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Sara Stridsberg, Drömfakulteten (The Dream Faculty)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9100107263

Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2006:2

Drömfakulteten reached the shortlist for the August Prize (fiction) 2006 and is one of the two Swedish nominations for the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2007.

Sara Stridsberg has written a freely structured fantasy novel based on the real-life character of Valerie Solanas (1936-1988), the American radical feminist author whose ambition was to be recognized for her creative work, but who achieved notoriety in 1968 by shooting the American pop artist, film maker and “entrepreneur” Andy Warhol. The novel is constructed in the manner of an impressionistic fictional biography, focusing on the main events of Solanas’s life. The narrative follows her progress from an early childhood involving sexual abuse, through a homeless adolescence to her years at college in Maryland. After her move from Philadelphia to New York, 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 set-up. Solanas was given an acting role in a scene in one 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 love 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, as well as the art critic Mario Amaya, with a handgun. Warhol was taken to hospital and only narrowly survived. Solanas received a three-year prison sentence and became a martyrsymbol 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’s aspirations to an academic career in psychology, which Stridsberg perceives as fulfilling themselves in a self-created environment of anger, tenderness, violence and sexuality. In fact through this “dream faculty”, the heroine – with the help of the real and internalized image of her mother (Dorothy Bondo), a partially real college companion (“Cosmogirl”) and a psychiatrist (Dr. Ruth Cooper) – looks into both her own destructiveness and that of the society which 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 – a formal technique that points to Solanas’s central preoccupation with writing for the cinema. Sometimes the film script turns into a 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’s 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 a world that seems to have no place for souls like Valerie Solanas. In general, the contemporary environment of New York, the art circles, hotels and mental hospitals in which Solanas spent so much of her time, are rendered with convincing clarity. Solanas’s birthplace of Ventnor, New Jersey, is referred to throughout the novel as “Ventor”, a non-standard spelling which isn’t explained anywhere in the text.

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