Author(s): Sara Stridsberg; Deborah Bragan-Turner
In April 1988, Valerie Solanas - the writer, radical feminist and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol - was discovered dead in her hotel room, in a grimy corner of San Francisco. She was only 52; alone, penniless and surrounded by the typed pages of her last writings.
In The Faculty of Dreams, Sara Stridsberg revisits the hotel room where Solanas died, the courtroom where she was tried and convicted of attempting to murder Andy Warhol, the Georgia wastelands where she spent her childhood, and the mental hospitals where she was interned.
Through imagined conversations and monologues, reminiscences and rantings, Stridsberg reconstructs this most intriguing and enigmatic of women, articulating the thoughts and fears that she struggled to express in life and giving a powerful, heartbreaking voice to the writer of the infamous SCUM Manifesto.
In this beautifully abject and uncomfortable biographical novel, Sara Stridsberg suspends her subject, Valerie Solanas, indefinitely at the point of death in San Francisco’s disreputable Bristol Hotel in 1988 and subjects her to a long sequence of interrogations by a self-styled ‘narrator’, superimposing upon the distended moment of death two additional narratives stands: of her life from childhood until the moment Solanas shot Andy Warhol in 1968, and from the trial via the mental hospital to society's margins and the Bristol hotel. Stridsberg has strung a multitude of short dialogues in these strands, typically preceded by the narrator setting the scene, so to call it, in the second person, and then scripting conversations between Solanas and the narrator, or with Solanas’s mother, Dorothy, or with her friend/lover Cosmogirl, or with Warhol or ‘the state’ or a psychiatrist or a nurse, or with the opportunistic Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press published Solanas’s remarkable SCUM Manifesto , a radical feminist tirade against the patriarchy at once scathingly acute and deliciously ironic. Stridsberg (aided by her translator into English, Deborah Bragan-Turner) conjures Solanas’s voice perfectly, animating the documentary material in a way that is both sensitive and brutal. This is, of course, both against and absolutely in line with Solanas’s wishes, making herself available to “no sentimental young woman or sham author playing at writing a novel about me dying. You don’t have my permission to go through my material.” The Solanas of the dialogues is often largely the deathbed Solanas, suspended in a liminal state between times and on the edge of consciousness, whereas her interlocutors are more affixed to their relevant times, for instance her mother Dorothy forever caught in Solanas’s childhood - in which Valerie was abused by her father and, later, by her mother’s boyfriends - yet hard to get free of, due to “that life-threatening bond between children and mothers.” The scene/dialogue mechanism that comprises most of the novel appears to remove authorial intrusion from the representation of Solanas’s life more effectively than a strictly ‘factual’ biography would have done, while all the time flagging the fictive nature of the project. “I fix my attention on the surface. On the text. All text is fiction. It wasn’t real life; it was an experience. They were just fictional characters, a fictional girl, fictional figurants. It was fictional architecture and a fictional narrator. She asked me to embroider her life. I chose to believe in the one who embroiders.” Stridsberg does a remarkable job at being at once both clinical and passionate, at undermining our facile distinctions between tenderness and abjection, between beauty and transgression, between radical critique and mental illness, between verbal delicacy and the outpouring of “all these sewers disguised as mouths.” Solanas shines out from the abjection of America, unassimilable, a person with no place, no possible life. “It was an illness, a deranged, totally inappropriate grief response. I laughed and flew straight into the light. There was nothing to respond appropriately to.” At the end of the book the three strands of narrative draw together and terminate together: Solanas shoots Warhol at the moment of her own death two decades later, and the personae are released. All except Warhol, who lived in fear of Solanas thereafter: “People say Andy Warhol never really came back from the dead, they say that throughout his life he remained unconscious, one of the living dead.”