I first became aware of Valerie Solanas amidst my teenage obsession with Andy Warhol. During this period I loved reading books by and about Warhol as I was entranced by how this nerdy awkward kid of Polish descent from Pittsburgh grew to be the famed leader of an art movement. Solanas was one of the interlopers who frequented Andy’s factory and starred in one of his films, but in 1968 Solanas shot Warhol and almost killed him. Her story was brilliantly realised by Lili Taylor in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. Solanas was a radical feminist and anarchist who wrote a book called the “SCUM Manifesto” which encouraged women to overthrow society and eliminate the male sex. She was evidently very troubled and difficult, but an absolutely fascinating person. Sara Stridsberg reimagines Solanas’ story in her novel “The Faculty of Dreams” which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. We follow Solanas from childhood through to her sadly impoverished later years with frequent leaps backwards and forwards in time simulating the fragmented consciousness of this highly-intelligent and problematic heroine. In doing so Stridsberg captures Solanas’ frustrated brilliance as well as her obsessive mind, mental breakdown and how she was one of many radical outsiders who were scorned and swept under the rug of society.
Stridsberg doesn’t hide the fact she feels a deep sympathy for Solanas and sometimes intervenes in the text to say so in dialogues between a “Narrator” and Solanas. But this isn’t just a fan’s tale. The story she creates conveys Solanas’ deep complexity and hardship from early abuse/emotional neglect to her evident struggles with mental illness – but she also recounts opportunities Solanas didn’t fully take advantage of such as her university accolades and how Solanas’ resolutely combative nature alienated her even from people honestly trying to help her. The style of Stridsberg’s narrative conveys Solanas’ extremely strained mental state where internalized abuse and trauma start to sound like an echo chamber from which she can’t escape: “there was nothing left to cry about except America would keep on fucking me and all fathers want to fuck their daughters and most of them do and only a few don’t and it’s not clear why except the world will always be one long yearning to go back.” This effectively produces a sense of claustrophobia in the reader who becomes equally trapped in Solanas’ circular and exhausting thought process.
Of course, this makes some parts of the books difficult to read. While I appreciated Stridsberg’s stylistic choices such as presenting dialogue like a script and creating impressionistic lists it was often disorientating trying to locate where we were and it sometimes felt tiring reading Solanas repeating the same withering verbal onslaught against men (including gay men who she branded “faggots” and women who comply in a male-dominated society.) This was effective in conveying how Solanas was a tragic figure as you witness people becoming increasingly alienated from her and how she’d plead for money from someone while simultaneously attacking them. But I wished for a bit more clear-sighted detail about her downward spiral especially in the breakdown of her relationship with a woman named Cosmo that she strongly connected with at university. Nevertheless, there are some heartrending moments like when Solanas calls her mother Dorothy while she’s at university hoping for her approval but only getting her mother’s soporific mourning for Marilyn Monroe. There are also some fascinating periphery characters such as her early friendship with a gay prostitute called Silk Boy and strange bond with her psychologist Dr Cooper. Stridsberg shows how there were bands of outsiders across the country and these are the people’s whose stories are so seldom told.
It's curious how Stridsberg continues to be fascinated by and drawn to Solanas though she’s very aware that Solanas would most likely refute her. The author playfully alludes to this in the metafictional line: “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.” Yet this is exactly what Stridsberg does so if Solanas is the high priestess of SCUM this book is a kind of sacrilegious act. But Stridsberg clearly sees value in Solanas’ extreme point of view within the feminist movement. She gives Solanas lines which still feel compelling in thinking about sexual politics today: “Your gender isn’t a prison. It’s an opportunity. There are just different ways of telling. Write your own account.” This feels like a thought that will strongly resonate with members of a newer generation who refuse to define their gender. Equally, Solanas represents a voice from a diminished class of people whose only source of income is begging or prostitution. She states “A room of one’s own is a fiction that doesn’t work.” It feels like her point of view is an important repost to the privileged classes that typically dominate the narrative of history.
I greatly admired this book’s inventive style and faithful desire to give such a controversial historical figure a better ending than the one she actually got.