Nothing Special, by Nicole Flattery, Bloomsbury, 230 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1526612120
‘There was nothing special about our seed,’ says the eponymous narrator, Michael, to his pregnant lover in John McGahern’s 1979 novel The Pornographer, a line echoed, unintentionally or otherwise, in the title of Nicole Flattery’s bracingly provocative debut novel, Nothing Special. Though Flattery’s restrained sensual cerebration and deceptive reticence are far from the geometric naturalism of McGahern, the two novels have, in theme and intensity, much in common – the making of art; intergenerational tensions and ties; sex and death. And much not in common. While McGahern’s novel plays out in the grim residences, bars and hospital rooms of a 1970s Ireland where, ‘all hesitant discordant notes are lost in the sweet medley of hypocrisy’, Flattery’s cast take up their roles in the world-altering milieu of 1960s New York, with the main narrative framed by short excursions to its aftermath in 2010 and 1985. And there are many other works, recent or not so recent, with which Flattery’s novel may be put in profitable conversation.
Nothing Special tells the story of how the narrator, Mae, a high school dropout, comes to work as a typist in Andy Warhol’s Factory, and of her friendship with another young typist, Shelley. Recognisable set-up, as Flattery wrote in her review of Ottessa Mossfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, ‘single girlfriends trying to make it in the big city’. But Flattery is as concerned with mothers and daughters, with absent fathers and their stand-ins, and with much else besides.
After an epigraph, Nothing Special opens with ‘beautiful town. 2010.’ (Flattery’s chapter titles are generic, or intriguingly obscure; they situate us in time.) We follow – and follow, with slip and ease and their derivatives, is a word worth following throughout – as Mae remembers a book her mother read to her as a child, a sort of intermediary object, the first of the novel’s endless screens, on which the drama of their relationship plays out. Remembering her search for a copy of the book, Mae takes us from the early days of email through to her mother’s illness and death.
Chapter titles situate us in time, but it is a disorienting complex of time of telling and time told. “It was one of my happiest memories,” Mae says in 2010 of being read to by her mother. Not is. Was. Was when? And when did it cease? A short chapter in 1966 recounts Mae’s friendship with Maud – like the girls in Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, bonded by the similarity of their names. Mae falls out with Maud, is isolated and lonely. She has a sexual encounter with a stranger called Daniel that leads to her entry into Warhol’s Factory. Back in 2010, after her mother’s death, Mae takes trips to New York, where she often visits galleries, longing to be noticed. A chance meeting with the now married Maud prompts a retelling of her life from the time they parted. Whether the narrative then is as told to Maud is unclear; if so, there is plenty she might rather not hear.
Much of the narrative is made up of Mae’s speculative fantasies. She is given to presumption. Others serve as screens for her projections. Sometimes this is stated outright: ‘whatever habits she’d acquired,’ Mae says of the adult Maud, ‘were probably like mine, to stave off loneliness.’ At other times, we get a glimpse of a fantasy life wished-for and denied. Mae imagines Maud’s daughter throwing herself on Maud’s lap to cry without relenting. Somewhere, Mae is reminded of elsewhere; someone reminds her of someone else. A room reminds her of another room. Shelley reminds her of Daniel, and of Maud. Mark O’Connell writes in his book about those seeking to solve ‘the Modest Problem of Death’, To Be a Machine, of this need for elsewhere. It is ‘an ancient yearning to be out of ourselves, out of our own bodies, our location in space and time’. Flattery, in her review of Mossfegh, quotes the narrator, Alison, who is: ‘plagued with misery, anxiety, a wish to escape the prison of my mind and body’ ‘She is,’ says Flattery, ‘like all of us, basically.’ And there is the young woman in Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s short story ‘That Sinking Feeling’, whose restless travels are a symptom of ‘wanting everything’: ‘I had other places yet to find, other people to meet. Other, maybe better, ways to be.’ It is the exact opposite of the detached, unmoving and unmoved camera of Warhol. There are times when Mae, in her speculations, assumes an impossible point of view, a presumption to knowledge she cannot attain: ‘I thought about the girls Daniel brought home, girls from broken homes or no-homes, probably. Their easy tones of disappointment suffered, of expectations repeatedly not met, girls who knew their hardness and brashness was what they had to offer. Daniel taught me something, but not what he intended to.’ She has met none of these girls. How can she know what Daniel intended? She was with him only once and for one night. She is making it all up.
