October 20, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Review: Patricia Lockwood’s ‘No One Is Talking About This’

On the Shelf

No One is Talking About This

By Patricia Lockwood
Riverhead: 224 pages, $25

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Patricia Lockwood’s “No One Is Talking About This” is either a work of genius or an exasperating endurance trial. Never before has a novel left me so internally polarized. Should I revel in its cathartic eventual escape from social media, or pan it for wallowing so, so long in the very online? I am, as a famously wounded suitor once put it, half agony, half hope.

Lockwood seems to feel the same way. I imagine she’d consider it a win to push a critic into paralysis, a state so often induced by her core subject, which is Twitter: its twisted sense of righteousness, absurd heightening of self-importance and superglue hold over its users.

In the London Review of Books, Lockwood wrote that the novel began as “a diary of what it felt like to be [online] in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind.” As on Twitter, there’s very little plot — or rather there are waves of plot that peak in froths of excitement and then dissolve. You read it the way you scan social media, hopping from one thought to another; if Lockwood could have delivered her manuscript in a scrolling format, I think she might have.

Lockwood is a poet and the author of “Priestdaddy” — her eyebrow-wiggling account of life with her priest father — but she is perhaps primarily known as a Twitter superuser. She endows her unnamed narrator with the same skills and dubs her an “expert” on internet culture, a persona both women seem to find ridiculous. For the first half of the book she skips from city to city, invited to speak on panels but often out and about. There she is holding an albino joey at a wildlife rescue in Melbourne, or checking out lighthouses on the Isle of Skye. But her physical body barely exists; this is a novel of observations.

“Internet expert” really means serial tweeter — channeler of what the narrator calls “the new shared sense of humor,” i.e., the idea that one’s feelings should climb and fall in inverse proportion to how much something actually matters. She isn’t so much addicted to the internet as poisoned by it. It seeps into her offline thinking, even into her laugh, a witch’s cackle mimicking the online hahaha: “She had started … five years ago as a joke and now she couldn’t stop.”

But here’s the rub: “No One Is Talking About This” will only make sense to people who already know that on Twitter you can hijack William Carlos Williams’ poem “This Is Just to Say” for virtually any situation, or that clapping hands emojis around words signal that 👏 YOU 👏 ARE 👏 NOT 👏 PLAYING 👏. If you found that sentence to be gibberish, you’ll feel the same way about this novel, in part a micro-history of mid-2010s Twitter.

The narrator dithers over how much she wants a leadership position in this unofficial hierarchy of casual dismissiveness, earnestness avoidance and radical obsolescence. “Already,” she offers, “it was becoming impossible to explain things she had done even the year before, why she had spent hypnotized hours of her life, say, photoshopping bags of frozen peas into pictures of historical atrocities, posting OH YES HUNNY in response to old images of Stalin, why whenever she liked anything especially, she said she was going to ‘chug it with her ass.’”

Patricia Lockwood channels and challenges Twitter in her new novel, “No One Is Talking About This.”

(Grep Hoax)

She’s attuned to the swarm mentality that keeps her on top of the Twitter pile. “Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, toward a new person to hate. … It was not so much the hatred she was interested in as the swift attenuation, as if their collective blood had made a decision.”

She isn’t wrong.

But still, for more than half of the book, she’s part of the wrong, pushing the same jokes and asides she’d tweet into “the portal.” She succeeds brilliantly in reflecting the online experience, but at a cost: The anecdotes that start out as wry or clever eventually turn overly punchy, like a friend who forgot to drink water between shots. If this is what she wants, it’s effective but annoying. If I’m in a novel, I want to be in a novel, I kept thinking, not in a Twitter simulation.

A third of the way in, the narrator asks, “Why were we all writing like this now?” By this she means in fragmented little bursts, like Jenny Offill in “Dept. of Speculation,” or Maggie Nelson in “Bluets” or, long before them, Renata Adler in “Speedboats.” She answers her own question: “Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.” In another recent very online novel, “Fake Accounts,” Lauren Oyler makes the succinct point: “Justification for this structure is that it mimics the nature of modern life, which is ‘fragmented.’ But fragmentation is one of the worst aspects of modern life. It’s extremely stressful.”

Lockwood proposes a kind of inside-out Modernism, a stream of online unconsciousness. But if social media isn’t built to sustain long-term narrative arcs, the novel isn’t built for endless wandering. (Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” is masterful, but there’s a reason we read “Mrs. Dalloway” far more.) Instead of raising new ideas about what constitutes a novel, “No One Is Talking About This” evokes dread of its long-predicted death.

But wait, there’s more. The second half takes a hard pivot into earnestness (and plot) with a call from the narrator’s mother: “Something has gone wrong,” she says, “How soon can you get here?” Doctors have found major irregularities in the narrator’s pregnant sister’s sonogram; she heads back to her Midwest hometown to be near the baby, to hold her and play “Over the Rainbow” in her ear.

It’s saying too much to divulge exactly what ails the baby, but all the physicality and tenderness and melody that Lockwood banished from the first half is turned up to 11 in the last pages. It’s a shame — to jam all that richness and revelation into the one place a critic dare not spoil, never mind how exquisitely it fits against the narrator’s internet-scrambled psyche. Just before they learn the diagnosis, the narrator stands in the shower imagining “what the baby might be missing.” She yells to herself in her old wry tone, “Call me old-fashioned, but I happen to believe that a BABY! should get to have an ASS!” This collision of her online persona with a manifestly corporeal problem is more than a trick of juxtaposition. It is the center of the novel.

If there is a stylistic fulcrum of this tenuously balanced novel, it is the word this. “No One Is Talking About This” is obsessed with the last word of its title — that capable little workhorse, vague and specific all at once. It’s the first word of the Williams poem; the focus of Lockwood’s meta-fictional musing on writing like “this”; and then, in the second half, the punctuation in a series of frantic laments that, on the portal, “Everything was happening except for this,” meaning a personal atrocity, pain, hurt. “She wanted to stop people on the street and say ‘Do you know about this? You should know about this. No one is talking about this!’”

Except this is precisely the work of the novelist. It’s all they’ve talked about for centuries now. If “No One Is Talking About This” is an experiment in form, it’s one that can only be redeemed by conceding its own failure, admitting that it needs at least some of the structure and heart of the traditional novel to dig beneath glib artifice.

But it’s not really a fair fight. I suppose, in my hand-wringing ambivalence, what I’m really waiting for is Twitter to hand down its verdict on this novel. “This!” someone will tweet, in glowing affirmation of my opinion or another. And we’ll be right back where we started.

Kelly’s work has been published in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.