WILL Self is a paradox. In the flesh, he is almost antiseptically clean, but his novels are, without exception, filthy. In person, he radiates health and good cheer with his much-discussed problem with opiates - which saw him booted off John Major’s private jet during the 1997 general election campaign for taking heroin - very much a thing of the past.
Meeting outside a Chinese restaurant in Soho, he arrives wearing a cycling helmet, black T-shirt, shorts and green running shoes. He cuts a lean and athletic figure, standing, at six feet five inches, head and shoulders above everyone else in the street.
He strides into the restaurant and greets the waiters affably by name and orders soup and a glass of mineral water. Self has given up cigarettes, alcohol and heroin since his recent marriage (to journalist Deborah Orr) and the birth of his young son, Luther. And for a man who confesses to having an addictive personality, his main vice is now mostly confined to words.
He has been working, off and on, for the past four years on his new novel, Dorian: An Imitation, though he found himself bashing out another long book, How the Dead Live, while he was in the middle of it. Dorian was originally commissioned as a film script, but when nobody wanted to make the film, the script metamorphosed into a full-length novel.
As the title implies, Self’s Dorian is a rewritten and updated version of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1891. Self takes Wilde’s 19th-century characters and transposes the action into the homosexual world of the 1980s and 1990s.
At the centre of the book is the impenetrable Dorian, a charming, promiscuous and infinitely desirable murderer. As everyone around him succumbs to the ravages of Aids, Dorian himself (the "walking retrovirus") remains defiantly beautiful and undamaged, immune from age and illness. But he keeps a guilty secret in his attic: a video installation of himself, entitled Cathode Narcissus.
Self denies that his intention in making the adaptation was to cut Wilde down to size. "Dorian Gray is a modern myth," he says. "It’s so big that you can rewrite it."
His novel is, he says, primarily "an act of homage".
This is not the first time that Self has blurred the boundaries of literary genre and human sexuality. His early book of novellas, Cock and Bull (1992), was a riotous exploration of the polymorphous perverse, in which a woman suddenly sprouted a penis and a man woke up to discover a vagina growing behind his left knee. Dorian revisits this weird, distinctly Selfish terrain of spurting organs, joyless orgasms, unexpected penetrations and sticky betrayals.
Self claims that one of his aims in writing Dorian was to challenge "the deep, deep prejudice in our society against men who adopt the supine role in sodomy". He thinks and hopes that he has written "an uneasy and difficult book".
He is evidently concerned, in updating Wilde, with exploiting the metaphorical resonances of Aids and HIV. The novel’s open-minded take on the Aids epidemic
is (deliberately, he claims) ambiguous,
and impossible to reduce to a simple set
"People were denying it was happening at the time," he says. "Now they’re denying that it ever happened. My personal view is that I don’t think it was different to any other form of promiscuity."
Dorian says a few hard things about the gay underworld (or "the ever-lengthening conga line of sodomy") within which Self’s modernised Dorian Gray operates. When he pays a visit to a sado-masochistic dungeon in New York, the narrator comments: "For men who were meant to be free, how readily they draped themselves in chains."
Here, and elsewhere, the book proposes that gay culture as we have come to understand it is, inevitably, "ephemeral".
"Gay culture has only existed since 1969 [the year of the Stonewall riots in America]," he says. "In the 1970s it allied itself to Marxist fringe groups, then in the 1980s it became coupled to ethnicity. In the Nineties and the Noughties, it becomes an aspect of marketing, because ideology is dead. If a culture can be as mutable as
this then maybe it has outlived its
"I do retreat from the idea of an essential ‘gay’ identity. A lot of gay men say to me that they don’t feel ‘gay’. It’s a very limiting and constraining discourse."
Self maintains that it is a serious mistake to view a 19th-century writer such as Wilde through the distorting lens of our contemporary notions of sexuality.
"Wilde wasn’t a homosexual. He was an ebullient, evolved bisexual. Cocteau said that he was also a hermaphrodite. His doubleness is interesting."
Self is touchy about the suggestion that some readers might disagree with his sceptical presentation of late-20th-century gay culture as hopelessly narcissistic, depthless, and purely interested in appearances.
"How not-gay do you think I am?" he asks. He adds that he, too, has operated on the margins of "straight" society.
"I come from another minority that was decimated by Aids, which is IV [intravenous] drug-users. It’s the same thing."
There is, it must be said, a good deal more to Self’s book than simply sex and death. Dorian undertakes a wide-ranging critique of manners, art and aestheticism, and the fashionable 1980s world of Andy Warhol, Jean-Baptiste Basquiat and Robert Mapplethorpe is mercilessly and unremittingly skewered in one of the book’s
Self is convinced that the New York
pop art scene was a massive confidence
trick, all done with smoke and mirrors.
"Warhol was just rubbish," he says. "He was rubbish. Rubbish. There were one or two ideas there, and the rest of it was hype. Just a bunch of f**king silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe and a few cans. The art object was the Factory itself, it was the milieu, the superstars, the fame. There’s a futility about the culture that elevated him. He’s s**t. He’s a tosser."
He is shouting and banging on the restaurant table by the time this rant draws to a close.
Our conversation turns to the omnisexual writer William Burroughs, on whom Self has written a couple of journalistic essays. Although he admires Burroughs as a stylist and a counter-cultural icon, Self disparages him for completely failing to kick his 50-year heroin habit.
"In my mind Burroughs was a cop-out. He died a drug addict. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And a weirdo. There’s some of Burroughs in Dorian - ‘a straightforward and manly homosexual self-hatred’ - that’s a Burroughs line."
He is cautiously optimistic about the fact that Dorian has been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, yet he still harbours doubts about the media’s interest in literary prizes.
"I find the astonishing level of prestige attached to the Booker slightly unsavoury," says Self. "It’s not what I’m about as a writer. But it might sell more books. It might find me a bigger readership. And of course I’d take the money. I’ve got a kitchen to get done."
Dorian: An Imitation, Viking/Penguin, 16.99