Book review: Requiem for a Dream

I was introduced to Hubert Selby, Jr. via the movies, specifically the 1989 film adaptation of his debut novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn. Politely put, that movie beat the crap out of me. As I staggered out of the theater, my faux-cosmopolitan self reduced to a sorry tangle of nerve endings, I remember thinking this probably wasn't the best movie to have suggested for a sunny Saturday outing with Dad. The joke, however, was on me: Dad had known exactly what he was getting into; he'd read Last Exit when it came out, in 1964. When I was three.

I felt the same way, jangly, tense, vaguely ill, after seeing the 2000 film version of Requiem for a Dream, so much so that it took five years and running into a $1 used-paperback copy of the book at a thrift store to get me to give it a maybe. Because that's what I do with the "maybes", stick them on an ever-growing, three-dimensional "to read" list somewhere near the bed. Mostly, they molder away unread until they're trundled back to the mouth end of the thrift store (or sometimes, the used-book store, where they pay me in more books I'll never have time enough to read). But this kept nagging and nagging at me; what sort of source material inspires a director to do that on the screen? How do you make despair and addiction and wild-eyed, groundless hope so real on the page that someone else can translate it so perfectly into a completely different medium?

Or is Darren Aronofsky just a total, fucking genius?

Aronofsky knows his way around a camera, alright, but everything in the movie is, amazingly, on the page. And unlike the filmmaker's language of jump shots, pace, music, film stock, the novelist's language is just...language. Selby dispenses with pesky, confining rules of grammar and punctuation, using crazy, run-on sentences and run-on paragraphs and sometimes run-on pages to lay bare the urgent, non-stop hum of desperate junkymind. You clock the descent even you're drawn into the story, with the result that each step downward, while horrifying, makes perfect sense.

Like any language vastly different from our current one, it takes some will and effort to get into Requiem. I liken it to Shakespeare, where, even if the actors are really great and the production top-notch, the first 10 minutes can feel like a bunch of well-dressed chimps nattering on in some imaginary, improvisitory language with too much sound and fury: they might as well be hurling poop at the audience to communicate their feelings. Then, once your give yourself over to the experience, your ears adjust and it's almost like were listening to things at the wrong speed before the curtain rose.

It's a difficult journey, this trip into the heart of despair. I didn't need to read it for the cautionary tale, either: I grew up with a healthy fear of addiction and the idea of using needles for sport is anathema. The capacity for self-delusion, though, is a thing it never hurts to be reminded of. Especially in these times of wild-eyed lying by them what's in charge (and willful looking away by them what's not), it's good to dip into some serious truth via this grim, almost-30-year-old paean to it.


UPDATE (12/3/08): In a shameless and transparent act of caving, I've been replacing book and DVD links with Amazon affiliate links throughout the site. I MAKE MONEY WHEN YOU CLICK ON THESE. Like, a full 1/4 cent or something. Whatever. I'm happy if you borrow it from a friend or the library, or buy it used (I like and alibris online) or, praise Jeebus!, from your local independent dead tree retailer. Seriously. The main thing is, read. Absorb. Enjoy. Pass it on.