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18 February 2021

Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This is the first great internet novel

The oddball American writer’s debut novel is a witty and true depiction of the experience of living online.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

It is easy to forget that once upon a time, before the internet was the strip-mined, litter-strewn Ground Zero of unreason that it is today, it was beautiful – or at least still had the potential to be. For Patricia Lockwood – who spent her formative years in a zany household in the American midwest, dominated by her semi-naked, gun-toting, staunchly Catholic father – the internet was not only a place of escape; it was a place of self-actualisation. There’s a moment in her sublimely lewd memoir, Priestdaddy (2017), when her husband points at a pair of her father’s underpants and marvels that that’s where she sprang from. “‘I like to think I sprang from a head; I like to think the head was mine’,” she counters.

The internet was where Lockwood discovered that voice; where she found her people; met her husband; wrote perhaps the greatest ever tweet (“@ParisReview so is Paris any good then”); saw her poems go viral; and, unable to afford university fees, scratched together an education of sorts. Lockwood is, among other things, a great argument for writers not going on to higher education; hers is an intelligence shaped online. She is a true inhabitant of the internet, someone who sees herself as a “monstrous hybrid of high and low”. She can participate in its discourse about Updike, Nabokov, Didion and Ferrante; she can also appreciate dinosaur porn.

However – and perhaps we might give some credit to her father’s religion here – she also understands the internet’s harder-to-pin-down metaphysical dimension. People who live “extremely online”, she has said, often share a desire to escape not only from their immediate physical surroundings but from physics itself. “They… are people who really didn’t want to have bodies. We fled there as a refuge or a place where we could just be words, could just be text.”

[See also: How Vanessa Springora’s Consent tries to transcend the #MeToo moment it created]

Entering the “portal” – as she calls it – is like stepping into a metaphysical realm. The internet makes her forget time, space, her own body and identity as a woman (which surely has an extra meaning for Lockwood, since it was a poem about being sexually assaulted that first made her internet-famous). In her new novel, she writes: “Her pronoun, which she had never felt particularly close to, travelled farther and farther away from here in the portal, swooping through landscapes of us and him and we and them.”  

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No One Is Talking About This is about what happens when you are returned to that physical reality. It’s also – and I should probably get this out right now – a flat-out masterpiece and certainly the best novel I’ve ever read about the internet. Like Priestdaddy, it’s dense with oddball imagery and outrageous conceits. But unlike her memoir, it contains little in the way of character exposition. You will need a passing familiarity with social media and meme culture to fully understand it – but that doesn’t mean it’s of marginal interest. No doubt Moby-Dick is more lively if you have a deep knowledge of 19th century whaling lore, but it’s not a prerequisite. Once you accept that this is a novel with a different kind of narrative procedure, it’s a pleasure to crawl into Lockwood’s strange brain.

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Written in a fragmented, third-person narration, No One Is Talking About This is a book of two very different halves which Lockwood has said reflect the experience of being “very inside the internet and then very outside it”. The first half takes us inside the head of a nameless protagonist, who strongly resembles Lockwood, except that here she becomes famous for a post that says: “Can a dog be twins? That was it.”

She manages to turn this into a career travelling the world speaking on conference panels about online culture. The second half begins at one such conference, in Vienna, where she receives two text messages from her mother saying “Something has gone wrong”, and “How soon can you get here?”. Her sister is pregnant but the foetus has a rare congenital disorder. She may need a termination, which is not only illegal in the state of Ohio but is something her parents have spent their whole lives crusading against.

Inspired by real events in Lockwood’s family, the story follows her protagonist as she is wrenched out of the online world and forced to confront real issues pertinent to her biological sex: abortion, childbirth and motherhood. She must also face up to her own helplessness. She may be influential on the portal but that cuts no sway IRL. Tempted to vent her fury about abortion laws, she remembers that the portal’s prevailing tone is one of overworked irony. Whenever you encounter raw emotion there, it feels primitive and scary: “above all you averted your eyes from the ones who were in mad grief, whose mouths were open like caves with ancient paintings inside.” There’s a brief pause before she asks: “If all she was was funny, and none of this was funny, where did that leave her?”

What might have become a precious or sentimental story is transformed by Lockwood’s confounding imagery (or, what she calls in Priestdaddy, her “private zoo of description”). When the baby girl is born, the family watches her on the hospital monitor “in fuzzy black and white, looking like she was about to steal a pack of cigarettes from a convenience store”.

