Book Review: Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Requiem For A Dream"

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hubert Selby's "Requiem for a Dream" is the story of four people--three young and one old--and what happens when they get trapped in their addictions. Harry and Tyrone, occasional heroin users, decide that they need to keep their nose clean, "off a pound of pure," make a big score and retire--and Harry and his girlfriend Marion dream about using their windfall profits to open a coffee house. At the same time, Harry's mom Sara gets a phone call telling her she's to be a contestant on a game show.  Wanting to fit into the red dress she wore to Harry's barmitzvah, she goes to the doctor for diet pills.
As the novel progresses, their worlds begin to unravel.  Tyrone, Harry and Marion can't quite keep from "having a tase" of the product, and as summer turns to fall then freezing winter, their efforts to stay ahead of the ever present "sickness" become increasingly desperate.
 "At first Harry and Tyrone stayed on the fringes of the devastation, seeing the campfires in the hollowed buildings from a distance, but it became progressively necessary to go deeper and deeper into the desolation to fulfill their needs, the urgency of the need being the first concern of their lives.  At first their forays were tentative and timid, now they were cautious but assertive, realizing the necessity of getting to where the action was as rapidly as possible before it was just no mans land with empty bags, broken bottles, unconscious bodies and an occasional corpse.  Whatever chances they had to take they took automatically as their disease ordered and they obeyed, a small part of them wanting to try to resist, but that part was shoved so far down that it was no more than an ancient dream from a previous life.  Only the insatiable and insane need of the moment had any bearing on their lives, and it was that need that gave all the orders."
Similarly, Sara isn't happy with the slow pace of her weight loss.  She begins drinking pots of coffee and taking all her diet pills in the morning, then downers in the evening to sleep.  This odd behavior is accompanied increasingly by a ruthless obsession for being on TV--what gameshow will she be on?--and her downward slide begins as well.

Written in 1978, the novel stands the test of time.  Both the writing style and the content are still so dramatic and telling that Selby could have put the words down yesterday.  In particular, Selby's stream-of-consciousness prose conveys the turmoil and desperation faced by the characters.  Though his writing style might be off-putting to purists who prefer the shape of conventional prose, readers patient enough to stick with it will see a rhythm of language start in the first chapter and carry through, and will ultimately understand the characters in a visceral way not achievable with conventional language.

What sets this book apart is the immediacy of the action.  This story is not told in civil tones or painted from afar in kind colors.  Rather this book is a slow-motion car accident, like one of those sickening over-exposed films shown to driver's ed classes.  The reader knows from the first moment that someone is going to get hurt, maimed or killed, but they can't stop reading.  Somehow, even understanding the collective fates of Tyrone, Harry, Marion and Sara, the text binds us up in their days and destruction, until we all reach an inevitable and disturbing end.

This novel was made into a film of the same name by Director Darren Aronofsky, in 2000, and I am a big fan of the film.  In fact, I was not aware until recently of the existence of Selby's novel.  Typically, I am disappointed with books I read after having seen the film, but this book is an exception.  While the film follows the book rather closely, Selby's attention to detail and clear voice allow the reader to look at the story in a new and enjoyable way.  I thought it was great read all the way through, and I highly recommend it.

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