I came to Selby because I realized that I was interested in a genre called transgressive fiction, which I had not, until recently, even heard of. When I checked out the genre, in addition to many of my favorite books, I discovered that Selby was a leading writer. I then read Last Exit To Brooklyn and loved it, so I followed up with this book. It never occurred to me it would be as good. It turns out that Requiem For A Dream is the best book I have read written since the 1950's.
The book is about addicts. Three of the main characters are heroin addicts and one is addicted to diet pills. But really it is through the vehicle of addiction that Selby rips apart the whole American Dream (the dream of the title) and tears up the illusions on which modern western society is based. He does it in a book of incredible power and honesty and it is a crime that this man never won a Nobel prize or Pulitzer. The book is simply too challenging, I think, to people's basic beliefs and its critique is too accurate and true.
Selby is a writer who never ever turns away from his subject matter and who never ever lies. I think that a lot of people will think that he is exaggerating, but he isn't and that is the way it is. By focusing on lowlifes and the very dregs of society Selby exposes both the unattainability and worthlessness of modern American Values. His point is to show that the materialistic values of suburbia and of television rest on the shattered lives of an underclass, that those values and goods are antithetical to real human relations and that the lifestyle is not really achievable.
It is a world where someone's whole life including their sanity and identity can be destroyed for the chance of appearing on a quiz show.
Selby is a deeply Christian writer. His works begin with a biblical quote and in some sense his message is a message of Christian love. It is not his characters who achieve this love. His characters are inevitably consumed and destroyed by buying into the values of post-western civilization. They are turned into isolated monads with no windows and they are destroyed.
It is Selby himself who achieves this love. He loves, loves, loves his characters. He loves them even though he does not sentimentalize them at all, and even though they are the very dregs of society fed on self-destructive delusions. He makes you love them, and feel with them, and as I have said he does not lie and he does not turn away.
His prose is a sort of mutant step child of Falkner and Hemingway, born in the gutter. The pages of Requiem are on fire as you read them and the words writhe in your brain. He spares nothing, but he teaches you to love the downtrodden in a society that is inherently evil.
Selby's writing is truly great writing. The closest thing to it is Dostoevsky. Like him he challenges the very moral foundations of our society by looking at those at the very bottom.
At once a book of love through understanding and also a book full of rage against a society that is seen as evil, and destructive, it is one of the greatest books ever written.