Like McGahern’s pornographer, Flattery finds in her typists a close metaphorical stand-in for the writer at work. Mae tells of Shelley’s ‘mysterious task, the sound of concentration’; Shelley tells someone at a party that Mae is ‘really more of a writer’. As the dictating and transcription of what will become a, A novel by Andy Warhol progresses so too does the making of Nothing Special. Sentences that apply to Mae and her typist’s task could – may or may not! – apply equally to the novelist Nicole Flattery: ‘I put more and more of myself in the book’; ‘all my self-worth had become tied up in the production of the book’. At times in the narrative we slip out of the imagined world, and can only be with the writer at her desk, with the writer in the act of imagining. Mae remembers a blink at a distance of more than forty years: ‘I blinked and was reminded that we were in the street.’ She is outside herself: ‘I watched the water roll off my back.’ Like the writer seeing the world through invented characters, we see with Mae through an imagined Shelley: “’he was rabid for any kind of experience. Through her eyes, even the worst streets weren’t ugly, but transformative, full of possibility.’ In questioning decisions she made, what she gave up, Mae (Flattery) calls into question the writer’s choice, whether or not to make the necessary retreat into solitude: ‘I was right to exchange school, Maud, all of it to sit in a room where I was largely ignored. I was right.’
In its depiction of the writer at work, Nothing Special shows, as Beckett said a work of art should, the traces of its own making. McGahern enacts this within his novel, how a writer might transmute lived experience into art, as a boat trip Michael takes with his lover inspires an episode in the lives of his ‘sexual athletes’. Rob Doyle too enfolds the story of the work’s making in ‘My Nietzsche Story’ or his latest novel, Threshold, a move that intensifies the reader’s intimacy with the writerly persona. Refusing to smooth out the traces may serve another purpose. It refuses to detach the novel from the labour that went into its making. (Flattery is among the most intricately dialectical of contemporary writers, keenly alert to and in pursuit of the complex interrelations between material and intellectual circumstances and the felt lives of individuals, and in restive search for a language and form adequate to the task of their textured literary evocation and critique.) ‘Success is a Job in New York’ reads a chapter heading in one of the many TV and film documentaries on the career of Andy Warhol. ‘The first thing I did when I arrived in New York was get a job’, Flattery wrote in her essay ‘Dance, Sing, Earn Your Keep’. ‘The second thing I did was get fired.’ With her typists, Flattery dramatises the plight of the near powerless employee – in Marxist terms, of alienated labour. Contractless, barely paid, with no rights to the product of their own work, Mae and Shelley embody today’s, and yesterday’s, precariat. But it is not so simple as us against them. There is the lure of new glamour, the promise of freedom, the semblance of collectivity, and the Factory does offer a class of refuge to the rejected. The rejected, of course, are vulnerable, and Mae and Shelley, like so many today, live and work at the whim of their employer, often one man, in their case Andy Warhol. ‘He still tells me what to do, the boss,’ says former Warhol assistant Glenn O’Brien in a recent enough video for GQ. As Brian Dillon writes in his essay ‘Andy Warhol’s Cinema of Happiness’, ‘at any given moment, we get the Warhol we deserve’, and among the many Warhols Flattery gives us in Nothing Special is Warhol as Mark Zuckerberg, a Warhol reflected in and reflecting the Zuckerberg of Roisin Kiberd’s essay ‘Bland God: Notes on Mark Zuckerberg’, collected in The Disconnect. (Flattery also gives us a Warhol as God.) Like Zuckerberg, Warhol for Mae was ‘[t]otally separate, though he was connected to everything’. We can see in the effort Mae’s Warhol ‘put in to make it seem like he had no power at all’, the Zuckerberg of Kiberd’s profile, the Zuckerberg who assumed the non-style of normcore, in which the wearer ‘finds liberation in being nothing special’. Kiberd makes the comparison explicit: ‘Mark Zuckerberg has become a kind of latter-day Andy Warhol, every bit as blank and vastly more boring. We are his paltry Superstars, infinitely reproducible, but only on his terms.’ The echoes are unmistakable. Supervised in her work by a woman called Anita, Mae gets ‘a reminder I owned nothing – it could all be taken away at any moment’. She has freedom of a sort, but ‘freedom on their terms’. Kiberd goes on: ‘He has granted us far longer than fifteen minutes in the spotlight; Facebook owns the right to each user’s name, likeness and image for life, for use in “sponsored stories” advertising products to our friends.’ Mae hears many voices as she listens to and transcribes the tapes Warhol recorded for what he called his ‘bad novel’, but none of the speakers, (with the exception of Warhol, whose speech is minimal and evasive), nor any of the typist-transcribers, will have their names associated with the marketed book. On the cover of any copy I have seen of a, A novel, Warhol’s name appears not in everyday print, but as fascimiled or reproduced signature. The book is a Warhol.
