Oscar Wilde used to say that he put his genius into his life, and only his talent into his works. Robert Reilly's first novel evokes the brilliance of Wilde's life, but neither the genius nor the talent of the man. In "The God of Mirrors," Reilly tracks Wilde from his literary and social rise in the mid-1880s to his death in 1900, grafting fiction onto fact to produce a hybrid as admirable as it is disappointing. Reilly sets out to honor and exonerate Wilde and ends by diminishing him, but in the process leads a delightful romp through the Decadence.
"The God of Mirrors" focuses on Wilde's pedophilia, and this premise begets the book's main weakness: By emphasizing the sordid and tragic aspects of Wilde's life, Reilly casts a pall over an essentially merry existence. As devoted as Wilde may have been to his pursuit of boys, he is best remembered for the vibrant, cynical wit that glitters through his works and epigrams. Reilly's novel mutes this lively character into "a hare hypnotized by the snake about to devour him."
Reilly omits the lurid details of Wilde's sexual encounters with Lord Alfred Douglas and the boy prostitutes whose testimony at his celebrated trials led to Wilde's imprisonment for committing "acts of gross indecency." Instead, the novelist concentrates on Wilde's obsessive love for "Bosie" Douglas, but he gives this yearning an innocent purity that makes Wilde seem quite a simp. After one of many bitter spats with his best-loved, for example, a banal Wilde laments the intentions of all those who hovered about him: "And to what were they drawn? They loved the myth of Oscar Wilde he had created, and neither knew nor cared to know the real person buried within."
Reilly's Wilde does at times surface from self-pity to spout epigrams, and those left intact sparkle all the brighter for their speaker's gloom. The Wilde connoisseur, however, will blanch at finding that Reilly has squeezed the wit from some of the best quips: for example, where Wilde actually said, "To win back my youth . . . there is nothing I wouldn't do -- except take exercise, get up early, or to be a useful member of the community," Reilly has him say, "I would do anything to retain my youth -- other than eat properly, avoid strong drink, and get sufficient quantities of sleep."
Happily, Reilly plays straight with the major events of Wilde's life, which contained enough fancy to make good fiction. Moreover, Reilly -- by trade an advertising account executive -- uses his backup material well. He blends allusions to Wilde's works and quotes from his recorded conversations, letters, writings and trial transcripts into the narrative so cleverly that no seams show. Better yet, Reilly conjures up the era through descriptive passages teeming with prose of the appropriate tint. Purple language twists through every esthetic interior; in Wilde's mother's house, "The huge, heavy sofas seemed to be writhing under a sense of their own ugliness, with a nymph smirking at every angle and a dragon mouthing on every claw."
Reilly proves equally adept at evoking the demimonde of 1890s London. An aura of festering degradation shrouds the lewd dialogues of boy prostitutes plotting to blackmail their patrons and wafts over the Marquess of Queensberry's gymnasium full of "overfed carcasses writhing about the floor." Through this rank arena slithers a beautifully drawn Marquess, the ruffian who earned lasting fame for devising the rules of boxing and for sending Wilde to prison.
Only Queensberry's son Bosie rates a more vicious portrait, as "the iceberg upon which Wilde's ostentatious galleon must surely crash." By all accounts nasty, jealous and greedy in real life, Reilly's Bosie is all that and worse: Mephistopheles cast in porcelain and heir to his cruel and lunatic father, through whom he drags the adoring, weak-willed Wilde to two bitter years in Reading Gaol.
Reilly culls other exquisite characters from reality -- including a dazzling Sarah Bernhardt -- to people "The God of Mirrors," where they play the same enhancing roles they had in Wilde's life. In fact, Reilly's only weak character is his Wilde, and he would make a good, pathetic antihero in a novel of pure invention. "The God of Mirrors," however, does not just draw upon Wilde's life; it tells Wilde's story -- without him. Reilly goes even so far as to transform Wilde into a loving husband, despite the real man's distaste for his wife, a beautiful but unbearable dullard.
Oscar Wilde played many roles: wit, drunkard, poet, playwright, pederast, critic. But Wilde never posed as the blameless paragon Reilly makes him in "The God of Mirrors." Wilde would not have liked this portrait, for, as he once said, "Nothing is more painful to me than to come across virtue in a person in whom I have never expected its existence."