August 1, 2019 | News | No Comments
Valerie Solanas is best known as the radical feminist who, in the sixties, fired three bullets at Andy Warhol after appearing in one of his movies. The first two bullets missed; the third punctured Warhol’s esophagus, stomach, spleen, liver, and lungs. In 1969, a year after the attack (which led to Solanas being hospitalized for schizophrenia), Warhol posed for a photograph, his shirt rolled up to display the evidence of his surgeries. The scars are puckered, thick and black; the artist’s mouth opens partway, as if he is, perhaps mockingly, mirroring the viewer’s shock. The picture has a come-hither sultriness. One sees Warhol assimilating the fact of his own death, processing it with the same probing glibness that animated the rest of his art. If Solanas is present in the image, it is as a question mark, the object of Warhol’s baffled gaze. “He had too much control over my life,” she reportedly told a policeman to whom she turned herself in, by way of explanation.
“Valerie,” a novel by the Swedish author Sara Stridsberg, could be seen as another attempt to command Solanas’s life. A preface describes the book as a “literary fantasy derived” from Solanas’s biography; “Few facts are known about Valerie Solanas and this novel is not faithful even to those,” the note continues. Instead, Stridsberg combines second-person narration, screenplay dialogue, and acrostic poetry to build around her subject a pseudo-history—a fable set, partially, in locales that do not exist, among people who never were. The book imagines court transcripts and conversations with psychiatrists. Short, impressionistic chapters flit between the fictional town of Ventor, Georgia; boho New York City; San Francisco’s red-light district; the coast of Florida; and a grad-school program in Maryland. Phrases from Solanas’s writing appear throughout, pulled by a current of images and flashbulb memories. This is not the kind of approach that usually inspires confidence; a sure route to conventionality is empty experimentation. But “Valerie” is one of the most genuinely insubordinate books I have read, and one of the most beautiful.
Since Solanas’s death, in 1988, pop culture has shown her an intermittent, mostly lurid interest. She is the subject of a film, “I Shot Andy Warhol,” and several lesser-known plays. Perhaps the most recent narration of her myth came from an episode of “American Horror Story,” in 2017, with Lena Dunham in the starring role. (There was also a biography, by Breanne Fahs, in 2014.) Stridsberg, meanwhile, is a prominent Swedish playwright, translator, and feminist, who made headlines last year by withdrawing from the Swedish Academy in the wake of a sexual-misconduct scandal there. Her début novel, “Happy Sally,” centered on Sally Bauer, the first Scandinavian to swim the English Channel. “Valerie,” titled “The Faculty of Dreams” in Europe, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize, was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and was voted the best Swedish novel of the decade by a panel of the country’s literati.
The book earns its laurels. While the real Solanas was known for her style and sense of humor, if not her subtlety—she wrote a play called “Up Your Ass”—Stridsberg infuses her protagonist with epic, tragic brilliance. In the novel, Valerie grows up with a man-crazy mother who treasures her daughter’s mind but does not understand it. Valerie runs away to the beach, where she whiles away several months among druggies and pimps before securing (as the historical Solanas did) acceptance to college, and then a scholarship to graduate school, to study psychology. Her true love is Cosmogirl, another student at the program, who reminds her of lilies, and whose mother is awaiting execution by the state. As Valerie’s life unfolds in a blur of expectations and disappointment—predatory men, particularly, lurk at every stage of the story—her anarchism is humanized, without losing its teeth. Valerie is dangerous, and the text’s flights of anger and illogic preserve that spikiness. (One internal monologue contains this line: “Language is merely a structure, says Dr. Fuck, and breathes a wind of rape into my face.”)
Even more affecting than the book’s inhabitation of Solanas’s past is its longing for its subject. The narrator is an unnamed woman who sits next to Valerie on her deathbed, asking her questions. Valerie, rude and withholding, rebuffs her. (“You’re not a real storyteller. . . . This is not a real story.”) The scene’s sense of futility is heightened by the knowledge that even this Solanas, the interlocutor, is a construction—a way for the narrator to test her thoughts on radicalism, gender, solipsism, and bravery. The narrator’s relationship to Solanas, and her understanding of what Solanas means to her, forms the heart of the book, but Solanas herself remains out of reach, saturating “Valerie” with sorrow and yearning. This dynamic is embedded in the deathbed conceit. No sooner does the narrator dream a mentor to life than she is forced to watch that life slip away.
The historical Solanas was a woman of fierce contradictions. She denigrated sex as “a gross waste of time” and “the refuge of the mindless,” but she supported herself via sex work for much of her career. She wrote that “the only wrong is to hurt others and the meaning of life is love,” and yet her masterpiece, “SCUM Manifesto,”—the acronym stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”—calls for a gender holocaust. Most pop-culture invocations of Solanas quote the manifesto’s rousing opener: “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.”
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Stridsberg seems uninterested in forcing Solanas into a docile consistency. Her Valerie remains unmanageable, averse to society but also, perhaps, to reason, which bends so easily to power. The character scans as delusional—the book’s portrait of mental illness feels sharp and sensitive, not romanticized—but there lingers the suggestion (most famously articulated by the psychiatrist R. D. Laing) that insanity might constitute a rational response to an irrational world. “This is no illness,” Valerie tells her doctor. “My condition is not a medical condition. It’s more a condition of extreme clarity. . . . Your so-called diagnosis is an exact description of woman’s place in the system of mass psychosis. . . . 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.”
Interweaving theory-speak with the more private music of Valerie’s mind, Stridsberg finds a fresh expression of the truism that the personal is political. Valerie’s “I’m not sick” diatribe soon dissolves into a memory of her graduation ceremony at the Psychology Institute, in Maryland. “I was filled with happiness that day,” Valerie recalls. “I whistled and sang and drank cheap wine.” The poignancy of this leap lies in its juxtaposition of the emotional with the theoretical; the modes are indistinguishable for Valerie, and come to feel the same to us. The prose itself—Deborah Bragan-Turner translates from the Swedish—sees registers collapse: piss and vomit segue to “clouds of pink flamingos flying low over the house.” Stridsberg evokes the pain of marginalization, but she’s equally eloquent about its wild joy, its gift of freedom:
Warhol didn’t die from his gunshot wounds, but the surgeries that followed inflamed in him a lifelong fear of hospitals. It was this fear that killed him, after he refused to seek treatment for a gallbladder infection until it was too late. “Valerie” has a similar power, a way of making the irrational appear sensible. A handful of refrains surface again and again, giving the book the hypnotic air of a sestina or villanelle; they include “Being unloved is an act of terror” and “You laughed and flew straight into the light.” One finishes this novel feeling taken by Valerie, but, even more, moved by the author’s love for her, the generosity that allows a potentially pathetic figure to become heroic, a guardian spirit. In dreams, impossibilities don’t register as such. The political utopianism of Solanas was one kind of dream. Stridsberg’s book is another.