The novel shares much with Jenny Offill’s fiction, notably its surreal humour and use of episodic vignettes. In Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (2014), a family crisis mid-way through the novel disrupts the tone of skittish complacency established in its first half, much as it does in Lockwood’s. However, No One is Talking About This runs along its own lines. One moment, Lockwood’s protagonist is laughing at a picture of a chihuahua perched on a man’s erection, the next she’s wondering if the portal is responsible for the election of Donald Trump (here called “the dictator”). The jumble of whimsy and outrage captures the uneasy transition from what Lockwood remembers as a “place of play” to one of Trump-era panic and paranoia.

It would be a mistake to imagine this novel is one long in-joke for media liberals on Twitter. She casts her net far wider, realising that the memes she is exposed to are very different to those that her brother sees. Her mother is as naïve about the fact that the aubergine and three droplets are horny emojis as she is that the laser-eyed Hillary Clinton circulating Facebook has been photoshopped. “A person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth,” she writes. But she’s almost as troubled by the fact that in calling out this stupidity, people like her pounce upon the same arch, “extremely online” phrases: “SHOOT IT IN MY VEINS, we said, when the Flat Earth Society announced it had members all over the globe.”

Lockwood is brilliant at drawing out the portal’s paradoxes, its disconcerting intimacy but also its distancing effects. Her protagonist loves the immediacy of online news and the illusion that by absorbing it, line by line, she is somehow having a say in what is happening. “On a slow news day, we hung suspended from meat hooks dangling over the abyss,” she writes. “On a fast news day, it was like we had swallowed all of NASCAR and were about to crash into the wall. Either way, it felt like something a dude named Randy was in charge of.”

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If the first part of Lockwood’s novel seems directionless, by the second half you begin to realise that there has been a shape all along. In Priestdaddy, the early advent of the web was evoked with a tenderness that felt like a relative videoing a newborn. Now we see a real baby who, much as she is adored, has not turned out how anyone expected. The baby’s dawning consciousness echoes that of the internet. Lockwood uses the word “enlightenment” twice to refer to the creativity unleashed by social media and the same word twice again about the experience of watching the baby grow. The book’s first half reads like an attempt to capture a new and unnerving intelligence coming into being.

And then being corrupted. In a lecture delivered two years ago at the British Museum, which formed the basis of this book, Lockwood spoke about how she increasingly felt her thoughts were being dictated to her by a “collective head” that was “running a fever”. What she was noticing was a homogenisation of online language and humour, stock phrases that everyone called upon to package their responses, from “guess I’ll die” to “ahahaha!” to the book’s title, itself a popular meme. “Stream-of-consciousness was long ago conquered by a man who wanted his wife to fart all over him,” she writes, nodding to James Joyce. “But what about stream of consciousness that is not entirely your own? One that you participate in, but that also acts upon you?”

We see this in the way the hive mind settles upon an “anointed language”. In the book, she identifies how “toxic” can never go back to being a regular word. “It was like a person becoming famous. They would never have a normal lunch again, would never eat a Cobb salad outdoors without tasting the full awareness of what they were. Toxic. Labor. Discourse. Normalize.” There’s a homogenisation of values too in the hive mind, which acts like a school of fish. It collectively decides who or what to hate that day: a war criminal one moment, a way of making guacamole the next.

But until the baby is born, Lockwood’s protagonist can’t tear herself away from the portal. It’s like a fire she needs to keep checking on. When something she writes goes viral, her life blazes like the Californian forest. “She ran back and forth in the flames, not eating or drinking, emitting a high-pitched sound most humans couldn’t hear.” But in real life she remains stationary, wearing what her husband describes as a “totally dead look” on her face.

In her recent novel, Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler also described the physical effects of online addiction. Both writers’ main characters scroll the internet from their beds and note how static their bodies have become. While Oyler captures the particular aches involved in holding a phone above your head in bed, Lockwood’s experience opens up another plane of existence, like Alice in Wonderland. When her protagonist scrolls, she is so “spellbound” that the teacup she is drinking from “rose to her lips, tilted, floated away again… the cup was nowhere to be seen – not on the side table, not spilled on the floor or rolled between the unmade bedsheets”. After half an hour looking for the cup, she concludes that “what hummed in her right hand was the feeling that she had put it somewhere inside the phone”.

What Oyler worked in a dull, unyielding metal, Lockwood renders in gold. Her story of living online is not only more succulent, witty and imaginative, it’s truer. It’s a novel that vibrates with feeling, not just about the intense bond the protagonist develops with her baby niece – that would be too easy – but also her joyful communion with the internet. She may be excruciatingly honest about its problems but she’s not judgemental. She knows that the voice she has used to soothe the baby is also the same voice she uses to tour the world, talking about her web-based fame.

“Why had she entered the portal in the first place?” she asks. “Because she wanted to be a creature of pure call and response: she wanted to delight and be delighted.”

No One Is Talking About This
by Patricia Lockwood
Bloomsbury, 224pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks