NOTHING SPECIAL, by Nicole Flattery
In the Irish writer Nicole Flattery’s exquisitely disorienting debut novel, “Nothing Special,” Mae, the daughter of an alcoholic waitress, spends her youth in 1960s New York City riding up and down department store escalators, getting nowhere except deeper into her own dissatisfaction. She follows more decisive people into ambiguous situations — sexual, professional, existential. She falls into a job doing something that closely resembles nothing.
What she does do is observe, and the one thing that is clear is the rapacity of her speculation. Opening with an avalanche of “might”’s and “must have”’s, the book is driven by a kind of respiratory imagining, a panting projection that sustains both Mae and the story. She subjects her world and the people who populate it to a ravenous metamorphosing, a proxy for the closeness she craves and fears. One co-worker “reminded me of a hundred things at once,” Mae reflects, “a Christmas ornament of a child, the carving of a young girl on a soap, a face pressed to a storefront window.”
At her day job as a typist — at, we gradually realize, Andy Warhol’s Factory — Mae transcribes cassette tape recordings of Andy’s interviews with art world compatriots: drug-addled, vulnerable, grandiose, ambitious, afraid. As she listens, she grows closer to the disembodied voices, and to the revealing silences in between, than to anyone else around her. At first these tapes seem to grant her the kind of distinction and agency she’s longed for, even as the cruelty and humiliation they reveal bring her deeper into her own disconnection. “It felt like my life had been reduced to nothing but the tapes, that I no longer recognized the sound of my own voice,” Mae narrates.
She develops a close friendship with her fellow transcriber Shelley, negotiating an intimacy that waxes and wanes with the pull of their complicated desires — two women, writing down words that aren’t theirs, struggling to be heard themselves. Flattery deploys the iconic setting, stripping it of its shiniest parts — withholding the word “Factory” altogether, and “Warhol” until the end — to emphasize Mae’s averageness, her yearning to be remarkable or at least known, to be an expert in anything, to have “irrefutable proof we had been there.”
This is a story of a young woman and the pocket of stale air that separates her from the world and from herself, the static between authenticity and performance, fantasy and reality. Some might find the plot’s relentless dissociation a decelerator, but I found it brave and effective: Flattery remains so loyal to the physics of her character’s struggles, to the struggle of storytelling itself, that she is willing to risk allowing the less committed reader to wander off.
The point of this novel is not illumination; it’s almost an accident that we get to know Mae at all. Instead the novel captures, in gorgeous prose, the happy and unhappy coincidences that allow us to fall into knowing, those unexpected snags that trip us into ourselves, whether we’re knocked to the ground or take advantage of the awareness this new vantage point brings.
“Nothing Special” is a revelation that is also distinctly anti-revelation, by a writer whose withholding is as vivid as her bestowing, who shows a story for what it is — something real, something fabricated, something to hide in and from, something special, something so utterly unremarkable it’s the only thing that matters.
Alice Carrière is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Everything/Nothing/Someone.”
NOTHING SPECIAL | By Nicole Flattery | 230 pp. | Bloomsbury | $26