There’s a moment in Andrew McGahan’s Last Drinks where the most chronic of the alcoholics confesses to his shame regarding his wish to be cured of his disease. Initially there’s some confusion about this, it appears momentarily that he’s ashamed of not wanting to be cured, of wishing to be without the burden of being a functional human being. But no, he’s ashamed of wanting to be dry. He wants to be dry but that desire reveals his inability to handle it, to continue his life as a high functioning alcoholic. But he can’t, he’ll live only as long as he is dry. And then he dies anyway. Will Self’s Dorian is written with the same sense of shame, a consciousness of a twofold failure of being: shame at going all the way or, shame at not wanting to go at all.
The critical conversations around Dorian are focused on the Wilde connections; the straight bloke descriptions of gay sex; and the failure of self regulation to produce social good. But for me these conversations aren’t substantive because at the heart of the book is shame. Shame reaches out from the pages. Dorian is a book about not wanting to be free, of wanting to be constrained and constrained by something worthy, by weighty chains on liberty.
The story is the same as it ever was: Dorian Gray lives free while his avatars bear the scars. It is for this reason that Dorian is not one of Self’s more loved books. The fetish for newness and a grumpy disdain for such obvious intertextualities from those who prefer to demonstrate their cleverness by figuring out the jigsaw puzzle without looking at the box mean that Dorian isn’t regarded with the awe or authority that, say, Great Apes or How The Dead Live can generate. Certainly not the same obstreperous vivacity as The Quantity Theory of Insanity or Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys.
Simply put there are many other Will Self works which are more artful, more potent, more verbose, and less controlled than Dorian. Written as an imitation it is not required to be any of these: the novel can ride on Wildean coattails and does so with soft hands. Consequently Self is able to concentrate on shame, on the pushme-pullyou action of having too much or having too little: throughout Dorian Wotton and Gray play out a savage mangling of the human condition between these two poles. Wotton is tethered and resistant; Gray is unconstrained and lush. These pincers of shame push Gray and Wotton toward their sorry ends.
For Dorian Gray nothing is shame-worthy. The worthiness of shame, the value of it, is marked only by his VHS doppelgangers. Dorian must not know the other, can’t know the other, or the awareness of the harm and horror would become clear to him rather than his doubles. Wotton, on the other hand, is no fool and knows how shameful his existence is: the drug use, the sham marriage, the cavalier sex, the terrible foppishness with which he approaches the world. Wotton’s fetish for wit is a proxy for his shame. Where Dorian discursively excludes the other, Wotton lives for the other, he requires the other. Shame is a social perception, it needs others to work, and no one can be a solo bon vivant.
As these tensions play out the need for constraints, the action of limits, on being is connected to the tenuous frailty of the body. The action of AIDS on Wotton’s body represents the corporeality of shame, just as the blossoming ugliness of Dorian’s doubles corresponds to Dorian’s shamelessness. The frailty of the body is, of course, the ultimate shame. Without it liberty could be truly free but it isn’t, can’t be. As a result Dorian reveals the fallacy of our banal, supermarket liberty, and condemns it as being nothing more than a bedtime story we tell ourselves for comfort, a notional comfort that elides the weakness, insecurity, delicacy and vulnerability central to being a person. For this reason Dorian is a very worthy read.