The interiors of Andy Warhol’s Factory, at 231 East 47th Street, were famously all silver: silver foil on the walls, silver paint on the pipes and ducts and furniture, mirrors everywhere. Even the elevator was silver. The intention of Warhol and his decorator, the photographer and Factory acolyte Billy Name, was to create an environment that felt both futuristic and camp—to conjure a future that mocked contemporary futuristic style. Mae, the seventeen-year-old protagonist and narrator of Nicole Flattery’s debut novel, Nothing Special, arrives at the Factory in 1966, and describes it thus: “A room covered in demented silver paper, tacky and peeling. The light poured in and reflected myself back at me.”
Later in the novel, by which time she has become not just a Factory habitué but a Warhol employee, Mae notes that “the paint was flaking constantly off every wall. There was no reason in trying to find the source anymore. Girls complained that it ruined their dresses.” The contortions of self-scrutiny (the world as a “demented” mirror) and of self-presentation, a cultivated glamour subtended by grubby material facts—these are central concerns of Flattery’s novel. It is a book that tells you that the world, controlled as it is largely by men, is crazy. It tells you that the camp, silver future designed by these alleged underground geniuses is made of tacky, peeling paint. Wear your best dress; Andy Warhol’s art will ruin it.
Then again, that might be a price worth paying. Mae has come to the Factory by a circuitous route. She is in search of self-definition. (Which Factory supplicant was not?) At school—where “most of us were from poor, hopeless families”—Mae isn’t “known for being a knockout or especially intelligent.” Nor has she “exchanged one role for the other, bartered in the way women do, feeling a violent hatred at whatever hand I was dealt.” Mae’s dry sense of the limitations of her world is one of the fixed aspects of her character; much else is mutable. “My father wasn’t around,” she tells us—and that’s the end of that. Her mother, a waitress in a diner, drinks and cohabits intermittently with the kindly, pensive Mikey—an ersatz father figure for Mae.
Mae tends toward dissociation. Of her mother: “Watching her was how I learnt to shut down so effectively.” Like Maria Wyeth driving the freeways in Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, Mae salves her alienation by riding the escalators in department stores: “Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s…I wanted men to notice me, and I wanted something to happen, something amazing and unlikely.” (Didion’s work—see also “Goodbye to All That”—haunts this novel.) On the escalators she meets Daniel, a callow office worker. They sleep together. But the real meeting of the minds occurs when Mae encounters Daniel’s mother the next morning. “My son is a cornball,” says the mother. “Don’t think I don’t already know that.” She sends Mae to the clinic of a creepy Dr. Feelgood character—he provides pills in exchange for sexual favors—who refers her to the Factory: “My friend has an art studio, an expanding business…and always needs girls to go and do errands for him.” Mae’s date with the silver room is set.
Around now the reader starts to become conscious of the strangely generic quality of the world that Mae’s narration evokes. Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, the Factory: these are definite places with definite addresses. But no other place in Mae’s life seems to warrant such specificity. Where exactly in the city is her mother’s “dreary, rattling” apartment? “The diner,” “a nearby tea-room, a place I’d heard mentioned,” “a diner on the corner,” “a restaurant window,” “the bowling alley”: Is this book set in 1960s New York or isn’t it?
Certainly it’s set in memory. A middle-aged Mae narrates from 2010, spurred to recount the crucial months of her late adolescence by her mother’s death. (The novel’s first words are “My mother.”) The retrospective view might give Flattery a certain cover for her curiously generic settings, just as it might release her from some of the traditional obligations of historical fiction—Nothing Special also makes scant use of that other great standby of the historical novel, the Famous Event or Popular Song as Date Marker. But a certain emblematic quality to the settings was also evident in Show Them a Good Time (2019), Flattery’s collection of short stories. In that book places appear as “the garage,” “a mid-priced restaurant,” “the college,” et cetera. Although the characters and settings are nominally Irish (Flattery grew up in Mullingar, a small town about an hour’s drive from Dublin), the stories seem to occupy a curiously nonspecific Anglophone contemporaneity.
