On the way back from our French holiday, we finally confirmed what the Shadow Panel thought of this year’s longlist with the announcement of the Shadow Shortlist last week. It’s fairly similar to the official selection (with one glaring difference), and today’s leg of our Man Booker International Prize journey, oddly enough, has us taking a look at the one book we chose that the official judges didn’t. We’re off to the US, to again accompany a woman through her life. This time, though, it’s a rather different atmosphere that awaits us, and any male readers may want to tread very carefully this time around…
The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg
– MacLehose Press, translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner
(Review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
It’s April, 1988, and in a squalid hotel room in San Francisco’s red-light district, a middle-aged prostitute is on the verge of death, watched over only by the ghosts of her past and a caring narrator. As Valerie prepares to face the inevitable, the writer talks to her, hoping to learn more about her life, and also to provide some comfort in the dying woman’s final moments. We move between pivotal moments in her life: her troubled childhood in the sticks, her successful studies in Jacksonville and Maryland, her two great loves, people she was unable to save…
…oh, yes – and the time she shot Andy Warhol. You see, The Faculty of Dreams is an attempt to make sense of a life less ordinary, that of Valerie Solanas, the writer of SCUM Manifesto, a feminist call-to-arms blaming men for the ills of the world and calling for their eradication. Yet Stridsberg is less interested in examining Solanas’ ideology than in getting to know the woman herself, exploring the moments that made her who she was in a rather sympathetic take on her life. By the end of the book, we have a portrait of a fascinating woman, damaged by society – and, yes, by men.
The story will probably be fairly familiar to many readers (there was a movie about Solanas a while back), but The Faculty of Dreams provides a slightly different perspective on events. The personal interest the narrator takes in her subject spills over into the imaginary conversations she has with Valerie in the filthy room at The Bristol Hotel:
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.
p.32 (MacLehose Press, 2019)
Of course, that’s exactly what Stridsberg is doing here, with the writer acknowledging her intrusion into her subject’s life and putting her own spin on it, one Valerie resents:
VALERIE: You’re romanticizing this and sentimentalizing it. The notes will go up in flames in the backyard in Ventor. The dying material is just vomit, diarrhea, phlegm and fear. There is no point in sitting here waiting. All this is just nothing-at-all material. It will all vanish. (p.119)
And, you sense, she has a point – the writer (or, at least, the narrator) seems in awe of a woman whom the outside world isn’t exactly enamoured with.
With this in mind, Stridsberg attempts to make us understand, and sympathise with, her subject. We start from her childhood and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother’s partners, before following her to Florida, where she meets Silk Boy, a friend and lover whose life comes to a tragically premature end. From there, we accompany Valerie through her university years, and a glorious relationship with a woman she calls Cosmogirl, one that falls apart when Valerie heads off to New York. Her later downfall stems in part from the guilt she feels at leaving those she loves behind.
For many readers, the scenes in New York may well be the most interesting parts of the novel. After meeting Warhol, Valerie becomes an integral part of his Factory, even collaborating with him on a film. Here, at the height of her success and fame, having left academia behind to focus on writing, she begins to spectacularly unravel. Becoming ever more unlikable, needy, aggressive and threatening, she inevitably spirals out of control, and the men around her are justified in their attempts to keep out of her way – as Warhol eventually finds out.
If you think The Faculty of Dreams sounds like a detailed biography, though, a lengthy novel slowly taking us from A to B, you’d be sorely mistaken. The book starts with Valerie’s death, and then jumps back and forth in time, with the many short chapters taking us back to her childhood, the trial, her university days and many more periods in between. The major strands include the scenes at the hotel, with the narrator gently guiding the dying woman into the light, and the time Solanas spends at a mental institution while awaiting trial (consisting mainly of back-and-forth sessions with a doctor who seems overwhelmed by her patient’s keen intelligence). In addition, as Stridsberg herself warns in a brief introductory note, not everything here is purely factual. The town Valerie grew up in and the character of Cosmogirl are inventions – this is very much a book based on Solanas, rather than a true account of her life.
In terms of style, too, the book is very different from The Shape of the Ruins, for example. It’s almost more of a play than a novel, with much of the book in the form of a dialogue, conversations the protagonist holds with her doctor, her mother or her publisher. A blunt tone pervades the novel, with lashings of sex, violence, vomit and blood (it’s certainly not a book for everyone), and Valerie’s voice is never less than brutal and cutting; I found it hard to sympathise overly with her for the most part. Yet Stridsberg obviously feels differently, with her compassion for the dying woman shining through, the book as a whole serving to cast a more sympathetic light on Solanas’ life.
Overall, The Faculty of Dreams is an intriguing look at a minor player in modern (pop) history. Solanas might come across as mad at times, but she has a very different view of the matter:
VALERIE: This is no illness. I repeat. My condition is not a medical condition. It’s more a condition of extreme clarity, of stark white operating lights illuminating all words, things, bodies and identities. Within a stroke or a shout of you, Dr Cooper, everything looks different. Your so-called diagnosis is an exact description of woman’s place in the system of mass psychosis. Schizophrenia, paranoia, depression and the potential for destructive acts. Every girl in patriarchy knows that schizophrenia, paranoia and depression are in no way a description of an individual medical condition. It is a definitive diagnosis of a social structure and a form of government based on constant insults to the brain capacity of half the population, founded on rape. (p.101)
Male domination is the theme of the book, and she does have a point. Quite apart from the early abuse, there’s the advantage taken of her by Warhol and co., including the publication of SCUM Manifesto without her consent. Perhaps it all makes for such uncomfortable reading precisely because she has a point…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Well, obviously, seeing as it was honoured in that way by our Shadow Panel, and I was one of several judges to rate it very highly. Even if I was perhaps less interested in Valerie and her life than many other readers, I was impressed by the structure of the book, with its multiple strands, the mix of realistic and surreal styles and the intrusion of the narrator/writer into Valerie’s last moments. Like some of the other highly regarded books on this year’s longlist, Stridsberg took a look at history and put her own inimitable slant on it, and that certainly merits a shot at the big prize.
Why didn’t it make the (official) shortlist?
Good question (it would certainly have been a better choice than the book that replaced it…). One interesting theory was raised in our Shadow Panel regarding the official judges’ comments about learning more about other cultures. Was the American setting actually a disadvantage? Valerie’s story was new to me, but perhaps it was a little too familiar for them.
It’s time to leave poor Valerie behind, but our next trip, taking us to China, is set to be even more confused and complicated. Get ready for a short tour of cities and the countryside, spa brothels and village schools, apartment buildings and underground caves – never has the phrase magical mystery tour seemed so apt 😉