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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Nicole Flattery’s Nothing Special

Nicole Flattery
Nothing Special
(Bloomsbury, 2023)

In the introduction to a 2017 edition of Edna O’Brien’s groundbreaking Country Girls trilogy, Eimear McBride lauded her fellow Irish novelist for giving a “voice to the experiences of a previously muzzled generation” of women in Ireland, and breathing “the radical oxygen of choice, desire and sensual delight” into an “ultraconservative, ultrareligious, and institutionally misogynistic society.”

Sixty years after the start of O’Brien’s trailblazing career—and nearly a century after Molly Bloom sprung from the radical, sensual, yet very much male mind of James Joyce—McBride made her own powerful statement in the ongoing Irish debate over gender (and art and culture): 2014’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

It’s a debate that continues later this year, when voters will decide whether or not to delete passages in Ireland’s constitution such as: “By her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” It is perhaps with this fraught context in mind that we should read Nicole Flattery’s debut novel, a coming-of-age chronicle about the past and present, mothers and daughters—and Andy Warhol.

Like Eimer McBride and Edna O’Brien—and, more recently, Anna Burns in the sprawling Milkman, or Claire Keegan in more concise narratives like Small Things Like These and Foster—Flattery puts an Irish spin on Emily Dickinson’s dictum to tell the truth, but “tell it slant.” Flattery’s book, for example, is set not in her native Ireland but in New York, moving back and forth between the 1960s and early twenty-first century. At thirty-three, Flattery is a product of what Niall O’Dowd has called “a new Ireland,” in a book about “how Europe’s most conservative country became its most liberal.” Though obviously welcome, such progress—for women in Ireland, for “previously muzzled” people the world over—also amplifies the shock of past oppression, and makes the challenges that remain seem all the more urgent.

Messy juxtapositions such as these have been reflected in recent years by writers like Otessa Moshfegh and Jenny Offill, in TV shows such as Fleabag or Killing Eve, and in the stand-up comedy of Hannah Gadsby, Amy Schumer, or Ali Wong.

Add to this eclectic list Flattery’s Nothing Special, which opens in 2010, when our narrator Mae declares: “I was having some personal problems which, like all difficult people, I believed could be traced directly back to my relationship with my mother.” There’s much more to it than that, of course, which brings us to 1960s Manhattan, when a teenaged Mae drifts into Andy Warhol’s orbit. The famed Pop artist barely appears in Nothing Special, yet looms in ways that alternately undermine and reinforce our fascination with great (male) artistic geniuses. Mae’s mother is an abrasive, alcoholic waitress, living with a decent-enough fellow named Mikey, who is not Mae’s father.

Unsurprisingly, Mae has no interest in home or school. Even a sympathetic listener compels Mae to think: “I wanted to be her best friend and I wanted to hurt her irreparably.” In search of respite or stimulation unachieved even by afternoon hook-ups—their eyes and hands meet on an escalator at Macy’s—Mae sets out to find a job. She is hired at the Warhol Factory, where the painter of soup cans and Brillo boxes is also working on avant-garde multimedia projects: movies and novels, for example, that force us to interrogate what, exactly, we believe constitutes a “movie” and a “novel.” Similarly, Mae—a troubled teen, transcribing banal, creepy recordings—compels us to rethink how we define “novelist,” even “artist.” When Mae meets the (banal, creepy) Warhol, he “rested his hand on his cheek to obscure his pimples, a trick I knew well,” and she is struck by the “effort he put in to make it seem like he had no power at all.”

Thus, Mae, the misfit, discovers that even among a gaggle of misfits, there is still plenty of hierarchy and hypocrisy, posturing and resentment. Mae does befriend a fellow searcher named Shelley, (“Even our dancing was our own little project of two.”), who might finally be a kindred spirit. Or just another performer, “as if,” Mae comments, Shelley “had read in a magazine that this was required of her.” The same, of course, could be said of Mae—her alienation, rebellion, and “sudden lust for degrading experiences.”

Among the Warholian acolytes, Mae sees: “You couldn't be around egos like that for so long and not develop your own.” Later she declares: “I was finally part of my generation.” This only after Mae wakes “to find a woman sitting on the edge of the mattress beside a man I’d slept with a few hours earlier.” Before running off to “lock herself in the bathroom,” the woman declares: “I’m his wife.”

It’s no spoiler to note that Flattery chronicles much of the actual history of the Factory, right up to Valerie Solanas’s attempted 1968 murder of Warhol.

Wasn't she an ugly woman? Wasn't she dangerous? Imagine how unhappy you’d have to be to do something like that? That was what you heard everywhere that summer. That was what you heard if you weren't listening closely.

In the end, what do those who “listen closely” to Nothing Special hear? Flattery’s title is explicit in its modesty—which is a strength and a weakness. Mae’s struggles and vulnerabilities are sharply observed—funny and cringy, tender and admirably economic, unfolding over the course of just 220 pages or so. But this also means that little of a very rich and colorful setting—late 1960s New York—is recorded here. It doesn't help that (at least in the galleys I read) Flattery’s New Yorkers use Irish phrases like “adverts” and “in hospital.”

Ultimately, one unsettling question looms over Nothing Special: Would Mae’s discontent have been all that different had she found work as, say, a waitress? Like her mother? Or at an actual factory? In other words: is “art” really all that “special”? At one point, Shelley observes: “This world can turn you into a real monster … You have to turn into a monster to get what you want.” Does this also relate to Mae? Or Warhol? Or Valerie Solanas? Flattery offers no answers, in part, because there are still no obvious ones—even after celebrated writers like Sheila Heti and Jia Tolentino took a deep dive into such questions at a 2022 Bennington College gathering entitled “How to Be an Art Monster.” As does Claire Dederer, in her recent book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. Just twenty years ago, a James Joyce biographer asked: “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create?” before bluntly responding: “I believe that they do.” Flattery’s characters, though, come to see that perhaps you don’t “actually have to be a maniac, you could just wear the clothes.” Which is progress, in a way. Though the aforementioned Joyce biographer—Edna O’Brien—would probably have a lot more to say on the matter.


Tom Deignan

Tom Deignan is a longtime columnist for the Irish Voice newspaper, and has written about books for the Washington Post and the New York Times. He teaches English and Humanities at CUNY, and is working on a book about immigration.


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