The Faculty of Dreams  by  Sara Stridsberg  tr.  Deborah Bragan-Turner  (MacLehose Press, March 2019; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 2019)  Reviewed by  María Helga Guðmundsdóttir

The Faculty of Dreams
by Sara Stridsberg
tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner
(MacLehose Press, March 2019; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 2019)

Reviewed by María Helga Guðmundsdóttir

Valerie Solanas is a cult icon of radical feminism, best known for calling for the elimination of men in a furious polemic entitled the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM being the “Society for Cutting Up Men”) and for her attempted murder of Andy Warhol in 1968. Following the shooting of Warhol, she was tried in court, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and institutionalized multiple times; she died in poverty and isolation in 1988 at the age of fifty-two. The Faculty of Dreams, originally published in Swedish in 2006, is a self-declared literary fantasy of her life, and Sara Stridsberg opens it with a warning. “Few facts are known about Valerie Solanas,” she cautions the reader, “and even to those this novel is not faithful.”

The narrator of The Faculty of Dreams imagines herself at Valerie Solanas’s bedside as she lies dying in a welfare hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Desperate and terrifyingly alone, she is slowly disintegrating into a puddle of shit, sweat, urine, and menses. As Valerie dissolves into her constituent bodily fluids, the narrator embarks on a project to reconstitute her through a series of dialogues, interspersed with second-person narration and prose poetry. An experimental, textual reinvention of a historical figure is a risky proposition, especially when that figure is best known through her own idiosyncratic writings. Stridsberg is evidently aware of the risks, and the tension between narrator and subject is staged in their conversations throughout:

VALERIE: Is it you or I who’s narrating this?

NARRATOR: I’m the narrator.

VALERIE: And I’m the subject of this muddle-headed, fucked-up text. You’re not a real narrator, baby.

NARRATOR: I’m just a sentimental fool, I know. But since I’m the only narrator present and interested, maybe you could answer my questions.

(Silence.)

But Stridsberg’s formal experimentation is well worth the risk. It is difficult to imagine a “straighter” form achieving the audacity, wit, and poignancy of The Faculty of Dreams. The title is apt: Far from feeling choppy or disjointed, Stridsberg’s novel achieves the heightened logic and coherence of a dream, covering vast distances without the plodding intermediate steps of a waking mind.

Stridsberg has described the wonder resulting from her readings of Solanas’s works: “What kind of experiences a person must have gone through to end up in such a tragic utopia and witty dystopia?” The novel reads as a psychologically plausible attempt to answer that question. Stridsberg’s Valerie grows up with a father who rapes her regularly on the porch swing. Her mother, Dorothy, clings to abusive men like a barnacle and comes across as more of a child than a parent to her precocious daughter. Valerie runs away from home and essentially raises herself while subsisting on earnings from sex work (as the historical Solanas did for much of her life). Valerie eventually earns admission to graduate school in psychology and embarks on a passionate love affair with another woman in the program, Cosmogirl. She leaves graduate school for New York, where she attempts to persuade Andy Warhol to produce her play, whose characteristically crude title is Up Your Ass. His eventual refusal to do so prompts the attempted murder for which Solanas was briefly notorious. In both history and fiction, her capacity for violence contrasts sharply with her hippie-esque assertion that “the only wrong is to hurt others, and that the meaning of life is love.”

The Faculty of Dreams has been characterized as a love letter to its subject, and Stridsberg’s affection for Solanas clearly runs deep, but she does not romanticize. Her Valerie is a captivating figure, brilliant and charismatic, but she also radiates danger. The novel’s presentation of mental illness is at once unsentimental and compassionate, nudging readers to expand their capacity for empathy; Valerie comes across as unhinged, yet compelling in her assertion that she is “the only sane woman here.” That is perhaps not a high bar to clear. In the world she inhabits, patriarchal power—manifest in pimps, editors, artists, and graduate advisors alike—is a stifling force that wields reason as a weapon rather than submitting to its constraints. In the face of such authority, Valerie confidently deconstructs the diagnosis she is given and deals out her own:

I don’t want any diagnosis. . . I apply my own diagnoses. This is my diagnosis: Goddamn pissed off. Fucking angry. Hustler. Panhandler. Man-hater. It’s a nightmare to wake up in hell every day.

Stridsberg gives that hell a visceral dimension, drawing out patriarchy’s physical impact on the bodies it touches. Little Valerie’s chewing gum gets stuck in her hair when her father rapes her. Her mother’s sexual congress with her boorish second husband smells “of something sour and sweet, like old fish or hamburgers.” These physical observations cohere into a geography of misogyny and power:

The body is part of the building. Buildings create people. The body, the surface, America. . .

Surface, clothes, femininity. Flocks of girls moving through the cities. Public women, public relations. Street love. Happy, sunny streets. Regulated prostitution. . . 

When can a woman spend time outdoors? Never. The winds of rape are blowing across America.

Situated at the center of this geography is the White House. Mother Dorothy imparts to Valerie the quintessential American dream, that her child will one day be president of America. The president receives passing mention in the SCUM Manifesto, yet another hideous example of a man in power, but in The Faculty of Dreams, Valerie’s obsessions with the presidency and Warhol gradually cohere into one. This figure is elevated to near-totemic status, an ur-abuser on whom all other abusers are modeled:

Lunch meeting in the White House. Carter. Reagan. Friedan. The nation’s military and economic plunder. Rape. Vampires. Dracula. Andy Warhol sucking blood out of people. The personal is very individual. Make-up. Beauty salon. A revolutionary in every bedroom. An Andy Warhol in every thought. . .

Pornography. Prostitution. Presidents.

All civilization is based on repetition. All civilization is based on money, masculinity, weapons. All civilization is based on previous civilizations’ mistakes. Make no mistake, make women. Make no mistake, make lesbians. Military intervention. Vietnam. Distraction.

In spite of her declaration of independence from historical fact, Stridsberg often relies heavily on the real Solanas’s biography and draws on her writings through both quotation and imitation. Few texts can rival the SCUM Manifesto for raw, furious intensity; Solanas’s writing is theatrical, vivid, and often outright funny, so much so that some have been convinced that the manifesto is a work of satire. Her assessment of the male sex drive is an illustrative example: “He’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.” Stridsberg makes direct use of some of the manifesto’s most vivid passages. When Valerie attempts to recruit Warhol for “Turd Sessions,” self-criticism meetings for those who wish to escape the purge of men from society, she informs him: “SCUM will conduct Turd Sessions, at which every male present will give a speech beginning with the sentence: ‘I am a turd, a lowly abject turd,’ then proceed to list all the ways in which he is.” This is pure Solanas: scathing, sincere, and scatological. Satire at its most earnest.

Inhabiting Solanas’s voice without flattening it or sliding into mockery is no mean feat, yet Stridsberg does neither. Praise is also unquestionably due to Deborah Bragan-Turner’s English translation, which captures a certain historical flavor of American English and skews it ever so slightly, all while incorporating Solanas’s writings seamlessly. Bragan-Turner is not the only translator at work here. It seems reasonable to attribute some of Stridsberg’s easy ventriloquy of Solanas to her having translated the SCUM Manifesto into Swedish in 2003. But The Faculty of Dreams goes far beyond ventriloquy. Stridsberg channels Solanas’s untrammeled language confidently and with clear-eyed insight. Out of her play with this brusque vernacular emerge bittersweet, almost elegiac reflections on survival in a misogynistic world:

Cock-sucking is a fantastic thing as well. Sucking dicks all day is something real. It tastes of salt and shit and human being and black water. You can think about something else, you can’t think about nothing. Ten dollars. White houses in your mouth. Clear white thoughts.

Such passages are all the more striking in light of the fact that they are not a product of the present political moment. The Faculty of Dreams predates by a dozen years the #MeToo movement and presidential rhetoric of pussy-grabbing and sexual assault. As such, its diagnosis of diseased power structures is likely to remain alarmingly accurate for decades to come. But politics are not the heart of the novel; that place belongs to Valerie alone. As Stridsberg has promised, The Faculty of Dreams is faithless to certain facts of history and geography, but that only serves to accentuate its unflinching fidelity to its protagonist.

María Helga Guðmundsdóttir is a translator based in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Banner image credit: Thomas Hawk. Reproduced under CC BY-NC 2.0 license.