An Imitation

By Will Self

Grove. 288 pp. $24 Will Self has created a world where no eye is without encrusted rheum, no nostril without caked mucus and cocaine, no set of lips without days-old dried saliva at either corner. There's no home in this author's London without clouds of dust motes in polluted, indoor air, filthy dishes on filthier sinks, uncomfortable furniture on hideous carpets, ashtrays clogged with ash, half-empty bottles strewn about, drug paraphernalia coming in the windows.

Bad hygiene and bad housekeeping serve here as two of a hundred metaphors for an utterly corrupt -- in Self's eyes, at least -- society: the male homosexual community from the '80s to the present, during the ravages of the first wave of our global epidemic of AIDS.

What a horrendous torrent of shame and rage and self-loathing! What an evocation of "evil"! But it's hard to conjure evil, and is this really the way to do it? William Bennett would be the perfect reader for this novel -- his eyes would widen, and widen farther at all the drugs: the speed, meth, smack, grass, acid, amyl nitrate. Golly, that stuff is bad for you! And of course there are the five gay men who engage in a genuine homosexual orgy, splashing about in a cesspool of infection, all seen from the point of view of the physically darling Dorian Gray: "Shouldn't Dorian have said something? He'd seen Herman fixing in his pox-ridden legs, he'd seen the ruckled pus-scape, which was like some miniature terrain, an awful environment perfect for viral propagation. But Dorian said nothing."

Yes, that's Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, come back to life in a foul London where even the hospitals have "ventilation ducts choking on infective fluff and stagnant puddles of mop-wipe, each with its own malarial vector," as "cut flowers were silently screaming as they smellily expired." Yuck!

So. This world needs some fresh water in the vases, a good scrubbing with Comet and Clorox, a strong scaling-back of sex partners and a lot less drinking, smoking and using. Who could argue it? But by loathing his world and his characters and all that they do so much, Will Self ends up like Rumpelstiltskin stamping himself into a meltdown tizzy, a writer who can't figure out if he's a moralist, an immoralist, or both. The unwary reader feels like a hapless ant caught in an enormous hand-tatted antimacassar, staggering through a crocheted world where even a blameless country house that's been around for hundreds of years presumably minding its own business gets to be encumbered by a more-than-full contingent of "fornicating fauns, salivating satyrs or diddling dryads." Again, all this is in bad taste; it's depressing, pitiable, contemptible, even. But evil?

Henry Wotton, a bisexual "vile fop," is enmeshed in a loveless marriage with a woman he charitably refers to as "Batface." Wotton lives in one of those fuggy houses, and his car is cluttered with drug works and, well, clutter. He lives for his homosexual life. One of his "friends" is Baz, an earnest artist, who at the beginning of the '80s puts together a video installation -- nine swirling tapes of the preternaturally beautiful gay young man just down from Oxford, the mysterious Dorian Gray. Baz, in a flatfooted, brainless way, thinks that this installation will symbolize the newly liberated, unashamed way of looking at same-sex love. Dorian, in his physical manifestation, is magnificent. There's nothing, Baz suggests, for any of them to be ashamed of anymore. But Wotton and Dorian view Baz with contempt. For Wotton, there's no point in doing anything unless it's degrading, and Baz robs life of its shameful fun. Dorian is, of course, the self-absorbed, narcissistic, altogether shameless face of both the behavior and the virus.

This is a very ambitious work. The author visits, in turn, every notable geographic center of the white gay scene in the past 20 years: Andy Warhol's New York City, Los Angeles (and that hoary cliche, the Chateau Marmont), the South of France and, naturally, "Mop-Wipe" London. The scope here is panoramic but the loathing undermines the ambition. How we hate the diseases that come from sex! And, under all the titillation and exploitation and pornography, etc. etc., how we hate sex, of any and every kind.

Will Self is stuck on this, absolutely stuck. He tags young Mr. Gray with every sin from bad manners to strangulation, but Dorian is vile (along with Wotton) because he cares about the pursuit of pleasure. Here's a sin for you, Mr. Self. Turn your eyes to Africa, where there probably really is a lot of mop-wipe in the hospital ventilation, if they can afford a hospital, if they can afford a mop. Does the sin, the evil, come from people over there having sex? Or does the sin have more to do with whole populations who indifferently watch as a continent expires?