Valerie, a new novel about the life of famed and infamous feminist writer Valerie Solanas opens on a note. The novel’s author, Sara Stridsberg (and the novel’s translator from Swedish, Deborah Bragan-Turner) use this opening note to describe the book it precedes as a piece of “literary fantasy.” The note promises the reader that “few facts are known about Valerie Solanas and this novel is not faithful even to those.” The meaning is clear –– Valerie is not meant to be a biography of the woman who would shoot and nearly kill Andy Warhol.
Instead, the book is a shimmering and nuanced portrait of the ideals Solanas might have held, and a life that could have brought her to that understanding. The gentleness and strength of Stridsberg’s writing lends itself perfectly to this deeply empathetic novel. Most of all, in the story’s refusal to seek easy answers, its dedication to acknowledge and address the difficulties of its own construction, and its belief in the power of writing all make Valerie a book and a portrayal that I think Solanas herself would be proud of.
Valerie rejects the traditional in favor of the new. The book is divided into five sections, and further divided into chapters, which are often given a heading for location and date. However, some new chapters start without headings, and the whole novel jumps between settings and time periods in the fictionalized life of Solanas. The writing is bold, with sparse and resonant exposition. Occasionally, the book uses poetic layouts, spacing, and uniquely aligning phrases for emphasis. There are a few chapters with alphabetically labeled paragraphs. Another set of chapters drop into second-person perspective, addressing the reader as “you”. This feat is not one to be attempted lightly, but Stridsberg pulls it off with aplomb. The dialogue is written in the playwriting style, one of Solanas’s chosen mediums, and often consists of sharp, staccato lines: characters talking past one another as often as addressing each other. Chapters are rarely more than a few pages, and this made for a quick read.
The writing is beautiful, with evocative, quotable lines like, “Valerie was not mentally ill. She even lived with a man for a few years.” These lines often walk a balancing act, toeing the line between aphorism or camp, and yet always come out on the right side of that tug of war.
Normally, I find many novels written with such a distinct voice to be taxing to read, their gimmicks in prose or presentation to be an impediment to the story being told. Here, nothing could be more natural. Perhaps it is the story of Solanas that lends itself well to experimentation, but I think it might just be the earnestness of Stridsberg’s passion for the subject that ties this all together. You truly get the sense that she loves Valerie, for her unknowableness as much as for what we do know. It would be easy to classify the life story presented here as a tragedy, but that would obscure the depth to be gleamed. Valerie’s life is shown most through her relationships, forged in the bonds between her and her mother, her mother’s increasingly terrible lovers, and of course Andy Warhol. The book never feels the need to spell out the consequence of these interactions, the ripples that would impact her entire life. Instead, their effect is shown throughout the different time periods in which we view Solanas’s life, from her as a child to the final days of her life.
Perhaps most fascinating about the novel is the metafiction aspect. Valerie, a writer herself most famous for a feminist manifesto and several plays, would perhaps be tickled or frustrated by the attempt to portray her in novel form. This difficulty is addressed head-on, through a few chapters in which Valerie, on her deathbed, is interviewed by a “Narrator”. This is a way for Stridsberg to directly respond to the contradiction in writing a novel about a real-life person which could be construed as exploitative, especially in covering a woman who shot a man for having “too much control over my life.” The Valerie the writer dreams up is no more receptive to her, even for being an imagination. Time and time again, Valerie denigrates the writer, and the project at hand, and yet this pushing away only serves to draw us further in.
In immediately abandoning the attempt to paint a true picture of the woman that was Valerie Solanas, Stridsberg has allowed herself to find the Valerie that evaded all except the woman herself. Like Solanas, Valerie defies convention and classification in favor of empathy and strength. I have often thought of writing as a mode of thinking, a way of working through problems on the page, but no neat solutions will be found here. Perhaps just posing the questions is enough.
By Sara Stridsberg, translated from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
Published August 6, 2019