Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Faculty of Dreams (Review)

Drömfakulteten by Sara Stridsberg, Albert Bonniers Förlag 2006

Sara Stridsberg has written a freely structured fantasy around the real-life central character of Valerie Solanas (1936-1988), an American radical feminist writer whose ambition was to be recognized for her creative work, but who achieved notoriety by shooting the American pop artist and entrepreneur Andy Warhol in 1968.

The novel is built in the manner of an impressionistic fictional biography around the main events of Solanas’ life. The narrative follows her progress from an early childhood involving sexual abuse and a homeless adolescence to her years at college in Maryland and her move from Philadelphia to New York, where she eventually settled, writing a play called Up Your Ass , about a panhandler and a prostitute who hates men. Solanas submitted the play to Warhol for consideration as a film script, but it was never produced – because of its extreme pornographic nature, Warhol thought it was a police trap. Solanas was given an acting role in a scene in of Warhol’s improvised films, but otherwise the artist tried to keep her at a distance. In 1967, Solanas wrote the so-called SCUM Manifesto (Olympia Press 1968), which was essentially a call for the destruction of men and of women who loved men. In June 1967 Solanas began to harass Warhol with phone calls, demanding the return of the film script she had given him, and demanding money in payment. She then went to Warhol’s film studio and shot him with a handgun, also shooting the art critic Mario Amaya. Warhol was taken to hospital, where he only just survived. Solanas received a three-year prison sentence, and became a martyr-symbol for the growing feminist movement in the United States. After her release in 1971, she continued to stalk Warhol by telephone, was rearrested, and spent the rest of her life in and out of mental hospitals, working as a prostitute, and spending her earnings on drugs. She died of pneumonia in 1988 at a welfare hotel in San Francisco.

Stridsberg’s novel is not only an account of these events – it is also a meditation on the nature of reality. The book’s title derives from Solanas’ aspirations to an academic career in psychology, which Stridsberg perceives as fulfilling themselves in a self-created environment of anger, tenderness, violence and sexuality – a “faculty of dreams” through which the heroine, with the help of the internalised image of her mother, Dorothy Bondo (“Cosmogirl”), conducts research both into her own destructiveness and into the destructiveness of the society that surrounds her. Contemporary events like the Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb tests of 1946-1958 and the Vietnam War are juxtaposed with the events of the central character’s life. The principal narrative device is dramatic rather than descriptive, with large sections of the text presented in the form of a film script – the formal technique pointing towards Solana’s central preoccupation with writing for the cinema. Sometimes the film script becomes the transcript of an interview, as in the mental hospital scenes. Occasionally, the technical methods employed move in the direction of poetry, as the subjective drama of Solanas’ experience becomes increasingly detached from the “real” world, floating off into the realm of pure psyche. The book has a warm, sympathetic style, and reads ultimately like a protest – both against men and their role in destruction, and against a world that seems to have no place for souls like Valerie Solanas, whoose innermost belief is that “the meaning of life is love.”

In general, the contemporary environment of New York, the art circles and mental hospitals in which Solanas spends so much of her time, are rendered with compelling clarity, though there are one or two peculiarities in the text. For example, Solanas’ New Jersey birthplace of Ventnor, New Jersey, is referred to throughout the novel as “Ventor”, for no apparent reason.

Note: the above review first appeared in Swedish Book Review, but was published without my name being included as that of the reviewer. I'm therefore republishing the article now.

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