The Faculty of Dreams
by Sara Stridsberg (Drömfakulteten: tillägg till sexualteorin, 2006)
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2018)
Quercus (2018)
352 pp

I’m sorry I missed. It was immoral to miss. I should have done more target practice.
Valerie

I think you are the saddest girl I have ever met. There are no paths in the dark. There is nothing to tell. I cannot tell you how sad I am. I cannot talk about it. It is not possible to think outside your thoughts.
The narrator

After reading eleven of the thirteen books on the Man Booker International Prize longest, this is my favorite so far.

The Faculty of Dreams: Amendment to the Theory of Sexuality OR Valerie is a fictional retelling of the story of Valerie Solanas (1936-1988), author of the SCUM Manifesto, self-published in 1967, and who, on June 3, 1968, shot and almost killed Andy Warhol. The SCUM Manifesto memorably opens:

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.

It is now technically feasible to reproduce without the aid of males (or, for that matter, females) and to produce only females. We must begin immediately to do so. Retaining the male has not even the dubious purpose of reproduction. The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.

Stridsberg’s novel was originally published in 2006, winning the highly prestigious 2007 Nordic Counsel’s Literature Prize (other winners in the 2000s include novels from Per Petterson, Lars Saabye Christensen, Sjón, Sofi Oksanen, Naja Marie Aidt, and Jan Kjærstad). This essay sets the novel in the context of Stridsberg’s work.

Its publication now, in 2019, in English is particularly apposite given, as a Goodreader J pointed out, the revival of interest in radical and queer female writers such as Berg, author of Berg, and Kathy Acker, subject of Olivia Laing’s Crudo as well as the #metoo scandal. On the latter, Sara Stridsberg was elected to the Nobel Prize Committee in 2016, serving on the jury that awarded the prize to Kazuo Ishiguro, but resigned at the end of 2017 over the Jean-Claude Arnault scandal, in solidarity with Sara Danius.

The Faculty of Dreams itself is a innovative reinterpretation of Solanas’s life and manifesto and indeed the art of fictional biography itself. It begins:

The Faculty of Dreams is not a biography, it is a literary fantasy derived from the life and work of Valerie Solanas, American, now deceased. Few facts are known about Valerie Solanas and even to those this novel is not faithful. All characters in the novel should therefore be regarded as fictional, including Valerie Solanas herself. This also applies to the map of America, there being no deserts in Georgia.

And indeed in this treatment the fictional Valerie is born not in Ventnor, New Jersey but “Ventor,” in the non-existent desert of Georgia; the real-life Solanas had a sister, Judith, and had a child when she was about 16, fathered by a married man, which was taken away for adoption, but neither feature in the novel.

The narrator of the novel imagines herself with Valerie in her dying days in a seedy hotel in San Fransisco:

A hotel room in the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s red-light district. It is April 1988 and Valerie Solanas is lying on a filthy mattress and urine-soaked sheets, dying of pneumonia. Outside the window, pink neon lights flash and porn music plays day and night.

On April 30 her body is found by hotel staff. The police report states that she is found kneeling by the side of the bed. (Has she tried to get up? Has she been crying?) It states that the room is in perfect order, papers neatly piled on the desk, clothes folded on a wooden chair by the window. The police report also states that her body is covered with maggots and her death probably occurred around April 25. Some weeks earlier, the report goes on to say, someone on the hotel staff had seen her sitting by the window, writing.

I imagine piles of paper on the desk, her silver coat on a hanger by the window, and the smell of salt from the Pacific. I imagine Valerie in bed with a fever, attempting to smoke and make notes. I picture drafts and manuscripts all over the room . . . sun, perhaps . . . white clouds . . . the desert’s solitude . . . I imagine myself there with Valerie.

Stridsberg’s narrator circles back through Solanas’s (at times imagined) life, but always returning to the hotel room where she at times she addresses Solanas in the second person. and others has a dialogue with her, presented in the form of an interview or playscript (and indeed Stridsberg went on to write a play, Valerie Jean Solanas ska bli president i Amerika (Valerie Solanas for President of the United States) based on the story:

VALERIE: I don’t want to have a religious funeral. I want to be buried as I am. I don’t want them to burn my body when I’m dead. I don’t want any man to touch me when I’m dead. I want to be buried in my silver coat. I want someone to go through my notes after my death.

NARRATOR: My faculty of dreams—

VALERIE:—and no sentimental young women or sham authors playing at writing a novel about me dying. You don’t have my permission to go through my material.

(Silence.)

(The narrator picks at the flowers.)

