Note: this review of Selby's novel contains spoilers, especially after the fifth paragraph. You will encounter little, however, you wouldn't know if you've seen the popular film adaptation, or wouldn't anticipate once you've read the initial chapters.
"Harry locked his mother in the closet."(3)
Hubert Selby, Jr. has attracted a dedicated following and critical acclaim, but more people know the film adaptations of his work than his work itself. Reasons exist for this fact, many of them grounded in his approach to his subjects. He roots his stories in character and setting, and if film cannot reveal the former with the depth of his prose, it can certainly tell these stories effectively. In addition, cinema can tap his dark subject matter without the barriers created by his often difficult experimental style.
Requiem for a Dream first appeared in 1978. People who only know the film may be surprised by how much the novel reflects its time. We're in the Me Decade Brooklyn and New York City, places once described as a "fabulous film noir set," and we make excursions to places that either missed the Civil Rights and feminist movements or else hold them in utter contempt. Into these worlds he thrusts his characters, each pursuing the American Dream at its most empty.
Sara Goldfarb lives a lonely existence, and has for many years. Salvation comes through the television, and she pins her hopes on the belief that the "McDick Company" has selected her to appear on a show. Her fridge taunts her; she eats too much to cut the kind of figure the audience will want to see. In order to prepare, she takes diet pills of a sort more common in the 1970s than many people now realize. These lead her down a path predictable in all things but the depth which it reaches.
Meanwhile, her son, Harold, and his best friend, Tyrone Love, shoot junk and pursue profits. If they can sell more than they put in their arm, they will be, in their own estimation, successes. The reader knows where these dreams will lead. Harold's girlfriend Marion, also a junkie, sees her standards deteriorate with her health. She knows what she must do to get the next fix. All of these stories, told with Selby's characteristic excess, might seem overly melodramatic, were it not for brilliant flashes of insight and metaphor.
Selby has received much praise, and rightly so, for his ability to get into the heads of his characters, to speak in their voices and reflect their interests, prejudices, and limitations. Those characters tend nevertheless towards stereotype. Requiem’s addicts and old ladies are less onerously stereotypical than, say, some of the characters found in Last Exit to Brooklyn. And it's not that one couldn't or wouldn't encounter lazy, self-serving union leaders or jive-talking Afro-American men or cruel and stupid racist Bubbas or gay child-molesters1, but Selby's tendency to trade in such characters reflects and reinforces cultural biases that do not always serve our society or his writing. The negative aspects can be seen, in particular, in his minor characters. Against the developed and often psychologically complex monologues of Requiem we have Tyrone's girlfriend, who lacks any distinguishing characteristics.
Selby also loves his darkness. It's not enough that his drug addicts come to bad ends, as heroin addicts often do. They have to be arrested while travelling through the U.S. South, "sweat running down their backs and sides"(261), jonesing and hungry (the restaurants won't serve a Black man, and one service station attendant spits at them) and then turned over to incompetent officials and a redneck legal system. It's not enough that Sara Goldfarb has a nervous breakdown; we see that coming, and Selby dramatizes it realistically and vividly. He ends her journey in the clutches of psychiatrist who ignores an obvious diagnosis and prescribes unnecessary shock treatment. The final product sits "on the side of her bed" and stares "out the window, through the gray glass at the gray sky, the gray ground and the bare trees"(262). She is "put in a wheelchair and taken from the ward, down an elevator, through a long, gray tunnel to a waiting room where other patients docilely sat, their attendants in a corner, smoking, joking, keeping an eye on their patient." She tries "to smile and her face started to stretch in her wide-eyed grin as little bits of spittle dribbled down her chin"(263). The contrast with the lost but lively Sara of the early chapters is heartbreaking. Marion, predictably, ends up in the sex trade industry, cutting up her piece with “five other bitches”(260). We feel for these people because Selby reminds us these things can and do happen. Some readers may wish they happened with less excess; it can seem forced.
Selby writes in long sentences which lack conventional punctuation and paragraphing. He replaces apostrophes with slashes, for reasons that I cannot grasp2, when he does not eschew them altogether. While the approach reflects the stream-of-consciousness monologues that form the basis of his stories, the results can make for difficult reading. And while he writes dialogue well enough that we can determine, generally, which character speaks, the lack of paragraphs at times confounds. His prose can be both brilliant and tedious, falling somewhere between Kerouac and community theater:
When they reached the rear of the bus they sat down with a long, loud sigh. Hey massa Harry, how come you is sittin back chere wit us black foke? Well, ahll tell you brother Tyrone, cause under this white skin beats a heart just as black as yours, hahahaha, lay it on me, and they gave each other five. Sheeit baby, you aint white, youse just pale… and you got to remember baby, beautys only skin deep, but uglys to the bone, and they gave each other five again. Harry made a telescope with his hands and peered through it at the ads along the side of the bus. What the fuck you doin man? Its the only way to look at an ad, man. Your really get to peep the broads without distractions. Harry deepened his voivce: Dont be half safe, put Arried under both your arms. Sheeit man, Mums the word. You think Im putting ya on, eh? Go ahead, try it. Its the only way, man. Im telling ya. All those lovely ads up there and you never noticed them. Harry scanned the ads as a lookout the horizon. Hey, look at that one. I bet you missed it. Does she or doesnt she? Only her gynecologist knows for sure. What he doin peepin at her thang. Yeah, it dont mean a swing if you aint got a thang. They stretched out and continued rappin and gooffin on their way to the morgue.
This is the world as Selby's characters see it, dreams as superficial as public advertising, dreams that inflict deep wounds on flesh and mind. His people suffer and die and receive no redemption, no absolution. They continue to hold a fascination over a number of readers, they may serve, certainly as object-lessons for others, and they have provided Hollywood with a couple of memorable cult hits. To what degree his stylistic excesses will be lauded or puzzled over by future generations remains to be seen.
1. I'm referring to characters that appear across Selby's body of work, and not exclusively to Requiem for a Dream.
2. Apparently, he used the forward slash because, on the old typewriters, it stood closer to the letters than the apostrophe and this made for faster typing. I get his often lengthy sentences and even his eye dialogue spelling, but I cannot follow the reasoning here, and see no point in the final effect of the work. Perhaps I'm shallow, but it strikes me that punctuation is punctuation, and a slash only distracts me from the word and the written experience.