In Keith Ridgway’s short story ‘Andy Warhol’, from which Flattery read an extract for an episode of The Stinging Fly podcast, not long after arriving in New York, the narrator spots Warhol at a newsstand. Warhol is his own signature, the image of himself, but also a reflective surface: ‘And he has his silver hair and his glasses and he is about the same height as me.’ They chat and Warhol signs a copy of Interview – ‘my magazine’ – and gifts it to the narrator. Warhol is a sort of advertisement for himself, but an advertisement too for an imagined New York, and for all that the imagined city might promise. With so much seemingly on offer, the narrator – like Mae partying among the in-crowd in her early days at the Factory and vowing to be transformed – gets carried away: ‘And I decide that New York will make me, and that I will be open and warm and happy here; changed, and I will live in the city, and the city will live in me and I will welcome everything and I will be fearless and alive.’ But it is all just out of reach, and he is soon disillusioned.
A similar dynamic of frustrated expectation oscillates throughout Nothing Special. Mae remembers her adolescence: ‘I was starting to become aware of the many unconventionalities of our lives – our family arrangement, our dreary, rattling apartment, the aura that seemed to engulf us a trio, the diner, our dirty and sombre street.’ What then is conventional? A family of two biological parents (the mother does not work as a waitress) and their offspring (more than one) cohabiting in a persistently clean, bright, uplifting and enlivening environment. In other words, the world of advertising. ‘Maybe the advertisers know us better than we know ourselves,’ thinks Ridgway’s narrator. Mae suspects that everything Shelley knows about fashion comes from magazines, the same sort of magazines that promote ‘beauty and self-improvement’, that make the self something to work on. Mary Gaitskill, in her introduction to the republication of her novel Veronica (an obvious source and inspiration for Nothing Special), writes of later iterations of such magazines: ‘what stood out, most loudly and violently were images of beauty so intense they were almost warped; some of these images were human. The fashion model seemed suddenly at the center of the cultural world, inextricably wound in with music, art and cinema.’ Gaitskill ‘wanted beauty too, but not merely physical beauty, but the heightened pitch of existence the magazines hinted at’. The tracing back of the particularities of expectation to their source in the all-encompassing coercive fantasy world of advertising is among the many distinctions that set Flattery’s work apart – and she is not alone in being apart – from so many contemporary works of fiction and non-fiction, especially those about disillusioned young women and their discontent.
