Books

Patricia Lockwood
No One Is Talking About This

“Why did the portal feel so private, when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?” asks the unnamed narrator in American experimental writer Patricia Lockwood’s first novel, No One Is Talking About This. “The portal” here is “the internet” – or more accurately, social media. Written in a disjointed, braided third-person, the book follows the thoughts of a North American white woman who stumbles on a career for herself after creating a viral meme. “Can a dog be twins?” propels her to microcelebrity status, as she is invited to panels across the globe to opine on online sociology.

During a BBC interview, she asks the host if he “identifies … as English”, then wonders if she “had committed a Brexit”. In Australia, she agrees with her Canadian co-panellist that spelling “sneezing” as “sneazing” is funnier. She gets her less online husband to help her with her safe, having “tried every number that she could think of – the sex number, the antichrist number, the twin towers number – but he grimly took the safe from her and freed it with a 1-2-3-4”. At a restaurant, she orders “the worst thing on the menu on purpose, to be funny”. Her cat is named “Dr. Butthole”.

Lockwood is a hilarious writer. She is known for her Nabokovian prose style, which she first nurtured in poetry and later employed in book reviews and her refreshingly odd memoir Priestdaddy, which is exactly what it sounds like. She is no stranger to online virality, either: in 2013, her poem “Rape Joke” gained massive attention, establishing her skill at skewering contemporary cultural malaise with a profound wit, something she continues with her near 97,000-followers Twitter account. No One Is Talking About This is where Lockwood amalgamates her talents – her narrator’s observations about online life is suffused with an edge that nails an invigorating lyricism at the level of the sentence.

But fiction is where Lockwood falters. The experimental, wry third-person she uses here appeared in a lecture, “The Communal Mind: The Internet and Me”, that was first published in the London Review of Books in 2019. But folding it into a novel feels inadequate. Even if No One Is Talking About This can arguably be categorised as “autofiction”, it is perplexing that a novel “about the internet” can be this unimaginative. Although it’s a technology that has been around for at least two decades and has been mainstreamed in many countries since before the 2010s, it seems that artists are still in the midst of figuring it out. Perhaps this can be attributed to the many paradoxes that accompany online life: how strange things become normalised; how normal things become extremely weird; or how removed yet intimate communication can be. Current affairs are abandoned as quickly as outfits, the self is magnified, and the never-ending time line of social media promises an infinite array of emotions that can run from grief to delight to outrage in mere minutes. Time seems of little importance, yet time stamps are omnipresent.

How then can authors write fiction about the internet? While Lockwood is adept at delineating the seamless hivemind-as-automated-screen-experience that makes up being “extremely online”, the narrative comes off as simplistic. Nothing really happens in the book – which is fine, it’s the endless scroll after all – and it’s not until the second half of the novel that events take a turn. The narrator returns to her home town to support her sister, who has suffered birth complications, and her tone shifts: she begins to notice “real life” as she recognises the severity of her newborn niece’s illness. Things are suddenly less funny, akin to an earlier memory when she realises that her nationalist, gun-loving brother saying “merked” “sounded so much heavier than when her friends in the portal said it”.

Together with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, released in the same month, No One Is Talking About This has been widely celebrated as an “internet novel”. Both employ a sense of remove that simulates the online experience, one that arises from addressing an infinite audience while seeing yourself through the eyes of others. Irony saturates the two books: narrators are quick to pre-empt themselves, leery of trending topics even as they self-deprecatingly engage with them.

“Now, when her cat vomited, she thought she heard the word praxis,” Lockwood’s narrator notes at one point. While this type of jocular thinking can be taken for granted by certain sections of the Western media and literary Twitterati, No One Is Talking About This continues to perpetuate a view that – while outwardly new and revolutionary – contributes to an ironic distance that Mark Fisher once attributed to capitalist society’s relationship to money: “We believe that money is only a meaningless token of no intrinsic worth, yet we act as if it has a holy value.”

Even if this novel can be read as one experience of social media, it flirts with a prevalent essentialism that social media – and the internet more broadly – is an anomaly that “just happens lol”, rather than being a series of interlocking processes that increasingly involve oligarchs, corporations, visibility and power.

This inadequate understanding of online life capitulates to the false dichotomy of “IRL v URL”; offline is considered “purer”. In a quest to reckon with the apparent novelty and peculiarity of online-ness, there is little consideration of the fact that the internet is society’s – and thus, humanity’s – myriad contradictions writ large, accelerated by algorithmic processes and institutional power. For every abject, deranged and outrageous corner of the internet, there are equally optimistic, subversive and earnest ones. And this is the inherent failing in No One Is Talking About This – we don’t necessarily have to choose a side, because life online is as abundant as life offline. And we can imagine so much more with the tools at hand, even if we’re not sure exactly what we’re doing with them yet.

Cher Tan

Bloomsbury, 224pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This".

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Reviewer: Cher Tan