The second time I lived in Canada I remember a period when I felt isolated from the outside world. I was far from my family, yet I had my new friends close-by.
But for some reason, I just couldn’t settle.
It was in this period that I discovered Hubert Selby Jr, and ultimately, Requiem for a Dream.
I bring this point up to emphasise the impact this book had on me, as well as the themes that it presents of isolation and fear.
Brooklyn, Coney Island, Sara Goldfarb aims to lose weight to get herself onto her favourite television program. In the process, her addiction begins. Meanwhile, her son Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and best friend Tyrone have thought up a plan to shortcut wealth. During their planning, they score themselves a pound of uncut heroin.
All four main characters believe their lustrous visions will come true, despite each one’s unanticipated setbacks. Their lives gradually deteriorate as they hold onto their dreams, becoming consumed by their own addictions; creating their own worst nightmares in the process.
Hubert Selby Jr.
At the age of 15, Selby finished school and later, joined the merchant seaman in 1947. It was here that he was diagnosed with TB (Tuberculosis), and was sent home from service. He spent the subsequent three and a half years in and out of the hospital.
An experimental drug treatment, known as streptomycin, was given to him but later caused severe difficulties. It led Selby to chronic pulmonary problems, which lasted the rest of his life. He was also given painkillers, including morphine, due to the severity of the surgery. This leads him to become addicted, something that he struggled with for most of his adult life.
In usual Selby style, the grammar throughout the book is little to none existent.
This style is often described as a raw language, as well as bleak and violent.
An unorthodox technique was developed, one that was used throughout the majority of his work. Paragraphs had alternating lengths, sometimes dropping down a line when finished. It’s written as a stream-of-consciousness, keeping a frenetic pace throughout. Apostrophise were replaced with ‘/’ as they were closer on the typewriter, for fear of breaking his flow when writing. Quotation marks were also missing from his work, presenting dialogue in one continuous torrent. This gave it all a rather distinct blunt feeling.
Requiem for a Dream runs through a couple of issues, but none more evident than drug addiction. As mentioned above, this is something that Hubert Selby himself suffered with, so in a sense, this makes him prime to talk about the topic.
Centring on a get rich scheme of selling heroin to users within the neighbourhood, Harry and Tyrone soon become their own best customers. From dabbling in a little here and there, too it becoming a necessity to function in society. This quickly consumes their relationships as well as drawing in any and all deceitful types.
Isolation is another key part of the book. This is represented by Harry’s Mum, Sara.
From feeling downtrodden from her own son’s behaviour, she believes that one day she will be picked to be on TV. But an obsessive watching of TV is only the beginning.
To prepare for such an occasion, she decides to try on her favourite red dress, except at this point it no longer fits. As this is her favourite, she decides to order some diet pills that are advertised during an infomercial.
As with the other pair, this leads her into a downward spiral of paranoid behaviour. The diet pills become more and more excessive, leading to schizophrenic tendencies.
Requiem for a Dream is a bleak book, one of the most disheartening. As we all know, no good can come of long-term drug use, especially when the drugs in question include heroin.
From the beginning, where Harry steals his Mother’s television to gain a little money for dope, you know the type of ride you’re in for. There are no moments of let up, respite or recovery. This book is a full onslaught of your senses, opening up some of our greatest fears; chasing our dream and failing.
As with a Philip Roth book, there’s a lot of
Jewish stereotypes. Sara, the Jewish mother, her Yenta friends, Tyrone the stereotypical black guy, the racist southerner etc. The cases to are extreme, but that’s all part of this books charm.
Consider Requiem for a Dream less of a subtle understanding of drug addiction and more of a brick-to-the-face.
You’ve been warned!