Monday, February 7, 2011

Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby

Devastate (verb): 1.  to lay waste; render desolate  2.  to overwhelm.

I saw the film, Requiem for a Dream, with my friend Laura B. not long before I left the US, and it certainly rendered me desolate and overwhelmed me.  This is the first time I have ever held a book and its film adaptation in equal esteem:  both left me lying in a fetal position (alongside all 4 main characters) at the end.

Why do we seek out such devastating stories?  In my case, Selby gave me a vicarious ticket to life as an addict.  His stream-of-consciousness prose and Darren Aronofsky's erratic, whirling cinematography both made me queasy from disorientation, need, withdrawal and fear.

This story is predictable in a few ways:  Each of the 4 characters denies any addiction, and all 4 plummet throughout the book to a catastrophic end.  Selby glides back and forth between them, often in mid-paragraph.  He uses minimal punctuation and no quotation marks, giving the text a run-on feeling, and the reader often has to pause to figure out who said what.  His ear for Bronx dialogue, though, is dead-on, and I can hear Tyrone C. Love's jive talk and Sara Goldfarb's Yiddish-spattered prattle as if they were in the room with me.

Sara Goldfarb lives alone in an apartment with her television, oblivious to the fact that her beloved son, Harry, and his girlfriend Marion and their pal Tyrone are all heroin users.  One day, someone phones Sara and suggests that she might be a contestant on a TV game show, and her delusional trip begins.  She giddily decides that she will wear the red dress that she wore to Harry's bar mitzvah, and the gold shoes, too.  Problem:  the dress no longer fits.  In one of the book's few comic scenes, she goes to the library in search of a diet book.  A thin one, please, because who could believe anything in a fat diet book? Not surprisingly, she doesn't last long on the prescription of grapefruit and boiled eggs, so she finds a doctor willing to prescribe some nice pills for her.

Meanwhile, Harry, Tyrone and Marion are hatching a scheme to get rich selling high-grade heroin.  It should work brilliantly, as they assure themselves that they won't inject all the profits, getting all strung out like those other junkies.  And for a while, it does seem to be lucrative.  Harry buys his mother a new TV as a gift (largely to assuage his guilt for having pawned hers so many times to buy drugs.)  When he visits Sara, he notes her non-stop activity, listens to her excitement about the red dress and the TV game show, and slowly recognises that sound:

Sara was squealing again... and she sat back down and grinned at her son as she clenched her jaw and ground her teeth, her happiness vibrating from her entire being... Harry heard her words but his mind was completely preoccupied  with the question of identifying something. Then it slowly started to come to him... yeah, thats what it was he was trying to identify, that sound. What in the hell could it be???? Your father and I used to talk so long about you and how he wanted you to be happy -- Thats it! Thats what the noise is. He stared at his mother at first bewildered not knowing what it meant and then it all started to fit in and a lot of pieces suddenly fell into place and Harry could feel his face folding into an expression of surprise, disbelief and confusion. The noise he heard was the grinding of teeth. He knew he wasn't grinding, he was on stuff, not speed, so it had to be his mother. For many long moments his head fought against the truth ...  Hey ma, you droppin uppers?  What? You on uppers? his voice starting to rise involuntarily. Youre on diet pills, aint ya? Ya dropping dexies.  Sara was completely bewildered and befuddled.  

Sara fails to see why Harry is so upset.  She's seeing a specialist after all, and the red dress nearly fits, and everyone is going to love her when she appears on the game show.

Does he give ya pills? Of course he gives me pills. He's a doctor.  Doctors give pills. I mean what kind of pills? What kind? A purple one, red one, orange and green... they're round and flat... Harry, I'm Sara Goldfarb, not Doctor Einstein. How should I know whats in them? He gives me the pills and I take them and I lose weight so whats to know?  ... He's a nice doctor. He even has grandchildren.
After a while, Sara's loneliness is broken -- and not pleasantly -- by characters who refuse to stay inside her television and by her refrigerator, which develops a menacing attitude.  The nice doctor doesn't find these things too worrisome, he just prescribes Valium, and there's one more bottle of pills covered by Sara's Medicare.  There is no Medicare-paid prescription programme for heroin, however, so the three younger addicts must negotiate their fixes on the streets.  Their desperation increases as their dreams of success evaporate.

Which brings us back to the title.  In his introduction to the novel, Selby talks about the American Dream and the insatiable hunger and acquisitiveness that fuel it:
Obviously, I believe that to pursue the American Dream is not only futile but self-destructive because ultimately it destroys everything and everyone involved with it...  Why?  The reason is simple: because Life is giving, not getting.  
 In a brief foreword, Darren Aronofsky, who co-wrote the screenplay of the novel with Selby, wrote:
Like a hangman's noose, the words scorch your neck with rope burn and drag you into the sub-sub-basement we humans build beneath hell.  Why do we do it? Because we choose to live the dream instead of choosing to live the life.  You won't ever forget this read.  

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