Review by Ana Jacobsen
American poet Patricia Lockwood’s debut fiction novel No One Is Talking About This discusses how we position ourselves in relation to the Internet. The novel’s protagonist is a woman who has become famous for an innocuous viral tweet—loosely inspired by Lockwood’s own participation in the forming of ‘weird Twitter’—which leads to her travelling the world, speaking as an authority on digital communication. However, a complication with her sister’s pregnancy draws her home and the subsequent lived experience she has with a niece born with Proteus Syndrome causes a drastic shift in her relationship with online space.
Reading this book, I wasn’t sure if I could continue after the first few pages. The prose is so fragmented that any sense of narrative progression is barely detectable. The sentences themselves are like beautifully formed pearls—‘In Vienna the little cakes looked like the big buildings, or else the big buildings looked like the little cakes,’—but the text is broken up into short paragraphs that barely seem to relate to each other.
As the novel progressed, I realised this stylistic choice was made to emulate how information is often presented online in a never-ending stream of information. Lockwood shows us how, as an intangible but ever-expanding entity, the Internet has become an inextricable part of our collective reality.
In an interview with John Lanchester from the London Review of Books, Lanchester comments on Lockwood’s remarkable control of tone that gives her “permission to say anything.” The book traverses subject matter that is simultaneously profound, obscure, vulgar and hilarious, filtering through beautiful and freakishly rendered images in a way that resembles getting lost down an Internet rabbit hole. Having memes lyrically described in such a high level of detail—let alone printed and bound in an actual book—had the strange effect of making me keenly aware of the Internet’s absurdist tendencies. What seems to make sense in the context of an online space suddenly loses its logic in print.
Lockwood believes her text will one day be submitted as a historical document, immortalising this specific effect the Internet has had on our way of thinking.
No One Is Talking About This evolves into something beyond its original form. Its purpose as a text is not just to tell a story but to encapsulate a way of thinking and feeling that is completely unique to the Internet. So much of the language can only be understood with a knowledge of online references, and even still some are so fleeting that not ‘logging on’ for a day might deprive the reader of understanding.
But this is Lockwood’s intent, further demonstrated in her dramatic turn halfway through the novel. The story pivots from what is described as a pointillist narrative technique that conveys the generally chaotic nature of online space, to a more fixed and linear plot when the main character receives the news that her sister is facing a life-threatening induced labour. This event, grounded in visceral and emotional reality, causes Lockwood’s character to have an epiphany about her immersion in online space:
‘Oh, she thought hazily, falling rainwise like Alice, finding tucked under her arm the bag of peas she once photoshopped into pictures of historical atrocities, oh, have I been wasting my time?’
As Lanchester states, “The risk of the Internet is that the whole world is in your head.” Whilst it may seem like a space of infinite freedom to create and question existence, Lockwood addresses how the constant projection of identities and opinions can have a counter-effect: eroded self-hood, and the rendering of the mind into ‘a blinking cursor’. As Lockwood states in an interview with Jia Tolentino, “We were never supposed to have such an excess of knowledge.”
Perhaps this overabundance of matter is unsustainable for the human body: on the Internet, nothing ever really dies or goes away – it is always growing and mutating. Lockwood emphasises how disturbing this is, particularly when cast against the protagonist’s experience of grief. Where the permanence of Internet content is written as deeply troubling, the family’s encounter with tragedy is embraced as an inevitable and necessary part of existence.
Lockwood’s distinctly poetic voice and capacity for vivid depictions of online space make No One is Talking About This a must-read. As Tolentino articulates, her astute observations and endlessly layered metaphors make you feel like you are “looking through a kaleidoscope built by a mischievous sorcerer.”
This book transformed my personal engagement with online space. Lockwood’s story shows us how real life is more sparkly and magnetic than anything we will ever encounter online.
No One Is Talking About This was published by Bloomsbury Publishing and has an RRP of $29.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.
Ana Jacobsen is an emerging writer and editor based in Naarm/Melbourne. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Victorian College of the Arts and is currently completing her Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. She is interested in art and literary theory, culture, people and feminism.
Background image by Eberhard Grossgasteiger from Unsplash