The prose of these stories also has, to an Irish ear, a recognizably American twang. Take the opening lines of the title story: “The schemes were for people with plenty of time, or people not totally unfamiliar with being treated like shit. I was intimate with both situations.” It sounds uncannily like Sam Lipsyte, or Lorrie Moore; the setting is a Mullingarish small town in the Irish midlands. Flattery can be very angry on the page—also very funny: “The shirt gave me breasts, the regulation boots gave me legs. All those parts I had worked so hard to forget were now reunited under surprising polyester circumstances.” The whole book is done in this way. Almost every paragraph swerves unforgivingly into its own punch line, as in some relentless stand-up comedy routine.
The subject of the stories in Show Them a Good Time is depression—what they show you is a bad time—and their anger is directed mostly at men, who tend, as far as Flattery’s narrators are concerned, toward a state of pitiable self-delusion. The generic settings give Show Them a Good Time a faintly allegorical quality; its denatured, arbitrary world is in one sense a faithful recreation of the world seen through depressive eyes. But there is also something strangely dismaying about watching so many gags unfold in nonspecific space. In the story “You’re Going to Forget Me Before I Forget You,” the narrator writes books for children; her sister finds her work “confusing and opaque and sort of disagreeable.” This would not be a bad description of Show Them a Good Time itself. You suspect that Flattery is well aware of this, and doesn’t care. Another punch line.
The prose of Nothing Special is less spiky and more traditionally expository than that of the short stories. The nervous virtuosity of the stories has been tamed; the mood is memoiristic. There are gorgeous touches: the “obedient” smiles of celebrities in a magazine; Mae’s mother’s waitressing uniform on a hanger, “alert and white and sentient”; young people on the streets of New York, “only in tune with minor shifts in their personalities.” The dialogue feels real. Mae’s mother: “Your life is never going to work out, Mae.” Mae: “You’re such a fucking baby, honestly.”
Mae, like the narrators of Show Them a Good Time, has a cruel eye, along with a highly literary knack for self-deconstructing aphorisms: “People will say anything, however general, if it allows them to be perceived as witty.” Or: “People were impatient to find out who they were, and they wanted the movies to tell them.” Mae, too, is impatient to find out who she is: “There was very little I could do in life except get dressed, smoke the correct cigarettes.” She arrives at the Factory tabula rasa, hungry to make a new self.
Here she meets Shelley, who, like Mae, has been hired for her typing skills. (The Factory was, of course, both a studio and a place of business.) “Abortion: A Love Story,” the novella at the center of Show Them a Good Time, hinged on the friendship between two young women who were mirror images of each other; similarly, Nothing Special hinges on Mae’s relationship with Shelley, who figures as a kind of inverted silk-screen reproduction of Jay Gatsby, the archetype of American self-reinvention.
Shelley refuses to say where she comes from. By deleting her past, and by refusing to obey the usual social codes, she makes herself a kind of container for Mae’s inchoate desires. Mae perceives that Shelley is “rabid for any kind of experience…. She was a tourist in reality.” Mae is platonically smitten. Shelley “didn’t seem bound by a social code she didn’t even understand.” She dresses in “pleated pinafores,” “starched collars,” even though, in 1960s underground New York, “virtue was passé, virtue was obscene.” Both Shelley and Mae are “trying to invent themselves.” Crucially, Shelley keeps secrets. Mae’s unraveling of these secrets constitutes the emotional heart of the novel. Brushing off flakes of silver paint, Mae and Shelley begin to work side by side, observing Factory life from their advantageous perch.
The silver Factory wasn’t just camp Sixties futurism. It was also amphetamine style—speed-freak decor. In Warhol’s memoir, POP ism: The Warhol Sixties (1980), cowritten with Pat Hackett, he recalls visiting, in 1966, a new boutique lined with mirror bricks:
Whenever I saw fragmented mirrors like that around a place, I’d take the hint that there was amphetamine not too far away—every A-head’s apartment always had broken mirrors, smoky, chipped, fractured, whatever—just like the Factory did.
POP ism makes it clear that “the Factory” as we have come to understand it was largely an amphetamine-driven phenomenon; the ubiquity of speed there perhaps better explains some aspects of Warhol’s late-1960s art (scale, repetition, depthlessness) than do certain theories of art historians.
Speed loiters around the margins of Nothing Special—despite her proximity to the Factory A-heads, Mae does not herself become an A-head—but speed was central to the novel that this novel is about. In 1965 Warhol decided that he wanted “to do a ‘bad book,’ just the way I’d done ‘bad movies’ and ‘bad art,’ because when you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.” This is from POP ism, which goes on desultorily to chronicle the creation of the book published by Grove Press in 1968 as a: a novel by Andy Warhol.
a: a novel is not, properly speaking, a work of fiction at all. Warhol’s idea was to tape-record twenty-four hours’ worth of Factory conversations and publish the transcribed results, unedited. Warhol’s biographer Blake Gopnik quotes Andy enthusing about “my favorite theme in movie making—just watching something happening.” Why not in fiction, too? His protagonists were certain “Superstars”: Edie Sedgwick, Brigid Berlin (known as the Duchess), and, centrally, Robert Olivo (known as Ondine), who was, in Gopnik’s words, “a gay speed freak who styled himself the Pope.”
Aside from its single gesture in the direction of the Aristotelian unities—and in the event, Warhol didn’t even bother to tape for twenty-four hours straight, making up a full day’s worth of recordings on and off over several years—a: a novel categorically refuses to be “a novel” in any traditional sense. It is plotless, abysmally typeset, boring, incoherent, and remorselessly long. (“Always leave them wanting less,” as Warhol once quipped to an interviewer.) It is also peculiarly hypnotic. A sample, from the opening pages:
Rattle, gurgle, clink, tinkle.
Click, pause, click, ring.
ONDINE—You said (dial) that, that, if, if you pick, pick UP the Mayor’s voice on the other end (dial, pause, dial-dial-dial), the Mayor’s sister would know us, be (busy-busy-busy).
DRELLA—We should start for the park, right? Okay. Hmm.
Okay. Hmm. The “a” of a: a novel stood for Andy, of course, as well as connoting a generic alphabetical quality that refused the affectedness, not to mention the chosenness, of traditional literary titles. But “a” also stood for amphetamine—as Gopnik writes, “both [Ondine] and Warhol were speeding on 50 mg tabs of Obetrol as they taped”—and much of a’s recorded speech clearly owes its jagged, obsessive quality to the influence of speed. (POP ism is amusingly coy about Andy’s own relationship with the substance. Gopnik sets us straight: they were all taking it.)
Very few people have known what to make of a: a novel. Its original publisher at Grove Press described it as “this shockingly mechanical slice of avant-garde life”; when Robert Mazzocco reviewed it in these pages, he called it “the death knell of American literature.”* Gopnik calls it “unforgiving”—a “chaos of uncorrected, badly typed transcriptions of badly recorded tapes”—but also notes that its seeming randomness was carefully shaped.
In “just watching,” or just listening, Warhol claimed to achieve a kind of ideal detachment—affectless, vacant, passive—that made him feel like a machine. He often said that his ultimate ambition was to become a machine, and he sought to “completely remove all the hand gesture from art and become noncommittal, anonymous.” In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), he wrote: “The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go.”
Warhol, never much of a typist, was hardly going to transcribe the a tapes himself. In POP ism, he explains what was done instead:
There were two little high school girls over in another area [of the Factory] transcribing down to the last stutter some reel-to-reel tapes of Ondine that I’d made in the late summer of ’65 for my taped novel…. I’d never been around typists before so I didn’t know how fast these little girls should be going. But when I think back on it, I realize that they probably worked slow on purpose so that they could hang around the Factory more, because these girls were really slow—I mean, like a page and a half a day.
The names of the “two little high school girls” are not recorded by Warhol, and were not printed in the finished book. Into this gap in the record, Flattery inserts Mae and Shelley, who undertake to work nine to five at the Factory to transcribe Warhol’s tapes and thus produce the manuscript of a: a novel.
A now-standard move for writers formed by feminism: find the uncredited women, tell their stories. And in one sense, to say that Nothing Special is a novel about Andy Warhol and the Factory is to miss the book’s true subject, which is young women’s self-scrutiny in a culture defined by male looking and male listening. Warhol himself appears only in cameo. Mae’s first encounter: “I never saw him come in but I felt the atmosphere change when he did. I felt it brighten as if suddenly everybody knew exactly where to direct the beam of their attention-seeking.” Later, speaking to Andy directly, Mae notes: “Bad skin, bad hair, hiding even when he was in front of you.” Hiding, but omnipresent. And present especially, though seldom speaking, on the tapes that Mae and Shelley transcribe.
Of the Factory, Mae says: “The first few mornings I walked into that building were the most vivid of my life.” On the other hand, “vivid” is precisely not what this version of the Factory is for the reader. Mae reflects that the Factory most resembles “a doll’s house, with girls arranged everywhere, spread on every surface.” Who is playing with these dolls? Andy, of course; the great absent presence of Nothing Special. A doll’s house is a backdrop, a simulacrum; we don’t expect to find life there, and the dolls of Flattery’s Factory—the Superstars, the hangers-on—don’t especially come to life.
Yet a doll’s house is a kind of psychological theater in which the dramas of adult life are rehearsed. “Behind our typewriters the walls were opening out to reveal the whole world,” Mae says. As an experience, it’s uncannily familiar to the contemporary reader—sitting in isolation, plugged into a machine that shows you the world. Replace “typewriter” with “smartphone” and you begin to discern the nature of Nothing Special’s claim to be more than a witty historical novel, and the nature of its sly commentary on the present.
Mae’s work obsesses her. There is “life on the tapes, and it was better than the one everyone else was living.” But this life has been manipulated into being:
Everyone else forgot about the tape recorder, happy to talk about their physical disappointments, to scream, fight, rant about who they wanted to beat up. The point was to forget about the tape recorder. Drella never did. He was the one who was going home with it…. His tone betrayed a lack of investment which I believed was faked. Hmmm. Oh, perfect. Noncommittal. His only job was to keep everyone talking.
Drella was Andy’s Factory nickname—a combination of Dracula and Cinderella. Warhol: the glamorous vampire, extracting the lives of others for his own sustenance as he climbs the social ladder. What does that remind you of?
Very early on in the book, the Internet is mentioned. At the dawn of the digital age, a grown-up Mae uses e-mail—“a language we didn’t yet understand,” a “new language” that “made everything sound hollow”—to order a copy of the “farm book” her mother read to her as a child. She sends more than two hundred e-mails to the publishers, confiding all sorts of intimate details about her mother’s life. Her first use of the new technology is for therapeutic self-disclosure: “Nobody wanted to turn on the computer and read about a deranged person’s life. I was the minority then. Now, I’m the majority.” Thus the movement of the book: we’re all Mae, now. Or perhaps we’re all Ondine, yammering into the vampire’s tape recorder, trading self-exposure for self-definition.
In Flattery’s telling, a: a novel becomes a prototype of social media: endless unsorted disclosure, or apparently unsorted—in fact sorted by a hidden hand. A for Andy. A for algorithm. And to listen to the tapes, as Mae does, is to scroll: to eavesdrop on confessional monologues that have been coaxed out of strangers by a distant, perhaps cruel, certainly self-interested authority. As with Andy, Twitter’s only job is “to keep everyone talking.”
Late in the novel, Mae runs into Mikey, her mother’s long-suffering partner, in a diner, and tells him what she’s been doing. “That doesn’t sound like writing, Mae,” he says. “It’s eavesdropping. It’s surveillance.” Mikey’s gentle, introspective nature provides the novel’s counterpoint to the extroverted glamour of the Factory Superstars; the word “surveillance” has been carefully chosen.
When their friendship begins, Shelley takes Mae to see a Warhol movie. No title is given, though the movie in question appears to be Chelsea Girls (1966): “The camera was still, like an animal getting ready to pounce…. The bizarre and extreme personalities on display could have only been brought out by one person.” Later, Mae sees some Warhol Marilyns leaning against the Factory wall: “Her face again and again, but the attention to detail didn’t make it more lifelike, only rendered her inhuman, as if she was just one of a million animals being sent off to be slaughtered.”
Twice Warhol’s gaze is figured as animalistic, predatory. That gaze, magnified, stands perhaps for the gaze of the world, the gaze we feel surveilling us when we go online—hostile, curious, demanding; definitively male; finally unappeasable. In that gaze we are both potentially exalted beings and nothing special. Wear your best dress, though the silver paint is flaking off the walls. The world expands before you, but in the end, as Mae points out, “Somebody has to do the typing.”