Book Review: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Like the Babushka dolls of the internet, my newly-formed book club of writers and artists was created for aspiring writers, out of a book course about writing about art, led by Anwen Crawford, a writer and artist (and as it happens, a former CAL UTS Writer in Residence). Naturally, it being mid-2021, both the writing course, all five weeks of it, and our inaugural book club, were held over Zoom (we do hope to meet in person eventually).
It made sense then, that our first review would be about a book set in, on, and about the internet; Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This. Made sense because, if there’s one thing that’s become self-evident during these crazy pandemic life-has-become-the-internet times, it’s that Kurzweil’s prediction that we’ll reach the Singularity in 2045, is only half right. Many believe we’ve already reached it. 25 years too soon.
This premise is the main thrust of Lockwood’s novel. Indeed is, as I discover from tracing her across the internet, her essence of thought. Both inside her books and outside of them. And she’s not alone.
Though our book club consists mainly of mid-30-somethings, not all of us is mired in ‘the network’. One confessed it took her almost halfway through reading the first section for it to click that the form was based on Twitter bursts. Those of us embroiled in the sticky web were onboard from the get-go — so much so that we agreed vehemently that the ‘portal’, as Lockwood dubs it in the book, is not, as many critics describe it, the wider ‘internet’ but is inarguably, specifically the Twitterverse.
See, there’s a special mix of syntax and language used on Twitter that’s different from Insta, or Tok, or FB, or Snap or anyone of the myriad other places people find themselves congregating online.
When writing teachers talk about ‘voice’ this is what they mean. Lockwood has a clearly distinguishable tone that sustains throughout, despite the book radically changing gear at its halfway point.
Twitter has a darkly ironic twist to it, a slightly mean (its users would prefer to say, intelligent) snark about it. It’s funny, but in a deadpan way. And this is Lockwood’s voice through and through.
When writing teachers talk about ‘voice’ this is what they mean. Lockwood has a clearly distinguishable tone that sustains throughout, despite the book radically changing gear at its halfway point. (The moment when, I for one, breathed a huge sigh of relief).
Honestly, I struggled to finish the first half. Not because I couldn’t see what Lockwood was doing — I could, and valued it — but because, and this is a tough one to admit; as much as I appreciate being challenged while reading, sometimes I Just Want To Enjoy It. No, not enjoy it exactly, I also appreciate being made to squirm and cry and hold my hands over my eyes. But . . . I also like to—escape.
And in that first half of the story, there was no escaping my current reality, of living almost entirely online right now. For the last 12 weeks, like most Sydneysiders, I’ve been locked inside a 5km radius, and the only people I’m permitted to physically interact with are my cohabiting family. I’m desperately clicking around www and refreshing socials feeds like I have some kind of tic, in the frantic hope of gaining something fresh, novel and new.
Shutter-click. Right there is the horror and the beauty of the portal.
A few weeks before we’re due to meet, I admit to my fellow book-clubbers, that I’m struggling to get through the book. Stay with it! one encourages, I’ve heard it gets heaps better in the second half. And that’s all the encouragement I need. I pick up the book with renewed vigour and somehow, this time, I relax into its rhythm and find myself laughing out loud at Lockwood’s jokes, laughing along with her and then, in the same shared moment as the protagonist, hating myself, as we collectively realise that we’re both lmao-ing at ‘real’ people being flung off a roller coaster.
Shutter-click. Right there is the horror and the beauty of the portal. That we’re connecting with strangers in this desperate need to make ourselves feel better when half (most?) of the time we’re just scratching at the scab and making it worse. And this is Lockwood’s point . . . The title itself throws down the gauntlet. I dare you NOT to talk about me, it taunts. And so we pick up the book, and we do.
Our book club spends the first hour dissecting the front section. What we liked about it, what we didn’t. Frankly, I was bored said the self-confessed 18th century book lover whose main (only?) social platform is Pinterest. Actually, I LOVED it gushed another. The humour is right up my alley, she’s irreverent and slightly dark and not trying too hard to be funny. The joke is though — it’s not a joke. And that is exactly what makes it funny. Is the twist at the root of Lockwood’s humour. It’s an evolved style of pathos — Ricky Gervais for the next (online) generation.
And the gags keep coming. So much so, that it could all be read as a vacuous rendition of online life, except that in the second half, Lockwood stretches this flippancy into a much closer, harder look at real moments of serious significance. She picks up the challenge of engaging with the anti-abortion movement in the States. A very present and real danger. In doing so, her protagonist steps off the portal and back into the visceral experience of living and loving an intensely bodily challenged experience.
Lockwood draws inspiration from her own life. So much so, that it becomes hard to describe this book as a novel — I’d call it auto-fiction if anything — as the main plot points and central character are a mirror of her own life, based heavily around the short-lived existence of her baby niece.
It may not gel with every reader and many will dislike its form and content. But it’s not meant to be easy.
There is a deeply felt authenticity about the voice and scenes rendered in Part Two. Many read as if they could have been drawn straight from Lockwood’s diary — and I suspect many were, given that she’s acknowledged in several interviews, that the way in which she processed this extremely challenging period was through writing, and has stated elsewhere that ‘auto-fiction’ is the current form of the novel.
In this, the book poses challenges. It may not gel with every reader and many will dislike its form and content. But it’s not meant to be easy.
Both Part One’s distanced lens of the Twitterverse, and equally, Part Two’s immersive up-close-and-personal evocation of life writ large, pose equally confronting reading experiences.
But, as Lockwood cleverly affirms by invoking Virginia Woolf, this is a figurative interpretation of the way in which we’re literally experiencing life right now. Half online, half IRL. Or in my case, somewhere straddling the divide. Neck-deep in the Singularity.
Despite the challenges it poses, and despite (for better or worse) all the gags and pay-offs along the way, No One is Talking About This, is in the end, no joke. Lockwood takes incredibly serious issues and ponderously turns through and around them, to ultimately reveal all their complicated, quirky, divinely beautiful, deeply heart-breaking complexity.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, Bloomsbury $29.99
Main image by Nathan Dumlao/unsplash