It’s the mid ’60s in New York City, and seventeen-year-old Mae, the narrator of Nicole Flattery’s debut novel Nothing Special (Bloomsbury), has dropped out of school and left her life behind to seek out one for herself. Maybe even get a job. Readers may recall a similar plot thread in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, in which protagonist Esther Greenwood returns to her suburban home in Boston after a disillusioning summer internship in New York. She too leaves school in search for her own way into the world, coming up against the rigid structures of gender and class in the process.
The two books share a lot of DNA. In both tales of 1960s New York, the minds of the young white American men seem pickled in their own unchecked power, in their lordly sense of entitlement to the girls around them. The older men are mostly larger and uglier versions of those boys, and the ones who are doctors are extra creepy. Both novels, too, burrow into the minds of their first-person narrators to uncover the political dimensions of what initially feels personal and entirely located in the self. But whereas Flattery shares Plath’s pessimism, the Irish writer has managed not to obliterate her leading lady in the process of proving that the world is sexist.
The antagonistic chauvinist in the novel is Andy Warhol, referred to by his friends and employees as Drella. (The portmanteau, Dracula and Cinderella, perfectly characterizes him as a leech who’s also the rags-to-riches maiden.) Mae lands a job as one of his typists, transcribing some tapes from debaucherous parties Drella has been recording. She works at his studio, a downtown loft filled with well-dressed, ambitious, blasé girls who seem so much more comfortable in their skin than Mae is. Drella’s experimental films and notorious photographs find sublimity in the profane and romance in tragedy; Mae is starry-eyed.
And yet, this is not a novel about Andy Warhol. If the book were a film, he wouldn’t even need to be cast. He’s always just off-camera, signified by the ring of his silver telephone. I found it satisfying to read a novel that, on the whole, doesn’t frame Andy as the most interesting person in the room.
Rather, the characters who do come to life through Mae’s point of view are almost all working women: in addition to the girls at Drella’s studio, there is also her fellow typist-turned-friend, Shelley; Mae’s mother, a career waitress at a diner; and some chic, dry-witted secretaries (who prefer not to be called receptionists). Though the majority of the book is set between 1966 and 1968, it opens in 2010, the year Mae’s mother dies. For young Mae, her mother was what we today call cringe. She’s imposing, unfiltered, flirtatious. She drinks too much. Old Mae, though, looking back on it all at the start of the novel, sees her mother’s life’s work differently: that the work of serving others for tips could also be viewed as artful performance, a standing role in a kind of immersive theater. This duality, these two ways of understanding women’s work, is at the heart of the novel.
In building Mae’s world and Drella’s milieu, Flattery explores the fine line between squalid and cool. Though we’re not given many details from his parties, we get the impression that their purpose for Drella is a kind of phantasmagoric social pornography, the Euphoria of Mae’s age. “He referred to himself as the Pope,” she tells of Ondine, a primary character on the tapes.
If Ondine is the Pope, Drella acts as a kind of god. “His flock was composed of homosexuals, perverts of any kind, thieves, criminals, those rejected by society.” The ur-influencer, the ironic spiritual leader. He and the others on the tapes are often high, describing their crude situations or spiraling in despair. But Mae isn’t cringing this time, not like she has at her mother’s squalor and suffering. Instead, she’s trying to meet their gaze, through the wires and headphones and tape ribbons, and is slowly drawn into—like all of us who follow and favorite and subscribe—a parasocial relationship. All of her old values begin to melt away; she’s found a new house of worship.
Basking in the glow of the influencer and living inside the parasocial relationship with the artist feels like beauty, but it might just be self-harm. It’s what Jia Tolentino called a “trick mirror”: one that “carries the illusion of flawlessness as well as the self-flagellating option of constantly finding fault.” Just as Mae can’t see her mother as others do, she cannot see herself as others do, and as I began to. Is it because of the “demented silver paper, tacky and peeling” that covers the walls of Warhol’s loft studio, a fun house mirror immuring those inside? “From certain angles I had a halo of light, like an angel. From other angles I looked ridiculous.”
But whatever literal ways the silver wallpaper distorts Mae’s self-image, there are many more intangible forces doing far greater damage. She has been taught, as many of us without family money or status, to relish the feeling of being chosen. After she drops out, before she gets the job, she starts riding the escalators at a big department store. Someone could accuse Flattery of choosing a heavy-handed class-longing symbol in the escalator (I’m reminded of the golden elevator in the movie Sorry To Bother You, which compliments your penis as you ride it up). But the passivity of an escalator: it moves slowly but surely up, up, toward the gleaming hoards of well-dressed women, but Mae never has to move a muscle. This might be the perfect symbol for Mae’s early attempt at shaking her shabby origins. After a week of aimless riding, up and down, a creepy boy notices Mae. He places his hand over hers. “It was cold, and he slipped his free arm around my waist. I was anointed.”
