornography, etc. etc., how we hate sex, of any and every kind." - Carolyn See, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Will Self's imitation, Dorian, is a modern version of Wilde's famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Set in the 1980s and 90s, it adheres closely to Wilde's original. The names, especially of the central characters, are familiar: Dorian Gray, Basil ("Baz") Hallward, and Henry Wotton (though Sibyl Vane becomes a Herman). The story too, though here it is a video installation -- nine videos of the youthful Dorian, made in 1981 by Baz and titled Cathode Narcissus -- that hold the secret to Dorian's ageless state.
       Self's is also a darker tale. Drug use is rampant, especially by Henry Wotton, and AIDS the scourge of the age. Sexual (usually, though not exclusively, homo-sexual) activity runs rampant too, little of it very pretty. Bodies rot away -- Henry's for most of the novel -- while Dorian remains unravaged, despite indulging in all the worst excesses (and seducing and destroying countless victims of both sexes). And there's murder, too.
       Self finds in Wilde's tale a proper story for our age -- or at least the last two decades of the 20th century. He sees this fin-de-siècle much like the previous one. Beginning his story in 1981 in a house built in 1881 he remarks on "a peculiarly similar character of the times". Britain is in a different sort of decline, but a certain decadence is at the root of it. Echoing Wilde, he finds Britain "in the process of burning most of its remaining illusions".
       At first Dorian holds his own looks to be "such a superficial thing", but Wotton knows better:

You say that Dorian, you say that, but we are in an age when appearances matter more and more. Only the shallowest of people won't judge by them.
       The book soon jumps ahead ten years, and then continues through the 1990s. Wotton, like many, is ravaged by AIDS and wastes away over the course of the decade; Dorian remains unchanged. By the mid-eighties Dorian was already "moving in the most elevated and catholic of circles", and he continues his wild ways, irresistible. Another figure of the times also plays a large role in the background -- the Royal Fag Hag, the Princess of Bulimia, Her Royal Regurgitation. Dorian finds in her an obvious peer:
He's developed a particular affinity with Thickie Spencer, because like her he's a psychological parvenu. (...) They find acting so much more real than reality.
       The video installation, Cathode Narcissus, -- with the aging Dorian on it -- is the secret to Dorian's invulnerability. Wotton doesn't quite believe in it but sums up what appears to be Self's conviction:
With a few notable exceptions -- Balthus, Bacon, Modigliani -- the artists of this era have been in headlong flight from beauty or any meaningful representation of the human form. Were Basil Hallward's video of Dorian Gray to have a life of its own, it would be a fitting coda to this vile age with its spasm of isms.
       The videos of course also leave Dorian vulnerable, and art eventually does destroy the man who ultimately can't escape self-destruction. But Self also offers a coda, an Epilogue with a different twist on things -- though with art, again, the shaping force.

       A sharp commentary on an ugly age, Self's novel is largely a success. Some of it is nasty -- a revelling in vileness that doesn't always work to best effect -- but much is right on target. Self doesn't have the light touch that Wilde did, and isn't quite as good with the epigrams ("To live life with true artistry is to perform a successful brain-bypass operation -- on yourself" is one less than sparkling example), but he does capture a slice of 80s and 90s life very well. The story proceeds somewhat unevenly, the different strands -- Wotton, Dorian, Baz -- pulling it in different directions, but Self does keep the readers interest and manages to tie things together, again and again.
       Not a nice book, but worthwhile.

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Dorian: Reviews: The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde: Will Self: Other books by Will Self under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • The collection of essays, Alasdair Gray, with an Introduction by Self
  • Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Will Self was born in 1961. He has written numerous acclaimed works of fiction, as well as a great deal of non-fiction.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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