Dorian: An Imitation, by Will Self, Viking, 2002, cover by John Hamilton
“The Picture of Dorian Gray is a prophecy and Dorian is the fulfilment,” said Will Self of the relationship between his 2002 novel and Oscar Wilde’s 1890 original.
Self’s Dorian is not for the faint of heart. The novel throbs with explicit gay sex and hard drug use. In Wilde’s novel, artist Basil Hallward paints an intricately detailed portrait of young Dorian, which captures so much of the subject’s essence that it ages in his stead. Self’s Hallward is a visual installation artist whose picture is a video called “Cathode Narcissus”.
On the cover, ultra-plain letters stretch and pixelate across an old television monitor – the novel is set in the 1980s and 1990s, and so the screen looks suitably of the period. But there’s more. Dorian’s subtitle – “An Imitation” – hints at not only the relationship of the novel to its predecessor but also the replicable nature of “Cathode Narcissus”. Factory-made and far from unique, it’s a clear nod to Warhol, who in Self’s novel was Hallward’s mentor.
The lettering warps over the cover, ill-framed and ghosting to reveal spectral colours at its edges. We view the screen up close, just as we view Dorian’s acolytes uncomfortably close. Yet, the real triumph of this cover is what it doesn’t show. Its graceless sans serif isn’t beautiful, it isn’t florid or floral: this isn’t Wilde’s decadent fin de siècle Dorian, but Will Self’s grubby, Aids-era Dorian.
The paperback’s cover is far more notorious; it was banned by WHSmith for featuring an image of a naked man – a still from Sam Taylor-Wood’s film Brontosaurus. The fuss it caused seems silly now.
Instead, the hardcover poses unfathomable questions. Its distorted, secret colours hint at the nature of voyeurism; its depths-within-depths an optical illusion forming an analogue of society’s ever closer examination of the famous and the depraved. A novel as acidic as Dorian doesn’t need a billboard, it needs a smokescreen. This cover does just that, its simplicity utterly deceiving.