photo manipulation by nacrowe
one of my all-time favorite writers. and not just because he writes about the part of brooklyn my family is from.
in the united states there is this force-fed optimism shoved down our throats since birth through our education systems and mass media that basically propagates the narrative that if you work hard enough, good things will happen. reading any HUBERT SELBY JR novel essentially an exercise in looking the AMERICAN DREAM straight in the face and laughing at it. and not one of those belly laughs were you see the folly, but one of those nervous ones were you realize how much of your identity is swallowed up in this hollow fantasy.
the three novels of his i am familiar with are LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (1964), THE DEMON (1976) and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (1978). two obviously have been made into excellent film adaptations by ULI EDEL and DARREN ARANOFSKY, respectively. love them both but such will be the topic for another post. what unites them all is a sense of competing drives, not necessarily good vs bad, but constructive vs destructive tendencies brought on by ambition. the central question of his novels is "what is it that we want?" and "what is the price of attaining it to your psyche?"
his characters tend to have what SIGMUND FREUD would recognize as a very strong will to self-destruct, or as he termed it, a "death-drive." all of his protagonists (incidentally all share the name "Harry" in his novels) seek validation through community, money, vice, or otherwise and in each case they get into trouble. its almost like he chooses each novel as a way of elucidating different facets of how the AMERICAN DREAM is a hoax and a quixotic fallacy on par with any other human construction (family, religion, community) used to motivate a sense of identity. in terms of narrative the protagonist's character arc is inverted, as you undoubtedly encounter them initially at their highest point, the peak of their powers and sanity. from here on out its a downward spiral, with any solace in brief periods of calm merely red herrings making the free-fall to come that much more brutal and inhumane.
it is a dark, bleak and ultimately realistic portrayal of reality. when i read his work i am often thinking about my own motivations, goals and what the actual cost of such are. yes in america there is opportunity, but what is the price of the success we seek? what are you giving up to achieve it and fundamentally who are you at the end of that process? what has that process done to your sense of self? that is the gift of his work in my opinion. they are almost bitterly self-reflective in nature in a way few others are.
as a former english teacher i really appreciate the fact that his characters are so singular and well-constructed that HUBERT SELBY JR imposed a very unique writing style where he would not use quotes and never specifies what characters say what at the end of sentence. characters speak in all caps and by context you know who said what without being told. it is a really neat trick that just further showcases the depth of his writing.
other side note: THE SMITHS' THE QUEEN IS DEAD album is named after a chapter in LAST EXIT TO BROOKYLN. just saying.