The Faculty of Dreams

The Faculty of Dreams is Swedish writer Sara Stridsberg’s second novel, and the second to be translated into English by Deborah Bragen-Turner. Her first, The Gravity of Love, is largely set in a psychiatric hospital, and The Faculty of Dreams, too, deals with questions of sanity. It is based on the life of Valerie Solanas, who is most famous either for shooting Andy Warhol or writing the SCUM Manifesto – the question of where her fame should rest is one the novel asks. The novel retells her life in dreamlike (or, at times, nightmarish) prose, often in dialogue (Stridsberg describes it as a “literary fantasy” but it’s worth noting Stridsberg’s first play was also about Valerie), beginning with her death in 1988:

“It is April 1988 and Valerie Solanas is lying on a filthy mattress and urine-soaked sheets, dying of pneumonia. Outside the window, pink neon lights flash and porn music plays day and night.”

Many of Valerie’s problems (should we chose to see them as such) begin with her mother, Dorothy. Dorothy is reliant on having a man in her life, no matter how that man treats her or Valerie. Valerie recounts more than once how her father, Louis, used to sexually abuse her:

“…Louis used to rape me on the porch swing after Dorothy had driven into town… he was a jumbled agony of tears and lust and the seat cover fabric was a mesh of wild pink roses that Dorothy had embroidered at nights and I counted the roses and the stars in the sky… and I rented out my little pussy for no money and afterwards he always wept and tried to untangle the knot of chewing gum in my hair..”

Dorothy tells Valerie, “Without him, I’m nothing.” (These are imagined rather than realistic dialogues).

“Dorothy falls to pieces without Louis and Valerie falls to pieces without Dorothy.”

This continues even after Louis leaves as Dorothy becomes involved with other men:

“Dorothy keeps on forgetting things. First she forgets her promises, then she forgets her child…”

Valerie is a bookish child whereas Dorothy does not read; later Valerie struggles to gain any praise from her mother when she gains her degree in psychology, and is accepted to continue in a post-graduate research role – Dorothy is, instead, fixated on the recent death of Marilyn Munroe:

“VALERIE: I got a place as a postgraduate.
DOROTHY: She died of an overdose, little Valerie. It’s so sad.”

In a traditional novel we would say it is her childhood, her relationship with her mother, and her friendship with Cosmogirl at university, which influence her revolutionary attitude towards sex, though Valerie portrays her views as self-evident, and Stridsberg leaves the question open, as she does the extent of Valerie’s life as a prostitute. (Both the author – who features in the dialogues – and a journalist attempt to ask Valerie about prostitution but can get no straightforward answer). “Five for a fuck, three for a blow job, one for a hand job,” Valerie repeats throughout the novel, with only the prices changing:

“A whore never sells intimacy. She sells a black hole in space.”

In Valerie’s eyes, men are redundant, as is demonstrated by the experiments she wishes to undertake as a postgraduate:

“There is no reason to involve male mice. Mouse girls can have mouse babies with one another.”

“The male,” she says, “is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.”

It is ideas such as these she puts into her SCUM Manifesto, which she later feels is stolen from her by men, just as she blames Andy Warhol for stealing her play, Up Your Ass. Though these fears of theft partly originate in her own paranoia, they can also be seen as representative of a patriarchal society where the ideas of women are devalued or appropriated. The SCUM Manifesto becomes influential in the women’s movement, but Valerie is typically dismissive of this too:

“An army of lobotomized Barbie dolls is marching along Fifth Avenue with their ridiculous posters about abortion and the pill and date rape.”

Valerie’s ideas are not coherent, but she is presented as a chaotic vehicle for change, tragic in her refusal to compromise, or accept any other reality than the one she perceives. Stridsberg has, anyway, pre-empted criticisms of her portrayal of Valerie, with the subject of the novel herself declaring that she doesn’t want “no sentimental young women or sham authors playing at writing a novel about me dying.”

However unpleasant its subject matter at times, The Faculty of Dreams is a novel of great power and force, one in which the reader is immersed in Valerie’s life, her complex character, and her uncertain sanity (“I am the only sane woman here,” she claims). It has been an unexpected highlight of the long list and I fully expect it to be on the shortlist tomorrow.

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7 Responses to “The Faculty of Dreams”

  1. Man Booker International Prize 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg (Sweden), translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (Quercus) […]

  2. Radz Pandit Says:

    Great review! I have yet to read any of the titles on the MBI longlist, but the ones which appeal the most are this one and The Years, so its good to know that you rate both highly.

    Have you read the Vasquez? Despite the positive reviews, I am not tempted by it. From what I understand, the middle section is a bit of a slog, so would be interested in your take on it.

    • 1streading Says:

      It does seem a bit long to me but now it’s on the shortlist I’m more likely to read it. I would definitely read The Years – still my favourite to win.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting to see it’s a highlight for you, as to borrow Radz’ phrase it sounds a bit of a slog.

    Valerie does sound rather tragic. What change is she achieving? Besides shooting someone that is and criticising the women’s movement which did actually make some difference (if not yet enough). What was all that anger good for?

    • 1streading Says:

      It doesn’t really sound all that attractive to me either – I’ve just not been able to convey why it impressed me. I think I was carried along by the power of her character, flawed as it is.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds like harsh reading, Grant, but Solanas is a fascinating if tragic character. With the upbringing she had it’s hardly surprising things didn’t go well for her…

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