A Phoenix from the Ashes: Myth and Memorial in Sara Stridsberg’s Valerie

Valerie, or The Faculty of Dreams: A Novel / Sara Stridsberg, trans. by Deborah Bragan-Turner / FSG, 08/2019 – $27 (Hardcover)

Valerie Solanas’s Wikipedia page begins: 

Valerie Jean Solanas (April 9, 1936 – April 25, 1988) was an American radical feminist and author best known for writing the SCUM Manifesto, which she self-published in 1967, and attempting to murder Andy Warhol in 1968.”

It continues:

“Solanas had a turbulent childhood.”

In the tides of #MeToo, Swedish author Sara Stridsberg makes her North American debut with a hazy bird’s-eye throwback to a troubled social warrior’s fight against more-troubled times, with an eye toward what the Wikipedia generation has triggered since. Deborah Bragan-Turner’s 2019 translation of Valerie greets a nation that freely reduces its bygone icons to radicals, feminists, polemicists, madcaps, and ill-raised rogues. And while Valerie surely doesn’t promote these simplifications, it doesn’t exactly reject them, either. Stridsberg’s sharp pseudobiography teeters between history and fiction, continually blurring the line between person and persona, the personal and the political, the biographical object and the glorified iconoclast. As much as Stridsberg encourages a rebirth of Valerie’s moment, she also presses us to wonder: Could a legacy, Wikied and warped and romanticized, mean more than a life, real and tragic?

Stridsberg’s genre-smashing marvel, halfway between a valentine and a postmortem, is here to remind us that the popular American firebrand Valerie Solanas, SCUM leader and Warhol assailant, was also just Valerie, a psychologically troubled genius who dared to soar above the wonts and ways of midcentury misogyny. It compels us to connect the dots between America’s forward-thinking ‘60s and its backward-looking present as it forecasts the modern movement with a tone that’s equal parts wry and foreboding.

“Remember that SCUM is the future,” she writes. “Remember the future’s already here.”

Valerie, as Stridsberg notes in the preface, is not a biography. The author/narrator (Stridsberg herself acts as an unnamed female protagonist in the novel) doctors and ignores facts from the icon’s life deliberately—almost absurdly. She even relocates Solanas’s New Jersey hometown to a Georgia desert, despite admitting in the preface that there are no deserts in Georgia. Still, the narrator—Valerie’s author (Stridsberg), who emerges as one of Valerie’s most compelling interlocutors—careers through an embellished version of Solanas’s absorbing life in fever-dream fashion, conjuring a world as vivid as it is disarming. Throughout my reading, I felt as close to the subject as Stridsberg does on page one: “I imagine myself there with Valerie,” she writes.

The novel’s epigraph—“Hope was never a thing with feathers”—comes from a Claudia Rankine poem whose speaker rejects Emily Dickinson’s counterstatement (that “Hope” is “a thing with feathers”)—but lovingly, longingly, by softly invoking the dead poet’s ghost. Stridsberg does just the same with Valerie’s. The narrative takes an overhead view of America while posing as Solanas’s conscience from below, seeking Hope in every nook of the icon’s story. Despite growing up outside the US, Stridsberg provides as shrewd and alarming an account of America’s progressivist milieu as any native could. She uses aerial threat (including our own blurry bird’s-eye view of Valerie’s life) as a pervading motif in the novel, guiding us from historical events as grand as Nagasaki’s bombing to ones as quaint as rural UFO sightings, or just to Valerie (whose surname, we’re told, means “ocean bird”) staring at her ceiling—“a swimming canvas of eyes and hands wanting to devour you.” 

Time and again, Stridsberg’s perfect balance between biography and eulogy reminds us that Valerie Solanas was and remains far less visible than Wikipedia suggests. Even the narrator herself struggles to get through to Valerie, whose public fervor might have come at the cost of her private feelings:

NARRATOR: My dream is for another ending to the story.

VALERIE: You’re not a real storyteller.

NARRATOR: I know.

VALERIE: And this is not a real story.

NARRATOR:  I know, And I don’t care. I just want to sit here with you for a little while.

VALERIE: I don’t have much to add.

NARRATOR:  I don’t want to live in a world where you die. There must be other endings, other stories.

VALERIE: Death is the end of all stories. There are no happy endings.

(Silence.)

NARRATOR:  I just want to talk to you, Valerie.

VALERIE: And I don’t want to die like this.

By entering the story herself, the author takes a lucid-dream approach to storytelling that’s as thematically fitting as it is technically mesmerizing. From the start, we’re taken from the day of Valerie’s death to her childhood and back again—from a posthumous interview with her mother to a birthday party to a state courthouse to dive hotels to a psychiatric hospital to a college campus, going coast to coast in jarring but exciting disarray. And whether they’re in San Francisco’s red-light district or a New York state prison, the narrator gives the idea of third-person narration a whole new meaning as she shows us Valerie’s inner and outer personae through thoughts, courtroom transcripts, hallucinated episodic pastiches, and freewheeling alphabetical acrostics alike. (Yes, whole chapters are devoted to ABC-based poems, giving us “an alphabet of bad experiences” that’s hard not to smile at.)

All the while, the author signposts the American zeitgeist by detailing Valerie’s development alongside mentions of Marilyn Monroe’s death and Betty Friedan’s publishing The Feminine Mystique. Valerie’s view of “The United States of Nothing” becomes our own as she sees the Stonewall Riots outside her Elmhurst Hospital window, with demonstrations in Harlem active across the river. One of Stridsberg’s main aims seems to be rejecting the tenets of “psychoANALysis” (as Valeries calls it) and attributing Valerie’s inner conflict not so much to psychotic tendency or bad upbringing as to the “winds of rape… blowing across America.” As Valerie succinctly puts it at one point, “America has assailed all my rights, it was definitely not my mother’s doing.” Again, Stridsberg leaves it to us to decide whether Solanas’s life is better off as a biographical subject or a mythologized emblem of a fraught American age. 

The novel continually reminds us, between the lines, that Solanas stood at the vanguard of a fight between identity and political ideology that’s not dissimilar to today’s. Both a cautionary tale and a celebration of progressivism’s genesis, the novel incites us to look back on Valerie’s example as we advance toward personal identity’s political liberation. “Without you,” Valerie’s mother tells her at one point, “America is nothing.” One of the novel’s acrostic chapters has a particularly apt entry that shows the book’s double function as historical nostalgia and timely criticism:

L. August 26, 1970. Thousands of women march along Fifth Avenue. They are burning their underwear, kissing one another, and holding hands. What is on the agenda? Is there actually anything on the agenda? 

Stridsberg’s literary fantasy of Solanas’s life (as she calls it) proves that even a novel as factual as a Wikipedia page can be as real and lucid as a waking dream, that a mythologized account can be as illuminating and urgent as any memoir or present essay, and that a legacy could be a life of its own, however inaccurately recalled. “The world is always one long yearning to go back,” the novel refrains. And thanks to Stridsberg, Valerie’s world, though revised, still lives.

Ryan Daar is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English and Music. On a given day, he probably drinks a fluid ounce of water for every word he reads. He’s not a great swimmer, though.

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