Book review: Requiem for a Dream

by Todd Foley

Requiem for a Dream: A Novel

Some stories can shake me to the core. Today, I finished one such story.

I’ve heard talk about the film Requiem for a Dream for several years now, how it’s considered one of the most disturbing and hopeless movies of all time.

Sounds fun, right?

Due to the hype, I decided to check out the novel off of which the film is based.


Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 book of the same title has what sounds like a simple plot: people get addicted to drugs, and it’s bad. From the back of the book: “In Coney Island, Broolyn, Sara Goldfarb, a lonely widow, wants nothing more than to lose weight and appear on a television game show. She becomes addicted to diet pills in her obsessive quest, while her junkie son Harry, along with his girlfriend Marion, and his best friend Tyrone, have devised an illicit shortcut to wealth and leisure by scoring a pound of uncut heroin. Entranced by the gleaming visions of their futures, these four convince themselves that unexpected setbacks are only temporary. Even as their lives slowly deteriorate around them, they cling to their delusions and become utterly consumed in the spiral of drugs and addiction, refusing to see that they have instead created their own worst nightmares.”

Words on fire

This was the most visceral reading experience I’ve ever had. Not just due to the graphic and devastating subject matter, but due to Selby’s unique prose. He pays little to no regard to writing conventions such as grammar, spelling or punctuation. Paragraphs often continue on for several pages with multiple speakers, but no quotation marks or attributions indicating who is saying what. Rather than describing it, you can take a look at it yourself:

RequiemI honestly didn’t think I’d make it through the book when I first started. But the text literally came to life, bringing me right into the crazed haze along with the characters, violently assaulting me with an arsenal of imagery and emotions which continued sometimes for pages before the period would finally show up to end the sentence.

A cautionary takeaway

Let me say loud and clear that Requiem for a Dream is not for the faint-hearted. It’s graphic, disturbing and, at times, terrifying. More than anything, it’s a cautionary tale about dreams and the means we can use to achieve them. In addition, it’s far more powerful than any anti-drug PSA you’ll ever see or hear. Darren Aronofsky, who directed the controversial film, wrote that he “needed to make a film from this novel because the words burn off the page. 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.”

Personally, I can say that this novel has already changed the way I look at the world around me. As it says in the forward, “It’s Selby’s gift to us that once again we find ourselves aching for his people – which is to say we find ourselves loving the unloveable.”

As I delved further and further into the story, I came to love these hopelessly lost characters, and in all honesty, my heart broke more and more with each passing page. I wanted them to achieve their dreams. I wanted them to get clean. I hated Selby for making me trudge through hell with Sara, Tyrone, Harry and Marion, but I understand why. This won’t ruin the plot at all; the end result is forecast from the very beginning, but nothing can prepare you for the journey itself. I’m not the first reviewer to say this, but the reader’s love is the only thing that comes out on top in Requiem for a Dream.

“And so the city became even more savage with the passing of each day, with the taking of each step, the breathing of each breath. From time to time a body would fall from a window and before the blood had a chance to seep through the clothing hands were going through his pockets to see what might be found to help them through another moment of being suspended in Hell.”