New York City, 1966. Seventeen-year-old Mae lives in a rundown apartment with her alcoholic mother and her mother's sometimes-boyfriend, Mikey. She is turned off by the petty girls at her high school, and the sleazy men she typically meets. When she drops out, she is presented with a job offer that will remake her world entirely: she is hired as a typist for the artist Andy Warhol.
Exquisitely disorienting ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
This description, I’m aware, might call to mind a certain mode of historical fiction that feels awkwardly stuck between narrative art and Wikipedia—the kind of novel where you feel the author’s presence as a tour guide, always nervously looking over their shoulder, dropping more period detail and context to make sure you’re learning what you’ve come to learn. Nothing Special is nothing like that ... Flattery manages to cannily anatomize the famous artist’s powers and appeal while simultaneously pushing the man himself almost entirely out of the frame. It’s a method that the book uses more than once—sneaking up on its subjects from odd angles, as if distrustful of more direct paths ... In Flattery’s first book, the prose sometimes seemed so intent on preëmptively repelling false hopes or unearned optimism that it functioned not just as armor but also as a straitjacket, limiting the registers of feeling the stories we’re able to access. Nothing Special is a richer, more flexible undertaking ... Just as Nothing Special is a great book about Warhol with almost no Andy Warhol in it, so too is it a sneakily moving homage to human kindness, where kindness appears only in quick flashes and never solves anything. The possibility of real connection feels almost hidden, as if Flattery herself were afraid of making too much of it.
The reader starts to become conscious of the strangely generic quality of the world that Mae’s narration evokes ... 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 ... Almost every paragraph swerves unforgivingly into its own punch line, as in some relentless stand-up comedy routine ... 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.