Some of these images were human. Some were not. How to tell one from the other? ‘We upholster ourselves,’ says McGahern’s pornographer; Mae fears she and Shelley may be discarded like unwanted furniture. Ostracised by the other girls at school, Mae’s only salve is soothing rides on the escalators in New York’s vast department stores. She is another item on display, ‘more available for public consumption’. She gets picked up. Mae models herself on girls who ‘were hot property’. We ape others to invent ourselves. Make of ourselves objects of our own evaluative scrutiny. Mae has a ‘list of things I wanted to be, a shopping cart of qualities’. This is an extreme provocation in a novel that invokes Andy Warhol, a severe enquiry into what it means to be human. Are we nothing but an assemblage of well-designed cans, boxes, and for the time-being, meat? There is nothing special about carbon, one of Mark O’Connell’s interviewees tells him in To Be a Machine. In Nothing Special, the women in the Factory are likened to dolls, passive, arranged; Mae is compared to a car wreck; Shelley sucks her fingers as though to lubricate part of a machine. A tape has guts and entrails. Entrails is a word Kiberd uses to refer to MS-DOS on an early PC, the sort of PC Mae describes as ‘fat and white’. Technology alters behaviour, makes it repetitive, compulsive. Animal, human and machine merge: ‘every few minutes or so a new email burst out of me, like a shrieking mechanical bird from a cuckoo clock’. Machines, says Mae, were ‘reconfiguring their [people’s] inner circuitry’. Reconfigure means arrange a system or element so as to fit a designated task. Circuitry is something through which something flows. Human beings are being rearranged so as not to resist, to let something flow through them, let it flow with ease. And with the same ease we may see others as instrumental: ‘Everyone was constantly assessing each other’s usefulness,’ says Mae. Maud’s daughter takes Maud to a party which turns out to be a fund-raiser for independent fimmakers. Personal relationships are described in terms of economic exchange. Mae refers to ‘a number of worthwhile relationships’. What is worthwhile? Useful, important, good enough to be worth an investment of time, effort or money. In her interest in Mae’s sex life, her mother is concerned with ‘the financial nature of these transactions’. Again we may return to McGahern’s Michael, who likens a discussion with his lover to ‘negotiating a deal of sale”, or to Kiberd, writing of her days as a 24-hour creative: ‘It felt like trafficking in humanity; pie charts and figures and users themselves used as advertising.’
In McGahern’s novel, Michael’s pornographic fictions of repetitious athletic sex depict a sort of ideal world untroubled by consequence or complication, which is in stark contrast to the desire-driven mess of Michael’s own life of loss, lust, pleasure and regret. There is plenty of lust and regret – and pleasure – in Ridgway’s story too, while in Flattery’s novel, the ‘invariable pleasantness of the gift shop’ and the smiling monoculture of TV and advertising is contrasted with the energised ambivalence of desire. Categories are dissolved in a complicated swirl of emotional response: ‘I liked being close to her soft face, watching her gentle frown lines, her breath sweet in my ear as she whispered lies.’ Women in the nursing home ‘admired and were terrified’ of her mother. Mae longs for Maud and wishes her destruction. Maud was, Mae says, ‘torn between punishing and praising me’. Mae imagines being seen again by Daniel, ‘disgust on his face, but aroused, of course aroused’. In these declarations, these confessions, Flattery, through Mae, brings to mind Jacqueline Rose’s insistence in her book Women in Dark Times, that we ‘reject that bland, evasive image of Western sexual freedom’, and ‘be careful not to exchange an injustice for an illusion. We are nowhere more deceived,’ Rose writes, ‘than when we present sexuality not as the trouble it always is but as another consumable good.’ Mae says: ‘I keep doing things that are nothing like the way I want to behave.’ An echo of Ridgway’s: ‘but I don’t want what I want’, and of Marilyn Monroe in There’s No Business Like Show Business, as quoted by Rose: ‘After you get what you want you don’t want it.’ Mae complains of having desires that will never be satisfied. But that is the nature of desire. The alternative is no desire, which is another way to say death.
‘It is hard, however, to tell people apart,’ writes Anne Enright on the New York essays of Maeve Brennan. She quotes from ‘one of the saddest’ of Brennan’s columns: ‘the deep-dyed neon rays of red and green and blue and white gave each face in the crowd a family likeness, so we all seemed to be related – dubious, discoloured copies of one another’. Enright feels it’s overlit. I see a series of Warhol silkscreens in desperate motion on a New York street. At a party in Nothing Special, Shelley gets her face painted and then, in her drunken dishevelment, the paint runs. When Mae sees some of Warhol’s silkscreen portraits she sees ‘lurid, electric colours, like the streaks on Shelley’s face’, then ‘Shelley’s burger’, then ‘a million animals being sent off to be slaughtered’, which brings to my mind the farm book: ‘There was something happening under their dry, calm frolicking,’ Mae recalls earlier of her childhood feelings of reading the book. Later she is disturbed by what lies beneath the mask of Shelley’s skin. By meat and blood and bones. ‘Our bodies,’ writes Brian Dillon in Tormented Hope, ‘ …are doubled and shadowed, like Warhol’s, by the temptations towards beauty and the certainty of decay’.
