Our favourite from the genre remains Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962), which is a haunting account of youthful hedonism gone wrong by middle-age.
Hubert Selby Jr. also delivered a masterclass in the tragedy of addiction. Requiem for a Dream (1978) follows four New Yorkers as they spiral out of control. And, bloody hell, it’s pretty full on.
Requiem for a Dream (the book)
Selby Jr. (1928-2004) struggled with poor health for much of his adult life. He was kicked out of the US navy in the early ’50s after his tuberculosis became advanced.
And he was subsequently in and out of hospitals, with a short life expectancy seemingly on the cards.
He took up writing as something of a career last resort, thinking it was worth a stab. And his first novel was Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).
So, he was pretty established (at least on a cult level) when he got round to writing Requiem for a Dream. We put that as the work has a kind of breakout debut feel to it. Like Iain Banks’ Wasp Factory (1984) or some such. Or Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh.
Requiem For a Dream opens with an introduction to Harry locking his mother, Sara Goldfarb, in a closet so he can steal her TV.
We soon find out Harry is going out with Marion Silver and they’re young and good looking. Marion is bright and loves art, hoping to prove to the world she’s introspective and self-aware.
They also like heroin, but their carefree existence is about lots of romantic baths together and planning for a future running an art business. They also hope to move to Europe.
Their friend, Tyrone C. Love, is also a cool kind of guy. He wants to escape his life in the ghetto.
Meanwhile, there’s lonely widow Sara who yearns for any kind of attention. She spends her days watching lowbrow game shows on her knackered out TV.
The novel really gets underway when she receives a mysterious phone call from a man smooth-talking her into a dream appearance on a game show.
Sara Goldfarb is besotted by the opportunity, believing it’ll bring her love, respect, and a chance to date Robert Redford (her dreamt up top prize as a winner).
Determined to lose weight before her expected appearance, Sara goes on a diet of eggs, grapefruit, lettuce, and coffee.
Eventually, her friend suggests she see a doctor to try diet pills.
And that’s when Requiem for a Dream begins to unravel the hopes of its four central characters. And in brutal, gut wrenching fashion. As so:
- Harry and Marion plunge deep into heroin addiction, turning from happy-go-lucky 20 somethings into ravaged and desperate junkies.
- Sara loses vast amounts of weight and the red dress fits. But the game show is never in contact and her diet pills (amphetamines) are so potent she begins to lose her mind.
- Tyrone C. Love gets pinched and ends up in jail, then is bailed, then also descends into heroin addiction, then gets pinched again.
Requiem For a Dream plays out the desires of all four in intimate fashion, with Selby Jr. developing each meticulously through extensive dialogue.
This often highlights the nature of very personal lies that keep the harsh reality at more than arms length. Even as total bedlam takes over the New York districts blighted by addiction.
“The enemy ate away at their will so they could not resist, their bodies not only craving, but needing the very poison that ground them into that pitiable state of being; the mind diseased and crippled by the enemy it was obsessed with and the obsession and terrible physical need corrupting the soul until the actions were less than those of an animal, less than those of a wounded animal, less than those of anything and everything they did not want to be. The police increased their personnel on the streets as the number of insane robberies increased and men and women were shot as they broke store windows and tried to run down the street with a TV set, the sets exploding as they fell to the ground, the bodies sliding on the ice leaving a trail of blood, and freezing, stiff, before being picked up and disposed of. For every bit of dope that was put on the streets there were thousands of eager and sick hands reaching, grabbing, stabbing, choking, clubbing, or pulling the trigger of a gun. And if you did rip somebody off and get away nice and clean you weren’t sure you would ever get to see it flow into your veins. And maybe you wouldn’t even know that you didn’t as you concentrated on cooking it up, not wanting to spill a drop, and somebody bashed in your head before the needle ever got in your arm.”
Amongst all that social decay, the four characters plot, plan, try, fail, repeat, hope, dream, and stumble on.
Ultimately, it’s lingering hope that leads to their suffering, only ever exacerbated by the nature of addiction.
They allow themselves to dream. And due to their drug abuse, the distant reality of their goals (and the unlikely nature of them) often appear obtainable.
Their addictions toy with their sense of reality, bringing hope into sharp focus as if everything is always within reach. Success is only ever just around the corner.
But the unrelenting harshness of sobriety, and agonising withdrawal, repeatedly forces a different reality upon them. And it’s with a great sense of denial the four ignore the truth in favour of pushing on towards what must surely be theirs, by rights.
Reading the book is a doom-laden affair. But it’s like a car crash, you’ve got to stare in case you see a severed limb jutting out at a funny angle.
Reading on, page after page, gets kind of voyeuristic as these people go headlong into an obvious disaster.
Selby Jr. develops this out with considerable skill, demonstrating vividly how insidious addiction is in clouding someone’s judgement to an increasing extreme.
And it’s with an immense and devastating might the author leads his tortured individuals across their character arcs.
Without question, the most harrowing of the lot is with poor Sara Goldfarb. She dreamt of appearing on a TV show in a red dress. It went wrong.
Well… on the front cover of our Requiem For a Dream edition, there’s a quote from The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed:
“If you read this, be careful…”
He was bang on there. Reading the book will put most people off any sort of debauchery for life. Indeed, it’s safer to stay at home and watch the telly.
But then you’ll remember Sara Goldfarb.
So, get rid of the telly and just sit and stare at a wall for the rest of eternity. Sweet safety is right there in tedious banality.
Or you can just read Requiem For a Dream again so the foursome can act out this nightmare for you. It’s a fine work. And a fine anti-heroin message.
Requiem For a Dream’s Film Adaptation
Launched in 2000 as a psychological drama, Darren Aronofsky’s film was a faithful recreation of Selby Jr.’s book.
It has many strong points and remains an impressive piece of work. That’s largely down to Ellen Burstyn’s outstanding performance as Sara Goldfarb. It’s really heartbreaking.
Anyone who’s seen the film (and we watched it circa 2004, way before we’d read the book) will have Burstyn’s performance imprinted on their memory. It’s difficult to forget.
A young and pretty Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly star as Harry and Marion, the couple whose lives disintegrate in horrible fashion.
Marlon Wayans also has a memorable role as Tyrone C. Love.
Along with the book, it’s not an easy thing to wade through. You don’t leave the film with a spring in your step. As with similar films, such as Trainspotting (1996), Requiem for a Dream is a pretty nifty anti-heroin advertisement.
You watch either of those films and you’re pretty set on never taking heroin. Ever.
Selby Jr. was, of course, still alive during the production. He’d actually written a screenplay years earlier when Aronofsky approached him with his script.
The writer cleared the project for production and compared notes with Aronofsky, with most of the former’s being used.
The end result, on observation 21 years later, is a strong effort that captures the devastating nature of drug addiction.
It’s a mind warp. For sure. Lots of disturbed editing sequences and Sara Goldfarb’s descent is enough to leave even a skinhead football hooligan blubbing like a baby.
Well worth a watch, then, but not above the book. The book is better. Better than drugs!