‘I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.’ Hubert Selby Jr. stated that this was his motivation to be an author. After catching tuberculosis whilst in the Marines, Selby had one lung collapse, and half of the other had to be removed in surgery. Doctors gave him less than a year to live. He was married with a daughter, and with such little lung capacity could not attempt to hold down a normal job.
As we now know, that diagnosis was incorrect; Selby lived to the age of 75, passing away in 2004. But post-diagnosis, he was bedridden for the majority of the next ten years. The threat of imminent death in some ways informed his writing style – Selby never used apostrophes, opting for slashes as they were closer on the typewriter keyboard. He also never indicated speech. You’d think this would make for difficult reading, but it flows fantastically, even with multiple speakers. This is mostly thanks to Selby’s ear for language, and the poetry in words.
The Demon tells the story of Harry White, an advertising executive in New York. He has a constant feeling of anxiety, irritability and instability, that at first is only dissuaded by having one night (or occasionally lunchbreak) stands with married women. Each time, Harry’s relief is shorter, until eventually it doesn’t work at all. He switches up his tactics several times, with each attempt at peace more transgressive than the last.
Like a cross between Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, The Demon is an existential nightmare, and in some ways a satire of career-driven life. It is Harry’s emptiness that leads him to the terrible, heartless acts he conducts, and his dissatisfaction is played out without judgement from the narrator.
At times the narrative rises and drops a bit too quickly, and it can feel as though the tension has built to nothing. It also makes it feel a bit long, as though some of these cycles of tension and peace are just filler.
The stream-of-conscious prose as Harry loses his mind is excellent, pulling bizarre and conflicting imagery into the reader’s head, and scenes of violence are particularly vivid. The lack of judgement in the writing makes for a particularly interesting narrative; the reader can’t hate Harry, as he is at least partially a victim of circumstance and his own mental instability. That there’s no given cause for his inner conflict makes the book all the more haunting, and readers will find themselves diagnosing Harry White, almost trying to explain away his crimes.
Though not as celebrated as Last Exit To Brooklyn or Requiem For A Dream, The Demon is still a worthwhile read for those familiar with Selby’s work. For those who enjoy it, his style will get them through the occasional filler scenes that seem to add little or nothing.