I would have been keen to read Nicole Flattery’s first novel anyway, having enjoyed her excellent short story collection, Show Them a Good Time, but its premise is intriguing. In 1967, two young high school students helped transcribe tapes of conversations and monologues made by Andy Warhol’s coterie on which he based A Novel. Flattery’s Nothing Special reimagines the lives of these two anonymous women, briefly living on the fringes of a group mythologised for their part in 1960s counterculture.
I wanted my whole life to be disturbed. I was eager for it. There were other people just like me all over the city.
Mae is the daughter of an alcoholic waitress always on the lookout for male attention despite her boyfriend who would like to step into the gap left by the father Mae never knew. She’s been an observer all her life, ostracised in high school when her one friend made public her callous remarks about a fellow pupil. Mae starts missing school, riding the escalators at Macy’s hoping to be picked up and she is, conned by a young man into losing her virginity. An introduction to a shady doctor leads her to Warhol’s studio where she’s given menial duties by Anita and Dolores who rule the office roost. Mae has no idea who Warhol is and is never introduced to him but when Shelley, a fellow high school misfit and runaway, invites her to share the transcription of twenty-four tapes destined to become a book, Mae becomes drawn into this world some might call depraved, much of it involving cruelty and humiliation. She and Shelley feel as if they know these people, attending their parties, watching from the side lines, their friendship based on their growing emotional investment in it. When Mae stumbles on a scene she sees as a betrayal of their friendship, she’s left alone again. Looking back, decades later, Mae remembers those intense few months which have left her scarred.
The tapes had hollowed me out and when they were finished, there would be nothing left of me at all.
Flattery’s novel is very much more interesting than a recreation of the studio which was home to the stars and bit-players of Warhol’s Factory productions. Mae tells us her own story in an often sardonic, sharp, apparently detached voice. By 2010, she’s come to terms with her fractious relationship with her mother, now dead, but still lives apart from conventional society, never marrying, subject in the past to periods of instability and obsession to the point of derangement. She’s a brilliantly realised character, her retelling of her time at the studio both vivid and compelling. Mae never quite gets over her exposure to this world of self-obsessed, beautiful people seemingly intent on humiliating each other under Warhol’s dispassionate gaze, careless of the damage done to the more vulnerable in the pursuit of his art. It’s a fascinating novel, original and smartly delivered. Very much looking forward to what Flattery turns her attention to next.
Bloomsbury Books: London 9781526612106 240 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)
Nothing Special was on my Women’s Prize for Fiction wishlist but didn’t make it. Predictably, only one of my wishes came true and I couldn’t be more pleased that it was Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses. If you’d like to see what the judges chose, their list is here. Lots to explore for me.