In Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel, No One is Talking About This, there is a line after the birth of her sister’s child which highlights the balancing act attempted in this book: “It was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life.” Lockwood’s exquisite writing aims to show how the lines have blurred between online and real life, and how difficult it can be to discern between the two. She alternates between “meatspace” (as disgusting as that word is) and her equally engrossing online life. This balancing act swings back and forth between the language of the Internet, and the language we’ve come to expect from traditional Western novels. Early in the book, Lockwood compares herself to a new species of frog covered in warts, before writing:
Other things slipped down, and the fast river of the mind closed over them so she forgot they had been ubiquitous.”
Alternating between these two forms of language is a tenuous balancing act, in other words. This line of inquiry into the divide between the two worlds (if it exists) is present throughout. In Lockwood’s first venture into fiction following two poetry collections and an acclaimed memoir (Priestdaddy), she enters a conversation about the Internet that continuously occurs online and in reality and includes academics and authors alike. The first section of the novel more closely resembles a Twitter feed that ranges in topics from the over-usage of words like ‘toxic’ or ‘normalize’, to the origins of the Unabomber, to imagined Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. It even goes all the way to unlikely, but still very present, examples of AAVE used in the main character’s Thanksgiving day texts with a family member as a way to demonstrate co-opting language. If this section of the novel sounds like a standard social media personality’s Twitter feed — rife with thoughts and posturing, the tics and habits of the online world, and explorations of the idea of continuous content alongside the worries (and realization) that others are living just as complex and online lives as we are — then that’s because it is. It is also in this first section that the vital anxiety of Lockwood’s arises again and again: the fear that people may one day look back at us and laugh at the fools we made of ourselves online.
This fear seems to preoccupy a particular type of novelist working today — awareness of possible self-embarrassment online, and a carefully cultivated online identity, is tantamount to an investment in one’s future. This hyper cognizance is vividly present in Lockwood’s prose, emerging in the form of small apologies for using Internet slang, though she questions the usage of it even while using it:
“Of course it was always the people who called themselves enlightened who stole the most. Who picked up the slang the earliest. To show — what? That they were not like the others?”
The failings of this novel are that Lockwood does not concede that it’s far more likely that the online-ness of our world, and the changes in language that will continue to occur because of the ever-growing purveyor of the Internet, will expand in orders of magnitude to be more influential than they are even now. Without acknowledging this, the notion of the Internet as the guiltiest of pleasures remains what it is, a tired trope about those who rely on the online world as a way to define themselves. This becomes increasingly apparent in the second section, when the narrator’s interrogation of her relationship with “the portal” comes to a point, to a halt. She speaks of the birth of her sister’s child, and of the departure she has taken from her life as a kind of social media star to be with her family. This is in part a moment of reflection that allows the story to attach itself to more novelistic norms, but only so far as it was tweet-able in the end.
“It spoke of something deep in human beings, how hard she had to pinch herself when she started thinking about all of it as a metaphor.”
Lauren Oyler’s debut this year, Fake Accounts, strikes similar tones to Lockwood’s, but in lieu of the more straightforward plotting of the former, Lockwood attempts what is being called an “anti-novel”. No One is Talking About This ends up more similar in style to Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble (though far less standard when it comes to form), in which the turn comes halfway into the novel and drastically alters the way in which the reader understands the story.
The new focus on the sister’s story acts as a sort of repentance or absolution of personal participation. The narrator is isolated in an experience that cannot be lived vicariously, or from the safety of the imagined commonality of an Internet community, which leaves the novel feeling as though it is out of Lockwood’s hands, in the way that what streams on social media platforms is only controllable to a degree. In a way, the novel is arguing that the language we use, both online and in real life, is only controllable to a certain point as well. Lockwood writes:
“Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, a 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.”
If there is a modicum of space at all left between our social media feeds and real life, then it is this little-space-between that Lockwood is attempting to occupy with her work, and one might imagine that she’s asking that we try to break free of it even for a moment.
No One Is Talking About This
By Patricia Lockwood
Published February 16, 2021