Oscar Wilde is one of those literary figures who, in becoming an icon of the cultural imagination, has rather detached himself from the context that spawned him. Today, he’s almost a brand name, his pithy, witty quotes sprinkled on merchandise everywhere, from mugs to magnets, touted as containing some sort of deeper meaning when really their point was precisely to be paradoxical. His most famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is published by every imprint under the sun, marketed as a painstakingly told Faustian tale about succumbing to evil, despite Wilde’s predilection for not including moralizing in art. Which is all to say: today, Wilde’s varied and paradoxical life seems to have been distilled into a number of conceptions that are rather removed from their actual meanings.
The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray reads a bit like the product of just that kind of distillation. Mitzi Szereto’s novel takes as its premise the idea that Dorian Gray faked his death in order to live out a life of sensation and experience to the fullest – a flimsy premise in itself, since the protagonist of Wilde’s original seemed to have no problem pursuing new sensations in the midst of Victorian society; in fact, his double life (a popular concept in late Victorian fiction) was part of the entire point.
More concerning than the premise is the rest of the story, though, a lengthy tale depicting Dorian Gray’s decadent escapes. It’s revealing of our time that what Wilde could only hint at in The Picture of Dorian Gray in his own Victorian time can be freely written about today. Though Wilde had to leave many of Dorian’s crimes and sensations to the imagination, today’s times are much more lenient towards a novel that details Dorian’s decadence. And, though Wilde had to leave the homoerotic subtext of his novel just there – in the subtext (which still did not spare him the criminal charge of “gross indecency”), our day affords the luxury of being more candid.
There is, however, that perpetual problem that sometimes things are best left to the imagination. Sometimes, in the process of distilling a complex literary personality into a tangible icon of popular culture, one ends up with a story that’s both simple and simplistic. In this particular case, it’s a story that goes for shock value – and finds that shock value in the easiest place one might find it: sex. (How very Victorian).
Szereto’s novel – after sprinkling a variety of seemingly randomly chosen quotes from The Picture of Dorian Gray (see above statement about the popularity of splashing Wilde’s paradoxical statements everywhere) all over the chapter headings – begins with a bit of a bland prologue, depicting the aftermath of an orgy as a way to set the mood. With this accomplished, the text proceeds into a first chapter that’s essentially a SparkNotes of Wilde’s novel, as well as a walk-through of Wilde’s own first chapter with a few extra scenes sprinkled here and there. Like everything else in the novel, this retelling, too, is viewed through the lens of sex, with erections popping up all over the place as a sort of quick clue to the audience that the characters are having an emotional reaction. It’s really quite cheap, especially given the fact that Wilde’s original talks about “throbbing to curious pulses” with much more subtlety and depth then the “stirrings” in Dorian’s trousers that Szereto inserts throughout.
The entire book continues within this sort of framework, as Dorian’s escapades all turn out to be variations on the theme of sex. As Dorian travels the world, from Paris to Morroco to South America to New Orleans, Szereto does spare some small amount of effort for descriptions, but even with her descriptive eloquence, there’s not of that atmosphere that Wilde was so talented at conjuring up. Instead, Szereto dedicates her efforts to describing Dorian seeking out every possible way of having sex.
It honestly feels, more than anything, lazy. Mostly because it’s actually a little ridiculous to imagine that a character who supposedly sought to experience every single sensation available to mankind would spend a hundred or so years limiting himself to a variety of different kinds of sex. In Wilde’s original, Dorian’s experiences were multiple and multi-faceted: he attended church services because of how they affected his imagination, collected gemstones and holy relics to revel in their materiality, constantly read literature, and ventured into opium dens and the lowest corners of London only to return to high society and play music while smelling fragrant flowers. What experiences Wilde could touch on within the bounds of propriety, he did – and they were varied and unique. How simplistic, then, to reduce Dorian’s thirst for experience merely to the sexual, and his responses to it (which in the original ranged from wonder to ennui) to the sexual as well.
Still, it’s engaging enough as a story, in a sort of simple way. Sex in itself presents a wonderful sort of variety, and it is intriguing to read about Dorian provoking one man or seducing another, wondering just how it’ll turn out. In the midst of these, there’s a brief interlude that reads like nothing more than a retelling of the whole Sibyl Vane fiasco, only with sex scenes inserted, with the exact same predictable result. There’s also the finale of the novel, which attempts to touch at concepts of redemption in the style of Wilde, but fails lamentably precisely because the story’s been so concerned with other things. In short, The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray is told with a light touch and stylistic eloquence, but it reads more as yet another title from an imprint dedicated to erotica (Cleis Press) and less as a sequel to Wilde’s novel.