By the end of The Pornographer, Michael is considering a move home from the city to an inherited house in the countryside with a new love. After so long being ‘determined to shed all traces of where we’d come from’, of rejecting her mother’s way of life and of earning a living – “‘Be a waitress?’ I said, laughing.” – Mae becomes, in the years after she leaves New York, a bartender. McGahern’s Michael, when he is not writing pornography or with his lover, feels bound by duty and affection to visit his dying aunt in the cancer hospital. Mae ‘felt a responsibility towards her [mother] that was born out of … superstition and guilt’. This separation and return is enacted also in Ian Maleney’s essay ‘Season of Migration’ in his collection Minor Monuments. After graduating from college, Maleney felt free to make his own way: ‘I embraced that freedom and immediately began excising my rural upbringing, ploughing [!] guiltlessly into what I thought of as a world of cultured urban possibility.’ But he finds that where he needed to go was home, back to his grandfather, ‘a gale force wind I was unable, or unwilling, to resist’. And again in Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s story, where Lucy, falling ill in New York, feels the pull of home, comfort, familiarity and security. Home is her father’s house. Mae has no such option, and so her return is far more unsettled, and could hardly be called secure, though she is, by that time, not in early adulthood, but a woman of around sixty. What they wanted, says Mae of the taped voices, was ‘security, dignity … to be loved by the tape, by the man holding the tape recorder’.
But what of language? Flattery is equally adept at tactical omission and the ramifying phrase, the spur to worry and wonder. Schoolgirls, Mae says, were ‘substituting in the family for mothers who were long gone’. Think over that ‘long gone’ and what it might mean in time or varieties of absence; then edge warily back to ‘substituting’. Flattery has learnt from the serious comic intellects of Lorrie Moore and Jane Bowles to brandish surprise, to make mockery and empathy indistinct. Girls ‘stood ornamentally’, says Mae, of her adolescent classmates. Adjectives come often in twos; the effect is in the pairing. They muffle, amplify or twist, work for or against one another: ‘clear, empty expressions’, ‘tawdry, inartistic’, ‘ridiculous and alone’, ‘uncomplicated early love’. And those names. Shelley. That hard protective exterior. Inside, perhaps nothing. Or something quite other, softer, more vulnerable. A hidden creature. One that carries her home wherever she goes. Something or someone that was once, and may still be, at sea. And Mae? All the equivocation in that name: Mae. In this book about knowledge, knowingness, being in, and out of, the know. About how someone may come to be, may make or remake of themselves who, or what, they are.
So what are the alternatives to follow, slip and ease? What is to be done? (Not that a novel need offer such answers, but this one, tentatively does.) At first the prospects are bleak. In 2010, Mae sees a young woman subjected to a corrective gesture by her boyfriend. Her fantasy of solidarity and revolt is bereft of imaginative energy, a parodic vision of alternative living: ‘Let’s blow this place, go and eat croissants, get high, sit in the park and discuss your predicament.’ Even imagined escape is no escape, merely more bland conformity, and consumption: pastry, drugs, a chat. But someone goes against. Mae’s mother refused to ever fake an orgasm. Mae opposes this ‘uncooperativeness’ to kindness and being pleasant (remember that gift shop), then thinks maybe she loved her mother after all. There are other ways not to fake it, or not to accept when others do. Humour is a weapon that takes aim at cant: ‘They sometimes called it a village,’ Mae says of her mother’s nursing home, ‘as if they were all careening down country lanes on bicycles.’ Mae shreds euphemism by taking it literally, highlights its inaptness – freedom and mobility are what the residents lack. Laughter is freeing, an attitude that opens and invites. With spontaneity, it loosens constriction, and does not ‘turn away from vulnerability, as if it could infect’. Being pious or precious is an attempt to remain clear of contagion, pure. Flattery explicitly associates wit and desire. Wit, of course, like desire (and metaphor) relates seemingly disparate things. For Flattery, or Mae, wit and desire contrast with ordinary, standardised and chaste, three words one would not ascribe to Nothing Special.
David O’Connor is a reviewer and writer working in Dublin