Mae’s learned enough to know that she’s failing at some basic codes of white womanhood. “I already knew men expected some version of a fantasy,” she notes. “Attention had to be paid from every angle.” The camera’s gaze is the patriarchal gaze, its “angles” suited to . . . whom? All of the boys she meets are boring and empty; she feels nothing for them. “It was in these boys’ looks and lifestyles that I saw the effect of their influence on the city,” Mae begins to notice, the their a reference to her beloved subjects on the tapes. “You didn’t have to actually be a maniac, you could just wear the clothes.”
Yet her seventeen years have already taught her to act for the camera. She is eager to fit in, and yet what she can’t see is that as a working class New Yorker among transplants in search of their big break, she’s the most authentic thing around.
Indeed, while we’re all unreliable narrators at seventeen, Mae’s unreliability is signified by the ways her relationships with women line up tidily with the misogyny of the men in her world. Like when she stumbles upon a particularly callous moment on one of the tapes. “[Ondine] was lecturing on business, on how to get a receptionist: ‘We’ve got to find a moron girl for the phone. Luckily Queens is full of these little girls. . . .’” Mae is back to the taxonomy of shame. “I just smiled, a broad, moron girl smile plastered across my face.” She reaches for subtle differences, proof that she might have more status and value than other girls. “Here was confirmation that we were better, more important, than Anita and Dolores. Not just anyone could do what we were doing. Any idiot could answer the phone . . . . But Shelley and I had real and rare authority; we had the words we put on the page, the book we made.”
There’s one man for whom the book could be named, and it’s (probably) not Drella. It’s Mikey, Mae’s devoted stepdad, who moved in when she was eight. He, too, is part of the cringe Mae hopes to escape. He’s got a big belly. He often sleeps on the couch, especially when Mae’s mother brings other men home. He reads a lot. (Always a signifier in fiction that a guy isn’t a total idiot.) In spite of his otherwise embarrassing qualities, Mae considers him one of the smartest people she knows. But her old school friend Maud tells her that if Mikey weren’t sleeping on their couch, he’d probably be homeless. Everything Mae is learning from her schoolmates reinforces a kind of taxonomy of shame, in which she is meant to learn her place.
Another sign that Mae is unreliable: all of the things she finds so cringe about Mikey are incommensurable with the authentic acts of love he shows her. “‘Don’t let anyone make you feel worthless, Mae,’” Mikey tells her as they sit together in a dark movie theater (classic parent of a teenager move: either in the car, or in the movie theater, so that your eyes are forward; the vulnerability is less terrifying that way).
It’s these fun-house distortions that mark Mae’s point-of-view, but she’s also complex enough to be able to transform. Her wisdom—or the novel’s—is foreshadowed in the opening chapter, which takes place in 2010. Mae’s mother is on her deathbed. She’s requested a VCR so that she can watch home videos that Mikey made of her. She passes away, and the next day Mae returns to the nursing home to gather her mother’s things, only to find some of the nurses watching one of the home movies and crying. “They seemed worried I might be annoyed with them, disturbing my mother’s memory. I wasn’t,” sixty-year-old Mae tells us. “It was so beautiful to be filmed by someone who had loved you.”
Mikey’s immortalized and immortalizing gaze follows us through the story, a foil to Drella’s. He’s particularly good at filming Mae’s mother, who watches the flattering home videos he’d taken of her while on her deathbed. Here is a male gaze that manages not to degrade but to homage. Mae’s distinction says it all: “It was so beautiful to be filmed by someone who had loved you.” In reality, homage has its complications. Flattery has spoken about a recent Supreme Court case over fair-use imagery that informed this book, in particular, whether images appropriated and used by Warhol for his own iconography violated copyright law. It was a case that, despite siding with the photographer whose portrait of Prince Warhol failed to adequately license, insisted that it was not here to adjudicate Warhol’s art-making praxis and the age of high-concept, cannibalistic pop culture that he ushered in.
Of course, Mae—and the real-life others whose hands made our beloved “Warhols”—does not have real ownership here, not over the art. Where she does hold a measure of ownership is over her own life, and by extension, her own self-image. Flattery’s Mae is a bold protagonist, and her narrative is compelling with symbology and alluring with setting. But Mae is bold too because her wisdom is hard-won: Nothing, in fact, is inherently special. We get to make our own special.
“What was special about Shelley?” Mae asks herself at one point. “Nothing, in the context of the people we listened to every day.” But Shelley is special, at least to Mae, because Shelley treats her like she “was real.” It might be a belief that you’re special that gives you the courage to make art. But it’s this same belief that makes it easy to forget what’s real—forget, in the midst of it all, that other people are real, and not just reflections of the shiny mirrors lining the walls. To see oneself and one’s people as real: this is the only way out of the shadow of the special.