No One Is Talking About This
by Patricia Lockwood
reviewed by Lily Scherlis
The protagonist of Patricia Lockwood’s new novel seems like the kind of person I love to hate: she’s known for knowing what’s going on in the Internet social world, so much so that she’s paid to give talks about how it feels to be very online. The first hundred pages of No One Is Talking About This discuss what many books are talking about: living with social media.
Lockwood might be the first person who has made me feel less bad by writing about the Internet. No One Is Talking About This takes a sharp turn: intimacy and crisis yank the protagonist offline halfway through the novel, when her sister’s baby is born with a rare disorder that gives her divergent perception and cognition. Everyone around the baby falls hopelessly in love with her. The protagonist is sucked out of the economy of quips and memes into the tiny pleasures of teaching a kid to experience the sensory, preverbal, offline world. She falls “heavily out of the broad warm us” of the Internet (called “the portal” in Lockwood’s fictional universe), which recedes into her phone.
No One Is Talking About This stitches together these two contemporary planes of experience—a hospital in Ohio and a small glowing rectangle in the protagonist’s pocket. Each has its own criteria for determining what a person should be like, what a life should feel like—criteria that don’t make any sense to the other. The protagonist’s feelings about the baby cannot be described in the portal, which loves things like bags of peas “photoshopped into pictures of historical atrocities.” How do you tweet about the all-consuming nonverbal intimacy you feel with someone who will likely soon die but right now is learning to have a body? The words and images the protagonist conjures up to communicate this, like Styrofoam cups with holes poked in the bottom that won’t hold water, don’t seem to carry meaning online.
Luckily, they do still hold meaning in the context of a novel: Lockwood manages to hold two worlds together, outing each as at once ludicrous and wholly relatable through sheer force of voice and character. To make this work, No One Is Talking About This capitulates to social media’s rhythms of consumption. It fragments into micro-paragraphs—bite-sized chunks of thought and feeling divided by little trios of asterisks, reminiscent of Jenny Offill’s Weather or Rebecca Watson’s little scratch. To her credit, Lockwood reads more like Renata Adler in her brilliant fragmentary novel Speedboat than like her contemporaries.
No One Is Talking About This is a novel retrofitted to tiny attention spans—like a feed, but on paper, with only one voice. Lockwood is used to holding two worlds together on the strength of her voice—her 2017 memoir Priestdaddy deals with coming of age with a Catholic priest as a father, and expertly uses metaphor and characterization to show the limits of her parents’ worldview while still being tender with them. Lockwood’s protagonist briefly acknowledges the ubiquity of this gimmick, which does feel tired: “Why were we all writing like this now?”
Social media is hard to write about—Lockwood’s protagonist laments that “all writing about the portal so far had a strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.” Other writers have a tendency to let social media’s aesthetic values swell into a totalitarian psychic regime. Lauren Oyler, Jia Tolentino, and Ellery Lloyd, among others, verge on letting its hierarchies take on dystopian proportions in their critiques. I, too, wrestle with an algorithm that decides whether people want to read my writing and/or be my friend, trying to display fluency in a specialized grammar of self-presentation requiring subtleties in capitalization and punctuation and “um”s and “so”s. Things about you that don’t feel funny or clever or relatable when phrased in this syntax have to hide. So does Lockwood: her novel is home for many feelings the portal wouldn’t like, such as ambivalence, baby love, and the vulnerable, unsexy intervals in one’s political self-education (“Every fiber in her being strained. She was trying to hate the police.”)
Thankfully, personal enoughness is not her focus. Lockwood’s Internet is less of a venue for angst-y self-description and more like the bacteria-filled ball pit at a roadside McDonald’s. It’s more libidinal than dramaturgical: “a warm body that wanted her.” It exhausts her, but she can’t leave it; when she puts it down, she’s pulled back in by the “metastasis of the word next, the word more.” This is immersive digital purgatory, where nuggets of silliness rot into snarky refrains, and then are reborn as more silliness: “‘Don’t normalize it!!!!!’ we shouted at each other,” Lockwood writes. “But all we were normalizing was the use of the word normalize, which sounded like the action of a ray gun wielded by a guy named Norm to make everyone around him Norm as well.” The whole book is infested with loopy yet lovely metaphors for the portal; she describes its illusion of shared reality as a too-small satin-edged blanket that leaves toes exposed.
Lockwood is curious about how the portal breeds everybodies and nobodies. The protagonist has a lot of feelings about being part of the portal’s great big “we,” slipping into this fuzzy first-person plural with irony, but also hoping for some relief from the same individuality exhausting her contemporaries. The portal promises to make her “a creature of pure call and response.” This comforting non-individuality is perhaps why the portal never wholly leaves her, but rather becomes a pseudo-comfort zone to the side of life with the baby, a means of coping reduced to phatic button-pressing. After a display of newly painful anti-choice dogma from her father, she wakes up in the night to “tug her phone off the bedside table, post the words eat the police in the portal, wait for it to get sixty-nine likes, then delete it.”
In No One Is Talking About This, ways of talking undergo a “great melting”: “the best things in the portal seemed to have been written by everyone.” Voices conform to a communal grammar: she reflects how “gradually it had become the place where we sounded like each other, through some erosion of wind or water on a self not nearly as firm as stone.” The portal is a strange chorus.
Ironically, No One Is Talking About This exceeds the genre’s gloom not because the protagonist is right about social media, but because she’s the one telling us about it. The protagonist is the most likeable person in the world. She’s very weird, routinely deploying phrases like “big gray wriggle of American fathers.” It’s this goofy, tender voice that commutes between her two differently devastating lives. The world pays to hear her speak because of it: she once made a viral joke and their “minds had floated into her voice for a minute and then their mouths had widened like an animal’s into automatic happiness.”
While the protagonist of Lauren Oyler’s recent novel Fake Accounts decides that “manipulative insincerity was a fair response to the way the world was,” Lockwood’s protagonist stays with us. “Your attention is holy,” the protagonist reminds one audience. She deserves ours because she positions herself as a kind of companion in the mire of networked life, someone else trying to negotiate a way to live alongside it, rather than master or erase it.
Published on March 1, 2021