Title: Requiem For A Dream
Rating: 4 Stars
This is a grim story of dreams, addiction, and despair.
There are four main characters. There is Sara Goldfarb, her son Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and his best best friend Tyrone.
They each, in their own ways, are innocent in the ways of the world. They all dream of a future happiness that appears so easily attainable for each, but yet to the reader seems transparently impossible. In a less brutal novel, the characters would be drawn as foolish, romantic dreamers that perhaps, by the novel’s end, are brought back to earth, chastened but smarter, ready to pick themselves up and start living a happy life based in reality.
However, this is a remorselessly brutal book.
Sara, whose life revolves around the television, wants to someday appear on a game show. She gets a phone call from a solicitor that gives her the idea that her appearance on a game show is imminent (here you see her naivete in full bloom).
Marion, apparently brought up in an upper class family, or at least one with pretensions of being upper class, thinks that she’s better than everyone. She is an artist who apparently seldom has the desire to express herself via art. She appreciates music. She appreciates art. Her dream is to someday own a coffee house, where art is hung on the walls, live music is played, and where the denizens of the sophisticated, high class crowd congregate and listen obsequiously to her cultured opinions.
Harry shares Marion’s dream. Harry also dreams of the big score. Harry and Tyrone develop plans to buy pure heroin in bulk, cut it with milk sugar, deal it, and make a huge profit. That in turn will lead to increased purchases, increased profits, until finally they can leave the streets, make a couple of really big purchases, and then walk away from it rich.
There is a point, midway, where the dreams for all look achievable. Harry and Tyrone do buy some high quality heroin that they cut, sell, and make significant profits. Marion and Harry together start planning the layout of their coffee house.
Sara, having filled out some kind of application that could potentially lead to a game show appearance, decides that she must fit into her favorite dress, a dress that she has not worn in years and that she no longer fits into. After an initial failed attempt at dieting, she goes to an unscrupulous doctor who prescribes her a combination of amphetamines and depressants. She basically stops eating, has manic amounts of energy, and the weight starts magically dropping off. In no time at all, she should be able to fit into the red dress.
Of course, if the plot trajectory continued on, then this would not be much of a novel. In fact, shortly after this apogee, things go downhill rapidly.
Sara, no longer feeling that manic energy that she once did, begins to dramatically increase her amphetamine dosage. She’s still not eating. She’s loses weight to the point where the skin is just hanging off of her and her friends beg her to start eating. She refuses, still believing that she needs to keep doing this to become ‘zoftig’ (what her deceased husband used to say of her).
Harry’s and Tyrone’s source for heroin is first cut off, and then is later found dead. In the meantime, all three’s heroin addiction is growing ever larger. They burn through all of their cash and they end up behaving like common junkies, slowly but surely doing those horrific things that they saw other junkies do that they’d swear that they never do (eg injecting heroin using water taken from a public toilet).
Marion, with all of her sophisticated aspirations and beliefs in her own superiority over others, in her desperation for drugs, turns to prostitution.
Harry, Marion, and Tyrone, previously inseparable and rock solid in always sharing all drugs equally, begin to withhold drugs from each other. Their addictions destroy the basis of their relationships and friendships.
Sara, suffering amphetamine hallucinations, goes off in one last desperate attempt to get on a game show. Instead, she is carted off to a mental health ward. There, the staff treats her with callous disregard, and she is subject to electroshock therapy, forced feedings, and constant doses of Thorazine.
Harry and Tyrone, desperate to get a large quantity of good drugs, decide to drive down to Miami to get to the source. Harry is so desperate to get a fix that he repeatedly injects himself in an already infected hole in his arm, causing himself intense pain and threatening his life. Tyrone, although his friendship with Harry is fraying, does try to get him medical help. Instead, this being the south, he is arrested and convicted by racist justice.
It’s a nightmare to read, but a powerful one at that.
Addiction comes in multiple flavors. There is clearly an addiction to drugs. However, Sara has other addictions than just to her amphetamines. Earlier in the book, she is clearly addicted to food. She rations food but often cannot control herself. With her ill-fated attempt at dieting, in her mind her refrigerator relentlessly mocks her.
She is also addicted to television. It is the center of her life and she cannot go a day without it. In the book’s opening, she is traumatized when Harry takes her TV so that he can pawn it to buy drugs.
This is not just a drugs are evil novel. In the early days, Selby actually paints the positive side of drug use. For Sara, the amphetamines do work for a while. She loses weight, she becomes vivacious, and becomes popular with her friends. For Harry, he has a group of friends that he gets high with. They sit around, do drugs, tell stories, laugh, and are clearly having fun. In the early, happy days of their relationship, as Harry and Marion fall in love, their common drug use forges in them a deeper intimacy. Selby effectively shows the path of how a person can move from using drugs recreationally to becoming cruelly addicted.
There are several scenes that are hard to read. Sara being force fed by an uncaring hospital staff, being tied down, tube roughly inserted into her, and food being shoved into her as she feels that she’s going to suffocate, is horrifying. Harry, repeatedly injecting his open sore with heroin and the graphic depiction of the pain and grotesqueness of his arm as it worsens is equally disturbing.
This novel does have some literary ancestors. It echoes back to Frankie Machine, the card dealer that became an morphine addict during WWII and tries (and fails) to fight his addiction when he comes back, the main character in the The Man With The Golden Arm. This novel also deals with graphic descriptions of drug addiction and the inexorable pull that it has on some.
If you go back even further, it hearkens back to the late 19th century naturalist literary movement, with its emphasis on a dispassionate, gritty, realistic portrayal of the darker aspects of life. I’m thinking of Emile Zola, specifically of Therese Raquin and Germinal.
Even though the movement has passed, I think that this is a great entry in the naturalist movement. The tragic arc of each character told in an unblinking manner made for powerful, if difficult, reading.
The book is a requiem. For all four characters, whatever hopes they once had are dashed. By the end, they are all alive, but just barely, and empty lives they are.