Nothing Special by Nicole Flattery
Published by Bloomsbury Books
Available from All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
New York City, 1966. Seventeen-year-old Mae lives in a run-down apartment with her alcoholic mother and her mother’s sometimes-boyfriend, Mikey. She is turned off by the petty girls at her high school, and the sleazy men she typically meets. When she drops out, she is presented with a job offer that will remake her world entirely: she is hired as a typist for the artist Andy Warhol.
Warhol is composing an unconventional novel by recording the conversations and experiences of his many famous and alluring friends. Tasked with transcribing these tapes alongside several other girls, Mae quickly befriends Shelley and the two of them embark on a surreal adventure at the fringes of the countercultural movement. Going to parties together, exploring their womanhood and sexuality, this should be the most enlivening experience of Mae’s life. But as she grows increasingly obsessed with the tapes and numb to her own reality, Mae must grapple with the thin line between art and voyeurism and determine how she can remain her own person as the tide of the sixties sweeps over her.
Nothing Special is a whip-smart coming-of-age story about friendship, independence and the construction of art and identity, bringing to life the experience of young women in this iconic and turbulent moment.
What I Say
I am always fascinated by fiction books that find their starting point in real events, and Nothing Special is the story of Mae, a young woman who finds herself working at The Factory – Andy Warhol’s studio in New York City.
Her job, along with another woman called Shelley, is to transcribe audio cassettes exactly as she hears them – every single sound and pause must be captured and typed, however insignificant they sound. This seemingly repetitive and cryptic task, was actually published as A, A Novel by Warhol in 1968. This forms the backdrop to Mae’s evolution emotionally and personally as she slowly falls under the spell of this cultural revolution, while attempting to navigate the difficult time in our lives when we are no longer children, but not yet an adult.
Mae has a problematic relationship with her erratic mother, who seems to go from no interest to an obsessive interest with her daughter. Home life veers between times of calm and times of chaos, as her mother deals with her own issues by drinking and dating, while at the same time keeping her ever present doting boyfriend Mikey hanging around – who in fact is perhaps the most stable parental figure Mae has in her life.
As Mae becomes more involved with her project, she starts to view the world differently, and feels that the life she has lived up til now has been so small and narrow. We see the power of celebrity and notoriety, and how much people want to be part of what is happening at The Factory, to be able to tell people that they are in some way connected to Andy Warhol – even if they are just famous for fifteen minutes.
Nothing Special is also about the notion of the artistic gaze, and how we view both the art itself and those who create and participate in it. Mae finds herself more involved with The Factory, and the reader become more aware of how important it is for those around her to be seen, and to be part of Warhol’s history whatever the cost. We see how many of the people – including Shelley, want to be immortalised by Warhol, and have no scruples in doing whatever he wants them to do on screen in order to be able to say that they have been filmed by him.
Mae and Shelley are only needed until they finish transcribing the tapes, and when A is published, they are not mentioned, so are eradicated from the history of the very place they were so desperate to be part of. Nicole Flattery’s understated style of writing works so well for me, in scenes like this, because when life changing and at times upsetting things do happen to Mae, they are made even more poignant by the fact the language used and the words chosen focus you explicitly on her.
Nothing Special captivated me from the very first page, and when I had finished reading it, I sat and spent time reading about Warhol and more importantly, the people who came and went from The Factory. The captivating thing about Nicole’s brilliant novel is that Warhol is a figure on the periphery, the enigma around which everyone else orbits, and Mae’s life becomes the focus. This is a novel which asks us to consider not only the notion of how art is made and the legacy of Warhol, but also makes us think about the people whose names we will never know, but without whom, Warhol would not have been able to create the art we admire today.
I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Tabitha Pelly and Bloomsbury Books for my proof copy.