Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Century Too Late: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray. Written by Oscar Wilde.

: What's this? That's right, I'm pitting my movie addled mind against a classic piece of literature. We're pulling the old switch-a-roo on you this week and my lovely collaborator Doomwench will be reviewing the movie. And check us out, this book/movie paring only just barely counts as a vampire story, what with Dorian ruining people lives like some kind of a social succubus (or y'know, more accurately but less alliteratively an incubus). Perhaps this means we'll one day be able to learn and grow enough to review something not vampire-y at all.

Preconceptions: I'm a fair to middling Oscar Wilde fan, having read a lot of his essays, enjoying the hell out of the Importance of Being Ernest and sighing like a ridiculous groupie over Stephen Fry's portrayal of him in Wilde (the movie). I bought a copy of this book over a year ago, but what with one fantasy book about sex with dragons and another (I am a woman of classy literary tastes, which is why I don't usually write book reviews), I hadn't gotten around to reading it. I assumed since I enjoyed all of his other stuff (usually with a mean chuckle) that I'd dig this too.

General Review
: Just in case you read even more trashy novels than me and you haven't heard the plot of this book, I'll give you a quick run down, there will be spoilers (can I even spoil a book that's over a hundred?). Basil is an artist who falls madly in love with the super hot Dorian Gray (totally platonicly, of course) who he has taken to painting. Henry, Basil's friend, demands to meet Dorian. Upon doing so Henry decides it would be fun to corrupt Dorian and shape him into a hedonistic fop. During their meeting, Henry goes on and on (seriously, for some 20 pages) about how great it is to be young and fresh. Dorian has to face up to the fact he won't be young forever, but the painting that Basil is doing of him will. He wishes the painting could age rather than him. Dorian slowly begins to fall under Henry's influence and eventually becomes every bit the thoughtless dilettante that Henry is. He notices that his wish has come true and that the bigger a jerkwad he is the older, more haggard and meaner the painting looks. He waffles for a long while about becoming a better person, but never gets around to it. Eventually, he can't stand seeing his bad choices paraded in front of him in the portrait so he stabs it and dies.

Pretty cool idea for a plot, right? Sounds like a particularly good Twilight Zone episode with a handful of homoerotic undertones thrown in for spice. I'm sad to say that where this falls out is in the writing. And don't think it's just because I don't like or understand the 1800's style. Despite my predilection to reading books that are little more than lycanthropic porn, I also get pretty excited about Austen, Dickens and Browning. No, unfortunately, I think Wilde falls into the trap a lot of the really stellar essayists and playwrights fall into when writing a novel: it's a completely different medium and shouldn't be approached the same way.

When we were paying attention to the plot, I was fully absorbed. But the vast majority of the book is a lot like reading a philosophical dialogue barely veiled in plot, while this was interesting (and who doesn't enjoy a well written philosophical dialogue?) it wasn't a novel. Yes, it was thought provoking and made me ponder the nature of beauty, different types of love and morality, but so do my ethics textbooks and essays. There are plenty of novelists who manage to strike a good balance between story and message, but I think Wilde didn't manage it this time. I wish he'd taken another kick at the can with this book under his belt, because he is an exceptionally good writer (making a really controversial statement there).

When I started this, I was also excited to see some of those famous quotes in their proper context (y'know, like: "the only way to get rid of a
temptation is to yield to it"). This proved to be another disappointment. The first few pithy statements made me laugh and feel intellectually smug, but there were so many of them that it became distracting. A lot of the time they were crow barred in and jarred me away from the story. While these witty comments worked well in Wilde's plays, I didn't care for them in the book.

But don't let me turn you entirely off, there is plenty about Dorian Gray to recommend it. There was a lush sensuality (no, I'm not trying to sell you a blasphemous dessert) captured in this book that was deeply effective. Its portrayal of languid indolence zapped right through me and made it a lot more likely that I'd cuddle up and read than get up and do the dishes. I can't think of many books where the atmosphere hits me quite so hard.

The characters are also worth mentioning. Dorian's fall from grace is one of the more believable ones I've read. The fact that he starts off weak and vain probably helps, but reading him justify his reprehensible actions to himself clinches it. Sybil (Dorian's girlfriend) is a genuine ingenue who's innocence doesn't come off as syrupy. It's actually pleasant to watch her be happily in love. Henry, despite being heavily involved in some of the yacky sections, is by far my favourite character. His gleeful debauching of Dorian and stealing him away from Basil (who I thought was a rather dull character foil for our bad boys) was a delight to read.

The Picture of Dorian Gray wasn't what I was expecting. It was about half novel and half philosophical discourse. I liked both parts, but they didn't meld into the cohesive whole I'd expect of a writer of Wilde's calibre. There were definitely moments that felt like I was being forced to read something for a class, not something I usually face when reading good lit. It's worth reading for the good bits, but be warned that it's an uneven reading experience.

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