Requiem for a Dream (Magill's Literary Annual 1979)
Hubert Selby’s latest novel clearly marks him as a considerable force in contemporary American letters. Although Sara Goldfarb, one of the three main characters in Requiem for a Dream, definitely resembles Ada of Selby’s Last Exit for Brooklyn, and although this novel is set among the same desperate streets of New York, Selby’s new work brings his art to a plane of universality that places the bizarre and sensationalistic aspects of the earlier novel’s subject and language in the category of ingenious curiosities. Requiem for a Dream achieves its impact through a simple elegance of double plot and such convincing characterization that the reader is compelled to discover his or her own terrifying destiny in the fates of Selby’s characters. We are drawn into the horrifying degradation of these characters because the dreams they begin with are our dreams, the dreams of a society whose primary apparent value is fame measured in exposure or security measured in money.
Sara Goldfarb, around whose solitary diminution one of the two plots revolves, is Philip Roth’s Mrs. Portnoy without benefit of offspring to victimize (since Harry no longer lives with her) nor husband to emasculate (Seymour is long dead). Harry rarely comes to visit her because, she thinks, he’s too busy running some fancy kind of export business. This leaves Sara with her refrigerator and her television as companions in her solitude. But they are not bad companions. When she talks to her refrigerator, it replies, and the reader is quickly convinced that this dialogue is as real to her as her endless afternoon gossip sessions with the women of the neighborhood.
A phone call from the television changes Sara’s affection for her appliances into a danse macabre at the end of which the refrigerator won’t speak to her and the television has taken over both the apartment and Sara’s mind. An anonymous representative from an unnamed quiz show calls to tell her she has been chosen: “Well, Mrs. Goldfarb, I cant tell you why you are so lucky, I guess its just that God has a special place in his heart for you.” At one stroke from an external fate that has hitherto ignored her completely, Sara is rocketed to the center of neighborhood attention. The women in the courtyard speculate “on the enormity of the coming event” in Sara’s life—a dream bright enough to illuminate her days with a “new will to live.” For Sara, the American dream is to walk “zophtically” across a screen under the multitudinous eye of a color television camera, to walk serenely into the smile of the announcer. Beyond that point her imagination does not carry her.
But her practical intellect realizes that she cannot reach that point until she does something about the obese body she has carried around with her since Seymour died and the day her Harry made his bar mitzvah—the body that no longer fits by many sizes into the smashing red dress and golden shoes she wore to Harry’s party. For Sara’s lifelong addiction to television has been accompanied by a familiar sidekick: “Tomorrow Ill go and get the books and go on a diet. She put another chocolate covered cream in her mouth.”
Sara’s tragedy is that her dream of fame—the “virtue” which, with security, Selby sets as the deadly twin motivating forces of the society he depicts in detail as accurate as it is gruesome—lures her away from the relatively harmless addictions she is secure and content with; when the dream proves to be ephemeral, based more upon the projections of her imagination than upon the reality of the serendipitous phone call, it becomes the proverbial nightmare from which one does not awaken, upon whose back the dreamer is carried into the valley of the shadow of death. Sara begins approaching the valley when she discovers, in the library, the bare facts of dieting: “How could you eat only that? A mouse would starve already on that.” Her premonitions of futility notwithstanding, Sara launches heroically into the task of losing forty pounds the straight way.
It is not long before she learns to compromise: “Well, it really depends on how you measure: loose or tight. All Sara did was push out the air between the pieces of lettuce.” From self-deceit Sara moves to obsession to other states of “altered consciousness” in which her mind is dominated by images of eating as Selby astutely uses...
(The entire section is 1808 words.)
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