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No One Is Talking About This: caught in the net

Book review: Patricia Lockwood’s humour feels adolescent in novel about internet fame

No One Is Talking About This
No One Is Talking About This
Author: Patricia Lockwood
ISBN-13: 978-1526629760
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Guideline Price: £14.99

Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel, as she has tweeted, is “about being very inside the internet and then being very outside of it”. It follows the author’s poetry collections, including Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014), and a memoir, Priestdaddy, which was named one of the 10 best books of 2017 by the New York Times.

No One Is Talking About This cleaves into two distinct parts. In the first, the unnamed protagonist – propelled to internet fame after tweeting “Can a dog be twins?” – meets fans on an international speaking tour. Two text messages from her mother cut the trip short: “Something has gone wrong” and “How soon can you get here?” She returns to her family home in Ohio to be with her sister, whose baby has been diagnosed with Proteus syndrome, a rare congenital disorder in utero. “Look how big her head is lol,” her sister had texted about an ultrasound before they realised it was a sign of abnormality.

Lockwood’s life is inextricably intertwined with the internet. Having grown up in “all the worst cities of the midwest”, in her memoir she describes it as a refuge: “A place of living, moving, breathing text, a book that continually wrote itself.” She has built a devoted fanbase on Twitter for tweets such as “@parisreview So is Paris any good or not” and posts ventriloquising her cat.

Lockwood’s powerful poem, Rape Joke, which first appeared in 2013 on website The Awl, was widely shared online. Her voice – whether in Twitter “sexts” or erudite yet outrageous contributions to the London Review of Books – was forged in the kiln of Web 2.0: intimate, zany, blasphemous, lewd and unabashedly performative. “I’m a show-off,” she told the Guardian in 2017, “a clown.” In an interview with Sally Rooney at Poetry Ireland in early 2019, Lockwood said that the internet is “the place where I don’t have a body and so I’m not frightened of anything”.



Part two of No One Is Talking About This explores what happens when corporeal realities come to the fore. Although carrying the pregnancy to term poses a health risk to the mother, “none of the doctors, nurses or specialists ever breathed a word about abortion,” writes Lockwood. “Dread rose in their hearts upon hearing the worst seven words in the English language. There was a new law in Ohio.” The law made inducing labour before 37 weeks a felony. “Surely they hadn’t been transported back to 1950s Ireland?” she balks.

The erosion of reproductive rights in the US cuts even closer to the bone now that Donald Trump’s appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court puts Roe v Wade – a landmark case in which the court ruled that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional – at stake. “We already live in the country that we fear,” Lockwood told the New Yorker.

A portion of the novel’s first section was delivered as a lecture, The Communal Mind, at the British Museum and printed in the London Review of Books in early 2019. The book lacks the visual aid of the slideshow accompanying the lecture and incorporated online in the London Review. The jokes struggle to land on their own and, alas, already feel dated.

It is no easy feat to recreate life online. Still, authors who have done so with more metaphorical language, including Elif Batuman in The Idiot (2017) and Olivia Sudjic in Sympathy (2017), stand up better to rereading than Lockwood’s collage of internet ephemera.

By design, the first half of No One Is Talking About This recreates the sensation of too much time scrolling – bringing to mind Eric Carle’s children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in which the fuzzy protagonist binges on a series of foodstuffs only to find himself craving a nice green leaf, leaving one feeling overstimulated and empty.

So, does the change of tack in the second half offer more sustenance? The baby’s caretaking is meant to be in sharp contrast to what Lockwood calls “the portal”, although the story continues to be told in fragments. While the experience with her niece makes her wonder if she’s wasting her life, it does not re-wallpaper the protagonist’s brain. “I’ve been this way so long, I don’t know how to be anymore,” she admits.

We know from the acknowledgments that part two is also based on Lockwood’s life, but the off-colour jokes that persist as a coping mechanism keep pathos at arm’s length. She accomplished tragicomedy masterfully in Rape Joke – daring us to laugh at something profoundly unfunny.

Here the humour feels not brave but adolescent: on seeing her mother after receiving the devastating news, the protagonist’s first thought is that the last maternal text contained the spurting three droplets emoji, “which she no longer had the heart to explain were jizz”. While the baby’s world is rendered in detail, the characters of the baby’s parents and the shape of their grief remain impressionistic.

In a double autofictional wink at the end of the novel, the protagonist is invited to give a talk at the British Museum, where she reads about giving a talk at the British Museum. Her body is behind the podium but her mind flashes back to the neonatal intensive care unit, ostensibly to signal that the experience has changed her. In the real-life video of Lockwood’s lecture, she grips both an iPad and her smartphone.

“God has given us the internet as a hamster wheel,” she recently tweeted. “Strap in and ride, b**ch.” You’ll forgive me if I’d rather stay on the ground.

“We sit patiently in our festering inferno, waiting for the internet to turn around and surprise us and get good again. But it won’t. The internet is governed by incentives that make it impossible to be a full person while interacting with it,” writes Jia Tolentino in Trick Mirror (2019). “In the future, we will inevitably be cheapened. Less and less of us will be left, not just as individuals but also as community members, as a collective of people facing various catastrophes.”

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic