Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby (1978) E

Date read: 7.29.09

Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

Requiem for a Dream, although probably better known to most through Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film, is one of the most acclaimed novels about addiction. It charts a few, terrible months in the lives of a small circle of friends and family in New York in the 1970’s, all of whom are led into addiction by their own hopes for fulfillment and wholeness.  Harry Goldfarb, his friend Tyrone C. Love, and his intelligent, artistic girlfriend Marion dream of making it big by selling heroin, only to become paralyzed by apathy, self-loathing, and dependence on the drugs that once seemed to be their ticket to success. Meanwhile, Harry’s lonely, widowed mother Sara comforts herself with chocolate and endless television. When a chance phone call seems to promise her an appearance on one of her beloved television shows, she becomes reinvigorated by the conviction that she must lose weight, precipitating an obsessive cycle of dependence on diet pills.

Requiem for a Dream is one of the most grueling, brutal films I’ve seen, and for this reason I found myself reluctant to break into the novel. Once you begin, however, you feel a sense of commitment to the characters, an obligation to hear their stories out and follow them to the end, despite the sense of doom that pervades the novel from the very beginning.

Selby writes no quotation marks or apostrophes, few commas, and fewer paragraph breaks, so that different characters’ perspectives rush together in a margin-to-margin stream of thoughts and conversation. It took me a while to accustom myself to this packed flow, but once I did, I found it easy to plug myself into the characters’ perspectives each time I picked the book up again. I really appreciated how effectively Selby was able to distinguish characters’ voices by their speech patterns and accents, and how his style communicated their rapid-fire, desperate dialogue.

The narration is perceptive and unsparing in its observation, but does not judge. The psychology of addiction is conveyed frighteningly well (particularly frightening if, like me, you already have a personality that’s a little inclined to addictiveness); you can see how easy it can become to substitute chemical satisfaction when real happiness and wholeness seem ungraspable. It made me unutterably sad whenever Marion defended her addiction by explaining that it made her feel whole. I was a little warier of how Selby treats Mrs. Goldfarb’s eventual fate, because I don’t know how realistic it is (well, it’s at least more realistic than the movie – but still, [spoiler] unanaesthetized shock treatment? [/spoiler]). However, it is an effectively dramatic representation of how the elderly, in particular, can become victims of the medical system and societal neglect.

I did have one minor complaint about the book: I was troubled that the young female characters (Marion, Tyrone’s girlfriend Alice) often seemed to exist in order to be beautiful and provide sex for their boyfriends. Harry’s appreciation of Marion’s physical beauty is written as a sort of redemptive worship. In some sense, actually, the male characters are infantilized, and revolve around female archetypes of warmth, authenticity, and fertility (the purifying goddess, the earth mother) that serve as counterpoints to the sterility and destructiveness of drugs; this is notably seen in Tyrone’s longing reminiscences about his generous, loving mother. However, because Marion and Sara were otherwise fully-developed voices and characters, I was satisfied overall by Selby’s treatment of the female characters.

As some have noted, Harry, Marion, and Tyrone’s story is a more conventional narrative of drug dependence, but the inclusion of Sara’s story broadens the book’s focus. The book at its most basic level is not about drug addiction, but about the danger of devoting oneself entirely to false dreams. Sara is herself aware of this, but cannot escape the trap that she creates for herself in her desperation. As she tells Harry in one of the book’s most heartbreaking scenes, she knows that it’s not really about her appearing on television in a red dress and gold shoes, but about the promise of renewed youth and hopes, the fulfillment of her need to feel special and loved again.

I think it would be really interesting to read Requiem in tandem with The Great Gatsby, as both deal with the failure and innate falsity of the American Dream. Overall, Requiem is tightly constructed and brilliantly and compassionately observed. It also horrifying and bleak and definitely not for everyone, and I would hesitate to even call it rewarding, except in one major respect: the human compassion that it displays and inspires.

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Hubert Selby

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