In 2019, the poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood tweeted an imagined conversation between herself and her cat, Miette:
“me, lightly touching miette with the side of my foot: miette move out of the way please so I don’t trip on you
“miette, her eyes enormous: you KICK miette? you kick her body like the football? oh! oh! jail for mother! jail for mother for One Thousand Years!!!!”
I could offer a close reading of why this tweet is so perfect (Lockwood’s comma-less line, signaling her rush to get this request over with; the hauteur of Miette referring to herself in the third person), but I won’t. To explain a joke is to kill it; to explain a tweet is to betray the very purpose of Twitter, where we go to check out. But it’s worth noting the perfect fit between the demands of Twitter and Lockwood’s jumpy, absurdist genius. For a tweet to work, it has to get in and get out, quickly. Lockwood’s tweets, usually gonzo and often too raunchy to quote in a newspaper, play to the form’s strengths.
Lockwood writes brilliantly in other genres, too. She’s published a book of poetry; “Priestdaddy,” her 2017 memoir, is one of the best of the last decade; her critical essays for the “London Review of Books” are must-reads. But the novel is a different kind of beast: longer, sturdier, requiring duration and not just intensification. It wasn’t a given that “No One Is Talking About This,” Lockwood’s debut work of fiction, would succeed.
Perhaps in order to ease her way in, she chooses a familiar (to her) subject: life online. The novel’s protagonist is a writer, loosely defined. She tweets a lot; some of these tweets go viral (“She had become famous for a post that said simply, Can a dog be twins?”); and now she travels around the world explaining what it’s like to live on “the portal,” the book’s term for social media. “She sat onstage next to men who were better known by their usernames and women who drew their eyebrows on so hard that they looked insane, and tried to explain why it was objectively funnier to spell it ‘sneazing.’ This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?”
“No One Is Talking About This” organizes itself into tweet-like fragments. The critic Christian Lorentzen has called this style “virtual realism,” and the novel, especially in its first half, gives you the sense of scrolling through a very smart, very online person’s feed. Many of the bits kill, like this: “Not my america, a perfectly nice woman posted, and for some reason she responded, ‘damn, i agree … we didn’t trap george washington’s head in a quarter for this.’” Or this: “Back in 1999, she had watched five episodes of ‘The Sopranos’ and immediately wanted to be involved in organized crime. Not the shooting part, the part where they all sat around in restaurants.” Reviewing this book is a challenge; I just want to quote jokes — the critic’s version of retweeting.
Many of Lockwood’s bits, though, do more serious work. She’s interested in how complexity, of the self and the social world, struggles to survive in the portal: “Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and 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.” “Blink, synapse, little space-between” describes the style of mind a good poet might have. But poets don’t write like this for money, either for themselves (ha!) or for their publishers. We’re all starting to write like this, to think like this, not for poetic purposes but because big tech wants us to. Ethics, politics, social relations: All are being remade at the market’s behest.
After an adrenaline-filled, whipsawing first half, a tonal shift occurs. The main character’s sister’s unborn baby receives a terrible diagnosis (“Everything that could have gone wrong with a baby’s brain went wrong here, the doctor told them”); the baby girl is born, is cherished, and gets worse; the main character, who feared that the portal had left her unable to feel, experiences love and pain she couldn’t have conceived of. This is what the long form of the novel can do: habituate you to one mode of being (laughing at viral Folger’s commercials; getting drunk on irony) before bringing you to another.
To be clear, Lockwood sticks with her fragmented form and the goofiness doesn’t leave entirely. But there are also, with increasing frequency, passages of sublime emotional power: “[The baby’s] blue eyes rolled when the voice of the story came, and sometimes she shook with what must have been excitement, trying in her tininess to be as large as what pressed in on her. In the dome of her head, the mercury of all things was trying to tremble together.”
“No One Is Talking About This” is a great Twitter novel because it gives us the twitchy pleasures of social media while taking advantage of the ethical and formal demands of the novel. That little baby, young as she is, knows what it’s like to encounter a true work of art: the mercury of all things begins trembling together.
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, the books columnist at Commonweal, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.”
NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS
By Patricia Lockwood
Riverhead, 224 pp., $25