Sara Stridsberg: Drömfakulteten (UK: Faculty of Dreams; US: Valerie)
The UK title is a literal translation of the Swedish though, I must say, I am not quite sure what it means. I prefer the US title in this case. The Valerie of the US title is the subject of the novel and she is the very real Valerie Solanas.
Valerie Solanas will be remembered for two things. The first is the SCUM manifesto. SCUM stand for the Society for Cutting Up Men. It starts off as follows:
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.
In other words it is a radical feminist manifesto calling for the abolition of human males. It was, of course, controversial, even among feminists. However, it was little-known till the second event for which Solanas is known. She shot (but did not kill) Andy Warhol. He lived another twenty years, though Lou Reed always maintained that the shooting led to his premature death.
While this novel certainly deals with those two events, its main purpose is to get behind Valeria Solanas as a person, find out what made her tick and, to a certain extent, what led her to write the Manifesto and to shoot Warhol. Stridsberg states Few facts are known about Valerie Solanas and this novel is not faithful even to those. All characters in the novel should therefore be regarded as fictional, including Valerie Solanas herself.
We follow various scenarios, including Valerie’s life, told in small chapters, including her relationship with her mother, Dorothy Moran (Dorothy divorced Valerie’s father and married Red Moran), her time at college and her later life. We also see imaginary discussions between Valerie and Dorothy, Valerie and an imaginary boyfriend and Valerie and an imaginary girlfriend particularly, just before Valerie’s death, as well as imaginary discussions between the narrator and Valerie, also just before her death, her court appearances after shooting Warhol and her time in a mental hospital, after shooting Warhol.
A considerable amount of the book is about her last days. Indeed, we follow her as she dies alone, in a San Francisco hotel. Stridsberg does not spare us the details. Indeed, it seems that her body was only found five days after she died and maggots were already eating the corpse. As she is dying, she is talking both to her mother and the others mentioned above and, separately, to the narrator.
The narrator outlines why she is writing this book. You are the subject of this novel. I admire your work. I admire your courage. I’m interested in the manifesto’s context. Your life. The American women’s movement. The sixties.. Valerie responds 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.
If there is one thing that drove her to take her anti-male stance it is sexual abuse. It seems highly likely that her biological father sexually abused her. It is possible, though there is no evidence for this whatsoever, that her stepfather also abused her. We do know that she had two pregnancies. The first was when she was aged fourteen and the child, Linda, was brought up as her sister and only learned who her mother was when she was an adult. Valerie was living with her mother and stepfather but was seeing her father (and continued to see him). We also know that she really disliked her stepfather. Stridsberg is in no doubt that her biological father abused her and has Valerie saying there was nothing left to cry about except America would keep on fucking me and all fathers want to fuck their daughters.
Not surprisingly, there is more of a focus on the female characters in this book. Valerie seems to get on very well with her mother, Dorothy, who is portrayed as somewhat flighty, more interested in her clothes and appearance than anything else. Often, it seems that Valerie is the grown-up and Dorothy the child.
At college she has a best friend she calls Cosmogirl and whose real name is Ann Duncan. Ann Duncan seems to be the daughter of Elizabeth Ann Duncan. Elizabeth Ann Duncan was the last woman to be executed in California before the United States Supreme Court suspended the death penalty in 1972. During the time that Ann and Valerie are at college, Elizabeth is awaiting execution for hiring two men to kill her daughter-in-law and the two young women follow the case. It seems that Elizabeth was clearly guilty. Ann Duncan is clearly fictitious as, though we know Elizabeth Duncan was married numerous times, it is not known how many children she had, the only known ones being a daughter who died aged fifteen and her beloved Frank, whose wife she had murdered.
Another woman with whom she has a close relationship is the doctor at the psychiatric hospital where she is detained, Dr Ruth Cooper. Valerie does not cooperate with Cooper. Indeed, she shows here and elsewhere (e.g. with her university professor and the judge at her trial) a strong, aggressive antipathy towards authority. It is Cooper who diagnoses what she sees as Valerie’s problems:
I believe you are living in a delusion and you are currently in a schizophrenic reaction of the paranoid type. Even though you make strenuous efforts to appear a hard, tough, cynical misanthrope, you are actually only a frightened, depressed child.
Her relationship with men is less strong. The only one she seems close to is Silky Boy, her fictitious boyfriend when she was younger. However, she does try to have a relationship with Andy Warhol, stalking him when he gets out of hospital (which is historically accurate).
There are quite a few unanswered questions about Valerie Solanas’ life and the narrator raises them with her. Questions central to this novel. Why did you stop writing? Why did you leave Maryland? Why did you shoot Andy Warhol? Not surprisingly, she does not get an answer here or elsewhere. I fucked everything up, that’s the answer to all your questions. I couldn’t take living like a lobotomized brood cow, and the world around me couldn’t take that. When the narrator raises the question later of why she shot Warhol, the answer is I don’t know, actually. I just did. You’ll have to be satisfied with that.
While Stridsberg and the reader do want to know why she shot Warhol, this book is not really about that. It is certainly a feminist book, in that the main women characters are all, more or less, victims. Elizabeth Ann Duncan is executed by the State, Valerie and Ann Duncan die miserable deaths, Dorothy Moran suffers at the hands of two husbands and ends up in poverty. Even Dr Cooper eventually admits that her sex life has been miserable and she essentially disappears. However, Stridsberg certainly does not make out that these women were saints and that, to a certain degree, presumably because of mental health issues and the role of the men in their lives, but also in part their own failings, their fate was inevitable.
Of course, the men do not fare much better. Silky Boy, Andy Warhol and Red Moran also die miserable deaths. Indeed, the aura of death permeates this novel.
Stridsberg has produced a first-class novel about the underbelly of fame and the striving for fame and success in the modern world. She has endeavoured to show the other side of Valerie Solanas, what there was in her apart from her manifesto and her shooting of Andy Warhol. She has also, to a limited extent, showed the other side of Andy Warhol. Valerie’s epitaph may well be the one mentioned above – I fucked everything up. It is clear that, had things worked out for her, she could have been as she wanted to be, a professor of psychology or a successful writer. We do not know why she abandoned both careers, why she shot Warhol and why she became a prostitute, dying ib a transienta’ hotel in a poor district of San Francisco.
Stridsberg later visited the hotel and says of it I have never been in a place that puts me so much in mind of death. The smells and the dirt, the vomit marks on the carpets and the wizened figures moving hurriedly up and down the corridors…Lost women, lost men.. Sadly Valerie Solanas was a lost woman.
For further reading on Valerie Solanas, see Breanne Fahs’ biography
First published 2006 by Bonniers
First English translation 2019 by Maclehose Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner