“The world kept telling us we had never been so free, but it was only when I was with Shelley, alive with her excitement, in her dream that had taken her across the country on a bus, that I believed it.”
Nothing Special, by Nicole Flattery, is narrated by Mae who, in the late 1960s, when she was seventeen years old, dropped out of school to work as a typist for the artist Andy Warhol. Her job was to transcribe audio recordings held on a series of cassette tapes that captured disturbing conversations between Warhol’s acolytes. The resulting text was to form the basis of a book the artist planned to release under his name. Although invested in what she regarded as a potentially life changing experience, Mae was not to know just how affecting being immersed in this decadent and depraved unfettered lifestyle would be. She may have existed on the periphery of all that went on around the artist – in his New York City studio and at a series of parties – but through what she heard on the tapes she got to know intimate details of key players, and how Warhol treated those he used in the name of his art.
The book opens when Mae is well into middle age, regularly visiting her elderly mother in a care facility. The timeline then jumps back to her teenage years when they lived in a small apartment with Mikey, not her father but still a kindly presence. Mae was desperate to escape what she felt were the confines of a life with few prospects. She did not wish to live in the way her mother seemed to accept.
When Mae had a falling out with her best friend, Maud, it proved the catalyst for change. A sexual encounter led to a meeting with a doctor and from there to the studio where Warhol made his art. Like many young people her age, Mae longed to reinvent herself. Not a carefully groomed beauty, she enjoyed watching the people who came and went through the cold, loft space. Many of the girls were from wealthy families, eager to climb on the coat-tails of an ascending if notorious celebrity. Virtue, amongst this cohort, was considered passé.
“They were all uniformly attractive, in a forgettable way.”
Mae befriends Shelley who is also transcribing the tapes. She is much taken by Shelley’s background and apparent deliberate refusal to embrace the fashions of the day. They socialise. They work together. The are changed by what they must listen to for so many hours every day.
“They weren’t having fun anymore. The tape recorder, always on, always taking and taking and taking. And my job, to record their suffering.”
The story being told is a slow burn but what is revealed in the opening chapters proves key in what is to come. The structure has a somewhat breathless quality, scenes running into each other, their impact only becoming obvious later. Characters project their versions of other people into their relationships and then suffer when the scales fall away and understanding filters through hopeful glaze.
Both Mae and Shelley are skilfully developed – outsiders yet participants in a world held in awe, gradually discovering the damage it causes. They seek a personal chimera but in the end must live with unanticipated knowledge – gained and then cannot be changed.
None of this requires undue exposition in the telling. The author creates layers but leaves it to reader how much they wish to unpeel. There is economy in what is shared yet still the tale has captivating depth. Threads may be tied by the end but so many questions over how life choices are made – of the impact of random encounters – will linger.
A complex yet easily digestible skewering of artistic lifestyle and ambition. Inventive and original, Flattery’s precise and percipient prose pulses with wit and bewitchment.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury.