Rating 5 stars
As fractured and fragmented as the woman herself, The Faculty of Dreams is an imagining of the unknown life of Valerie Solanas. Sara Stridsberg builds a picture of Solanas through interview transcripts, fevered reminiscences and paeons to her unfulfilled potential.
I first encountered Solanas in Olivia Laing’s excellent The Lonely City. Solanas features as one of a cast of creatives who found themselves in New York city at various times during the 20th century and who channelled the loneliness they felt into art. Laing does a good job of trying to uncover the facts about Solanas’s life, so much so that I came away from that book feeling like I had spent time in her company.
Stridsberg takes a different approach. Although undoubtedly rooted in facts, The Faculty of Dreams is a fiction. In many ways, it’s also a love letter. Solanas was an unusual character, with a challenging ideology for living, and Stridsberg could easily have treated her as a caricature, a cartoon character who did crazy things at the edge of Warhol’s Factory. Instead, Stridsberg reveals the sadness of Solanas’s life, trying to understand why she lived a life of such extremes and how she came to die the way she did – alone in a welfare hotel in the red light district of San Francisco.
The novel starts with Solanas’s death, and the circumstance of that death runs through the disparate textual forms like a connecting wire. This is a book with an unusual structure. It doesn’t have a traditional narrative form. It uses different voices, different methods of imparting the information Stridsberg feels makes up Solanas’s story. Stridsberg even inserts herself into the narrative, triggering Solanas’s reproval of the world’s need to pick over her life.
A key figure in Solanas’s story is her mother, Dorothy. Dorothy is unreliable in any way going – as a parent, a person, a narrator, a witness. She inhabits a world of flaky fantasy where reality shifts from moment to moment depending on what she chooses to acknowledge as real. Solanas shows similar traits, but is more fiercely intelligent than her mother ever could be. This intelligence seems to be the thing that Stridberg connects with and laments.
As chaotic as Solanas becomes, I got the same feeling from Stridsberg’s version of her as I did from Laing’s. She seems like she would be interesting, even entertaining company, and she was definitely a woman ahead of her time. Attitudes to so many things that Solanas stands for have shifted in the years since her death, never mind since the years of her life. She might have had a different end had she been born twenty years later.
The title of the novel, I think, refers to the dreamlike quality that Stridsberg pours over her narrative. Even Solanas’s reported speech comes across like lines from a David Lynch film. And perhaps it’s because Solanas was born in Georgia, but there’s also something of Flannery O’Connor about the chapters where Stridsberg imagines Solanas’s childhood and adolescence. O’Connor describes the off-kilter lives of Georgians in a similarly detached and musing way to the one used by Stridsberg. There’s a feeling of heat haze over these chapters, a wooziness such as you feel on a hot summer day. There’s also a sense of tragedy being held at bay.
Stridsberg inserts a central question into Solanas’s life – why don’t more women leave? It’s an interesting question and plausible as a cause for Solanas’s ideology. Solanas wrote a manifesto that called for the annihilation of men and a new world populated by women, facilitated by the science behind in vitro fertilisation. The S.C.U.M. manifesto was the rallying cry of Solanas’s Society for Cutting Up Men. Solanas grew up with abuse. She was abused herself by her father and she witnessed her mother being abused by a steady stream of men. And so the question – why don’t more women leave? Why do we think that a man who abuses physically or emotionally is better than no man at all? Why do we believe that there is less shame in staying than there is in leaving, and that staying is the stronger thing to do? Is it because the odds are stacked against us so badly, that the world still belongs to men that it’s harder for a woman to be alone than a man? Especially when there are children involved.
For Solanas the question is more violent. Stridsberg has her ask why don’t more women shoot? Why don’t more women remove from the world the men who make it an awful place for women? It’s another interesting question. Why do men get to do the ridding of people who disrupt their lives? Why is it expected of them but shocking of women?
The answer, of course, as revealed in the story of Solanas’s college friend Cosmogirl and her mother, is the death penalty exists in America and there are no mitigating circumstances, no acceptance of diminished responsibility due to duress, in the god-fearing system that prays for the souls of killers on the day they are executed.
In Solanas’s own case, when she attempts to kill Andy Warhol, only his survival and the state sanctioned diagnosis of mental illness protects her from her own judicial death sentence. Stridsberg imagines an enraged Solanas in an interview with her psychiatrist that also raises interesting points.
Your so-called diagnosis is an exact description of woman’s place in the system of mass psychosis. Schizophrenia, paranoia, depression and the potential for destructive acts. Every girl in patriarchy knows that schizophrenia, paranoia and depression are in no way a description of an individual medical condition. It is a definitive diagnosis of a social structure and form of government based on constant insults to the brain capacity of half the population, founded on rape.
There’s truth here. The incarceration of women in asylums, sanatoria, psychiatric hospitals, has gone on for years. The Victorians made a virtue of it, especially among the poorest in society. No place in the world for women who respond to stress with less than the approved decorum they must demonstrate at all times. Quiet women are the ideal. They are good. Noisy women are disruptive and must be put away. Society might not lock women up as often as it used to, but it still uses the language of mental health in attempts to shame women into quietness when we dare to challenge the status quo of the patriarchy.
A brief aside: the line “constant insults to the brain capacity of half the population” reminds me of a current irritation I have with advertising. Oral B has a couple of adverts out at the moment that employ women as dumb airheads who don’t understand basic oral hygiene beyond wanting a whiter smile, let alone the engineering of a toothbrush head. You wouldn’t get the same advert made with a dumb airhead man in it, because men just know stuff and their vanity isn’t as vacuous as women’s because they’re manly, not decorative creatures. Women suffer constant insults to their brain capacity in so many ways and it makes me want to punch holes in things.
But I digress. Sort of.
The events direct and indirect that lead to Solanas shooting Warhol are recounted in imagined conversations, transcriptions of Solanas’s appearance in one of Warhol’s films, and tracings of childhood trauma and the loss of her college friend as factors in the moulding of the character that Solanas became. She is snippy and funny throughout, a barbed wit, an intelligent woman, a thinker, a feeler, a tragic case and an incandescent champion. For all that she would likely have branded me one of the Daddy’s Good Girls, for all that her choice of lived activism and protest wouldn’t be my own, I liked her.
The passages at the end of the book, in which Stridsberg imagines Solanas’s death are moving. The final alphabet sequence in particular that talks about the close-to-death being aware and that talks about the need to speak and to touch to comfort them in their final moments. And at the very end, Stridsberg presents Solanas as vulnerable, just as all of us must be as we face the moment when we cease to be.
What a thing Stridsberg has done in writing this book. And how beautifully translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner.