Valerie: A Novel by Sara Stridsberg, Translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner

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A heart full of black flies. The loneliness of a desert. Landscape of stones. Cowboys. Wild mustangs. An alphabet of bad experiences.

Everything reaches it’s end, certainly Valerie Solanas reached her’s in a sad hotel room “last stop for dying whores and junkies”, and with this creative novel Sara Stridsberg brings her back to life, in the only way writers can, through exploring her past and freely using creative imagination. Valerie Jean Solanas, feminist and author of  The SCUM Manifesto shot Andy Warhol. Yes, that Valerie!  Her story isn’t focused on Warhol, nor should it be. Instead, we are taking a trip into the underbelly of her existence. The early sexual molestation by her father, her years as a student of science working in a lab with animals, her keen intelligence battling her declining mental states, the prostitution, the institutions, arrest, her lonely death from pneumonia… One can imagine why she had a deep hatred for men, a defiled child grown into a woman with no reason to have faith in man.  What was sex to her but survival, just like conversation, she could escape her body, go to a place where no one could touch her, she learned that at her father’s hands. A member of one in her club of hate, just like when she was little.

She didn’t succeed in her assassination attempt on Andy Warhol, but she hit her mark on that June day in 1968, his lungs, esophagus, spleen, liver and stomach were damaged and he never fully recovered despite living until his death from a heart attack in 1987 due to complications following gallbladder surgery. She wanted Warhol to produce a play, he passed it up- too outlandishly vulgar for him… he would pay for that brutal rejection! These are facts, but  it would do good to research Valerie if you want more than fiction, her life wasn’t a pretty existence, and I couldn’t help but wonder who I would be in her shoes. I remember reading about her giving birth to a child but I digress… this novel is all over the place and I don’t think it’s due to the translator, I feel it is meant to make the reader feel they are on shaky ground. There seemed to be very little stability in her life, nor did she ever appear to get the chance to be a little girl. If her prostitution is distasteful, if she was too much, too vulgar, filled with rage, who else can you blame but her parents?

The author keeps saying ‘and if you did not have to die’, but she did and along with the years of decay, so too died her chance to be a writer, a scientist and worse was the end of  her belief in herself. Maybe it’s not that she, like any of us, had to die, but so alone, in the ‘crap hotel’. What of her mother, Dorothy? Dorothy, Dorothy, are you there? Were you ever? There always needed to be a ‘fella’ didn’t there? Why didn’t you protect your daughter? It seems not even boarding schools, college was far enough away to change her fate. Her genius couldn’t save her, in fact, it likely fed the fury, for sometimes clarity is blinding.

She believed the world, due to men, had no place for a woman. She was a star that Warhol didn’t make, but who would forever be tied to him. Even years later she certainly didn’t seem to be sorry for her crime. He was simply a target all her years of pain honed in on. The novel is written almost like a dream, a terrible dream you can’t shake off. Soiled memories you want to deny, paste into a scrapbook and burn to ash, as good as forgetting. The shadow of death seems to be the only friend, at the end, in her corner. Death, an ever present  companion, showing itself in the blood she coughs up into her hand. The years reach further back one moment, Dorothy and Valerie in the desert, caught up in her mother’s disastrous love affairs, ‘known for her bad taste and bad judgement’, and then bam, we’re in 1988 again, in a sad hotel. It’s too late, Valerie is doomed, you knew this from the first pages. So many years spent as one of the drowning under psychiatric care, just one of many on the fringes of society, one of the forgotten… we cannot change the ending. Catch a whiff of complete ruin as it runs through the pages.

Why couldn’t she have taken her degree, let her genius shine? Can dissecting the dead, the trajectory of their lives provide us with anything concrete when it’s all just fiction? Maybe. Maybe it’s as close as you can get sometimes. How can you not feel a bit unhinged after reading Valerie? Not all readers enjoy non-linear stories, for me this scattered way of writing fits Valerie’s disordered mind and life. I keep picking my brain wondering how different the outcome would be today, better or worse?  Raw, painful, disturbing!

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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