American author Hubert Selby Jr. is a fascinating writer whose stories and novels dive into the deepest pits of human pathology with intricate attention to detail.
Selby’s books are depictions of the demonic, self-destructive side of the human mind and show its helplessness to remain unyielding in the face of temptation, addiction or uncertainty. The psychological detailing of his literature is absolutely fascinating.
While the growing levels of hopelessness and decay of Selby’s protagonists are quite uncomfortable to follow and fathom, the process itselt is raw and rich in detail, thus making it extremely interesting to experience as a spectator. As long as one keeps in mind their position of the outsider, because the emotional intensity of Selby Jr.’s books is fast to catch onto anyone close by.
Having read and dissected his collection of short stories, Last Exit to Brooklyn, in this blog before, it is time to analyse two important books in Selby’s oeuvre: The Demon (1976) and Requiem for a Dream (1978).
While Requiem is widely known in its visually stunning and audially emotional movie version (2000, to which Selby wrote the screenplay), The Demon might hold a lesser position in the Selby Jr. hall of fame – and yet, it might be even more mesmerizing.
The Demon is the story of a young, handsome, successful man who enjoys acquiring power and control over others. The only problem is that this notion of what true control over others entails, leads Harry to lose complete control over himself.
Selby really goes into detail with the routines, repetitive rock bottom hittings and the constant efforts to keep appearances on a daily basis. For instance, Harry enjoys playing the flirting game and having short liaisons with women during his lunch break. At one point, however, the enjoyment begins to compete with loss of track of time, and Harry begins to notices the cost and conscequence of his escapades.
Herein lies the tragedy: The more Harry has to lose, the harder it is for him to get a grip on his darker self. Starting out as a mid-level specialist, a certain frequency of one night stands is enough to satisfy his urges. Once a higher work station and marriage are achieved, the Demon grows and Harry slowly begins to unravel mentally, craving a more intense sense of lust for violence and self-destruction.
What makes the character multidimensional is the simultaneous guilt towards his family – Harry actually loves and cherishes not only his parents but also his wife. Still, he spirals downward along the drug, sex and violence path, while feeling increasingly guilty towards the people he impacts with his lapses.
What is also highly interesting is the fact that Harry’s passion and empathy keep feeding the Demon. His ability to regret and love is the strength and weakness that separate him from his corporate bosses – granted, we do not get to glimpse into their minds, but they seem to understand how to handle their business in every sense of the way – who, by comparison, do not share Harry’s emotional intensity. One might call him pubescent, naíve, or primitive, but his ability to rise on the coporate ladder due to talent and skill disproves the theory of Harry’s delinquency. Those ambivalencies give additional depth to the protagonist – Selby really has looked into all the little nooks and crannies of his character’s potential.
Enter the blasé therapist who finds the alleged problem behind Harry’s breakdowns and cures him – whilst the craving for violence steadily increases. The stigma of mental health is added onto the pile of issues, since Harry is reluctant to share his issues with anyone. He expects the therapist to figure him out, since he is a specialist in his field. A pseudo-therapy ensues.
While those are very real and current issues, the emphasis of the novel remains on the recurring fantasies – and executions – of murder. The object remains anonymous, and while the reader might try to find the underlying cause of all the internal despair or if it really is childhood trauma.
Certainly one can see expectations were set too high, the pressure is too much, and that Harry is unable to adapt or change his character to his environment and only manages to evolve on a surface level.
The sociocriticism in this book is abundant: it extends to the sexist philosophies and hierarchized structures of the corporate system, into the socioeconomical problems caused by class divison (the internal struggles of the middle class being the most problematic therein), the stigma of mental health issues, and goes on well into the depths of an addict’s psyche.
In summary, Selby’s novel is a fascinating read and should provide any and every reader with some valuable truths about the darker places of the human mind.
Requiem for a Dream is basically a collection of addiction stories, showing three youngsters‘ dreams for their future, the ability to grasp these dreams for a very short moment, and then returns into the harsh reality of what their lives actually look like from the outside.
However, the most tragic one is not among the three heroin addict youths but the oldest protagonist, Sarah Goldfarb, whose life has been decaying for over a decade since her husband’s death and whose addiction is fed solely by loneliness. There is no forgiving over time or bright future ahead of her (realistically none of them have that but the three can still dream, at least) but only a sad glimpse into what will remain a blank existence with no exit.
Having watched the movie twice and read the book thoroughly, Sarah’s downfall still touches me the most.
Comparatively, for her son Harry, his girlfriend Marion and his best friend Tyrone the future is an open landscape with mountains to climb and sights to discover. Although one can argue that this is their future too, since they are actively destroying themselves with drugs – so long as there is youth, there is hope for improvement, renewal and second chances.
Selby writes only from inside and first perspectives, making his stories emotionally intense, he could arguably be categorized as a pure expressionist, if only his books weren’t of the 1970s and 1980s. The novels have something of a post-war unrecognizable aggression about them (e.g. Borchert, Döblin or even Beckett) which is fascinating since he didn’t have corresponding experiences and was self-taught.
Because of poor health and living conditions Selby couldn’t keep a job, spent a good amount of his life in hospitals and battled with drug addiction himself, so his first-hand experience with the daily struggle and first-hand knowledge of death’s closeness make for excellent source material.
For the writer to be able to keep the addict at bay to create and create uniquely, disturbingly, inspiringly and unmatchably, is quite extraordinary.
I have loved Selby’s work so far and will certainly be reading other books by him, however I would only recommend reading him if you are at peace with your inner workings yourself – otherwise The Demon could get you into deep, deep trouble.
Have you read any books by Hubert Selby Jr. and which was your favourite story by the author? Sound off in the comment section below.