A second, interspersed narrative strand, takes us through the aftermath of the shooting of Warhol, starting with Valerie’s arraignment at the Manhattan Criminal Court that day, to her eventual commitment to Elmhurst Psychiatric hospital in 1969, and her three years in prison from 1969-1971, again largely told through playscript style transcripts of court proceedings, discussions with her lawyer and psychological evaluations. These sections also draw heavily on the SCUM Manifesto, as well as, as a secondary source, Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

A third strand has scenes returning to Valerie’s life up the shooting, with lyrical narration told in the second person, and split into five chronological sections:

“BAMBILAND” (1945–1948): her childhood with her mother Dorothy in the desert

“THE OCEANS” (1951–1955): her youth, and her love for “Silk Boy” in Alligator Beach, Florida

“LABORATORY PARK”(1956–1963): her student days at the University of Maryland, where she has a strong relationship with a fellow research student “Cosmogirl”

“THE FACTORY” (1967–1968): her time in New York in the late 1960s and first involvement with Warhol, including the publication of the manifesto and her role in his movie I, A Man

“LOVE VALERIE” (May–June 1968): the deterioration of both her mental condition and her relationship with Warhol and his acolytes, leading up to the shooting

The narration features a number of recurrent motifs and symbols: for example the Florida section features male seahorses (perhaps a code for the ‘Men’s Auxiliary’ of males who serve at least some purpose and so will be exempt from the SCUM’s initial killing of all men) and sharks (other men). Two colours predominate: silver, including Warhol’s famous wig, and rose-pink, which first features on the garden seat on which her father, Louis, repeatedly rapes the child Valerie:

He was a jumbled agony of tears and lust and the seat cover fabric was a mesh of wild pink roses that Dorothy had embroidered at nights and I counted the roses . . .

A sample passage from “THE OCEANS”:

The ocean thunders around you, words drown in the waves and the blinding white light shifts into something softer. The sky and the sand turn to muted pink and the beach will soon be empty of bathers again.

You keep on reading your seawater-warped books and Dorothy keeps on vanishing behind her sunglasses, keeps on forgetting. Her cigarettes always burn out on the sand as she falls asleep, her dreams invaded by black underwater trees and black luminescence, constantly descending. When she falls asleep on the beaches of Alligator Reef she dreams about someone no longer wanting to be a mother, and she wakes every time with suffocating heart and salty wet globs in her mouth. Her hand moves on the sand and in her dream and the underwater world there is no shriveled foal, knowing it is going to die, but persisting, still a sticky mucilage around its mother, constantly letting itself be kicked away, for the warm taste of her milk like a watermark on its fur, its mouth filled with black ants. She picks up her book and tries to read, but she is robbed of concentration by the ocean, and still more by her pocket mirror, nail file and cigarette, and most of all by her way of looking furtively over your shoulder at your book.

As an example of how Stridsberg fictionalizes, Valerie’s female lover and soulmate at university, “Cosmogirl” is called Ann Duncan, her mother Elizabeth on death row, facing execution just before (as the narrator knows) the Supreme Court will temporarily halt executions in the US in 1972.

Elizabeth Duncan loved getting married. She and Cosmo crisscrossed America in search of handsome, dark-haired men to whom she pledged large sums of money in return for marrying her. And later, when they wanted the marriage annulled, she carried on to a new state and wed again. And when the money ran out, as it always did, she sent pregnant girls to the doctor and claimed it was her, and then sued her ex-husbands for child support.

VALERIE: What’s she sentenced for?

COSMO GIRL: Murdering two of her new husbands with arsenic.

VALERIE: Is she guilty?

COSMO GIRL: Very guilty, I suspect.

Elizabeth’s story in based on the real-life Elizabeth Ann Duncan, the last woman to be executed in California before the 1972 halt. But the real-life character had a son, not a daughter, and was executed for murdering her pregnant daughter-in-law, not her husbands.

And the narrator keeps returning to the central questions she has:

NARRATOR: I keep thinking of your wild-animal language, of your time at the university. Then I think about New York and the Factory. Questions central to this novel. Why did you stop writing? Why did you leave Maryland? Why did you shoot Andy Warhol?

But this is never answered definitely, since this is, as Javier Cercas refers to in his The Blind Spot: An Essay on the Novel, a novel not a biography:

The novel is not the genre of answers, but that of questions: writing a novel consists of posing a complex question in order to formulate it in the most complex way possible, not to answer it, or not to answer it in a clear and unequivocal way; it consists of immersing oneself in an enigma to render it insoluble, not to decipher it (unless rendering it insoluble is, precisely, the only way to decipher it). That enigma is the blind spot, and the best things these novels have to say they say by way of it: by way of that silence bursting with meaning, that visionary blindness, that radiant darkness, that ambiguity without solution.

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