Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr. is one of those things – where it be books or films – that demands to be seen. It isn’t a gratification of your emotions, it isn’t a validation of your existence or your thoughts, but it’s that kind of story that haunts you with the reality that people endure in this world. It’s to shatter the barrier between our lives and theirs, regardless of whether they ‘deserved’ it or not, and it aims to bring a reality so different and foreign to us to the forefront of our attention so that we can – and must – understand.
Requiem for a Dream follows four characters: Harry, Tyrone, Marion and Sara. All four of them are first, human; second, have big dreams that are derivative of the American Dream; and three, eventually become addicted to drugs. The most haunting part of this book is that you witness a transformation in the characters – inside and out. You witness them from investing into the world of drugs because these drugs are a stepping stone to fulfilling their own dream, to slowly succumbing to their addictions and ‘disease’ (how Selby describes their slow descend to insanity and their insatiable desire to gratify their needs) which cause them to lose sight of the dreams they had. It is terrifying how easy and effortless it seems, to just slowly lose their sense of self only to be overtaken by the reality of their need.
For anyone who may want to read the book, here is my forewarning: Requiem for a Dream is a difficult book to read. Not because of the content or themes, but the narrative style is very different. In retrospect, I can see why Selby wrote this book this way, because it brings you as close as possible to the characters and their reality, insofar you feel like you are almost living in it, with them. Another reason could be that this amalgamation of action, dialogue and thought shows how the characters perceive their dreams – something real and entirely part of their lives. It is truly fantastic literature, but if you squirm at the idea of lack of paragraphing, overuse of stream of consciousness and no punctuation and grammar to distinguish speakers, then this might be a grammatical nightmare for you. The good thing is that Requiem for a Dream is not a long book at all – it is about 227 pages (depends on your version) but it is a worthwhile read, albeit a difficult one.
However, Selby utilizes that narrative style for a reason. If you ever read it, examine the contrast from start to finish — you’ll find that, at the beginning, it is difficult to read but it gradually becomes easier to read as you progress with the book. The beginning and ending of the book can be thought of as something similar to noise; the beginning and middle are loud, cacophonic and polyphonic to reflect their addiction, their dreams, their lives, the conflict, but as towards the end it becomes quiet, soft and coherent and eventually settles to silence as the characters are left with nothing but the consequences – whatever they may be – with their addiction.
With regards to the book’s themes, I perceive Requiem of a Dream to be a critique of the American Dream. Though the ethos may, with its good intent, embody an ideal that all should strive for – working hard to achieve social upward mobility, and work towards a life full of prosperity, fruits of your labour – Selby’s critique argues that the American Dream is only afforded to those in the middle-class. The characters of Requiem for a Dream, though possessing the American Dream, were working-class/underclass, and thus had to obtain their wealth and achieve their dreams through illegal means. Social upward mobility seemed impossible for these characters — to achieve their dreams felt impossible without being involved in drugs — and the way they continually emphasize how they were only doing this for the money and how when they had enough they would stop, set them into a trajectory of drug addiction that was ultimately inescapable.
Requiem for a Dream is also a critique on the social institutions and how they perpetuate or contribute to this systemic cycle of pain, addiction and social diseases. One painful example is Sara and when she is admitted to the mental hospital; there, she experiences prejudice, cruelty and general disregard of her personhood, to the extent she is stripped of her physical integrity; it’s like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but more blatant in its portrayal. Anyone interested in how social institutions aim to curtail and manipulate individual personality should have a read of Goffman’s Asylums.
In retrospect, there is not much to say about Requiem for a Dream, as it is best explained and best experienced first-hand. It’s a kind of book that will stay with you, haunt you and is guaranteed to be unforgettable. All in all, though Requiem for a Dream is not an entirely enjoyable reading experience, it’s a fantastic, horrifying but necessary piece of literature.
Book Name: Requiem for a Dream
Author: Hubert Selby Jr.
Published by: Penguin Books (Original: Playboy Press, 1978)