When wanting to understand the nature of addiction and the human condition, I’d suggest that Requiem for a Dream is one of the most honest reflections of the human psyche. If you’ve only seen the 2001 film directed by Darren Aronofsky, then you might be surprised to know that it has remained faithful to the book.
To me, this book represents the deterioration of the American dream. Even the noun ‘requiem’ in the title, is defined as being ‘a mass for the dead’- a mass for the American dream. Selby wrote this novel at a time when tension and uncertainty was rife. Mass unemployment swept New York, and the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement had died. To rise above this malaise, each of the four protagonists in the novel have their own individual dreams which are inevitably destroyed by addiction. I wouldn’t suggest that this novel is necessarily a tragedy, although each character begins with hope and ends with them losing everything. No, it is perhaps a warning. Selby prescribes the worst possible cure for their addictions.
Perhaps the most unfortunate character is Sara Goldfarb. She is a widow whose one obsession is the television. After winning a competition to star on her favourite game show, she goes to lengths to lose weight. Nowadays, perhaps diet pills are not seen as something of a big deal, however, during the 1970s, women were given pills called dexedrine. They are stimulants, also known as ‘uppers’ and were taken in order to suppress the appetite without losing out on energy. Sounds great, right? However, once Sara’s tolerance lessens, her dependancy increases and it is not long before her son Henry notices the state his mother has gotten herself in.
“Jesus, I can hear ya grinding ya teeth from here.”
If you’ve seen the film, you can see how terrifying and gaunt Sara becomes and the book describes her in much the same way. Things come to breaking point when Sara leaves the house in order to find the offices for the TV show, as they never get in contact with her again. She is admitted to hospital, where a series of shock treatments are given to her after the doctors refuse to successfully treat the physical dependance of her addiction.
This novel is harrowing, and might take a strong stomach to read. Selby writes in stream-of-consciousness which can make the novel confusing at times, but this technique reflects the chaos going on inside each characters head. I found both the novel and film fascinating. I think Selby is giving the message that underneath our addictions and obsessions, we are just hopeless human beings and there is no ‘requiem’ for our dreams.