The Corrosive Appeal of Warhol’s Factory

The Corrosive Appeal of Warhol’s Factory

In 1965, Andy Warhol set out to write a —or, more accurately, to orchestrate a novel's creation. His plan, a quintessentially Warholian one, was to follow the actor Robert Olivo (better known by his stage name, Ondine) with a tape recorder for twenty-four hours, get the conversations transcribed, and call the transcript a novel: a “ Ulysses ” of sorts for the scene that the artist had conjured around his New York studio, the Factory. In the end, the single-day conceit fell away. Warhol made two dozen tapes over several years, capturing conversations with Lou Reed , Edie Sedgwick , and other Factory regulars, including himself. Young women were put to work typing up the tape's contents; each used her own method and made her own errors. Warhol wanted the transcripts to be published without edits; for him, any errors and inconsistencies were part of the project. The book, titled “ a, A novel ,” was published in 1968. It slaloms in and out of coherence and feels like the most stressful party ever, full of squabbling, striving, self-consciousness, and exhausted sadness. The “a” of the title referred, apparently, to amphetamines, which explains a lot. But it just as easily could have stood for “Andy.” No one familiar with Warhol's methods will be surprised to learn that there was only one name on the cover: his own. In her début novel, “ Nothing Special ,” the Irish writer Nicole Flattery appropriates and inverts Warhol's work of appropriation. Flattery's narrator and protagonist, Mae, is a teen-ager from Queens who, in 1966, drops out of high school, goes looking for adventure in Manhattan, and ends up in the Factory as a typist, transcribing the conversations that will become “a.” For Mae, who is looking back, from 2010, on her experience, the recordings were windows into a new world, one that alternately frightened and excited her. In the Factory, she felt simultaneously like a nobody—isolated from the main action by her headphones—and special, with a key role in a special project and privileged access to the performative ramblings of local celebs like […]

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