“Stream-of-consciousness!” yells the protagonist of Patricia Lockwood’s first novel, No One Is Talking About This. She is, like Lockwood herself, a writer in her thirties with a huge Internet following. She has, like Lockwood herself, a husband, parents, brothers and sisters, friends—all of whom appear in the novel—but she is just as tightly bound to the commune of “people who lived in the portal.” She is onstage in Jamaica, talking about the world online, about life as it is lived through the window of the phone you hold in your hand, and on which you may be reading this review. “Stream-of-consciousness was long ago conquered by a man who wanted his wife to fart all over him,” she tells the audience.
“But what about the stream-of-a-consciousness that is not entirely your own? One that you participate in, but that also acts upon you?” One audience member yawned, then another. Long before the current vectors came into being, they had been a contagious species.
There’s the pleasure of knowing that we need to hear “viral” in “contagious” in order to get the joke about shared behavior on and off the Internet, tweeting and yawning (and the satisfaction of knowing that she knows that we know that in stopping short of an explicit coronavirus allusion she is making a point). There’s the irony that stream-of-consciousness in James Joyce (for the fart-lover is he, and the joke works properly only if we know it) involves inhabiting a mind not entirely our own, in which we are acted on as much as acting. And there’s the mildly disturbing awareness that Lockwood has got one over on us, with her disenchanting substitution of Joyce’s sexual fantasies for Joyce the writer as a whole. Are we doomed to think of Nora’s farts in tandem with Ulysses from now on? I think she hopes so.
Lockwood expects her reader to work hard. The novel is all about the importance of being in the know, and it won’t work unless we are prepared to join in, parsing the anecdotes. There is something very winning about Lockwood’s abundant faith not only that we can but that we will follow her. She jollies us along, leading us through the language and styles of ever more evolved platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), without explicitly naming any of them. She trusts us to keep up to speed, to catch meaning off the current vectors and to keep it circulating.
That passage is one of several in which Lockwood tries out labels (with exclamation marks!) for the kind of book she is writing: “The plot! That was a laugh.” What hope for storyline, when the novel simply follows the Lockwood character, an Internet obsessive, obsessing about the Internet? She scrolls, she showers, and she scrolls some more. She spends her time in bed engaged in “spellbound reading” of her phone—exactly the same reading that everybody else is doing. She posts, she messages, and she texts; her phone buzzes repeatedly in her pocket when she starts trending; she climbs onto stages in Australia and Japan and all over Europe and talks about the portal:
All around the world, she was invited to speak from what felt like a cloud-bank, about the new communication, the new slipstream of information. 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?
She laughs, “Ahahaha!,” “the new and funnier way” to laugh. She knows to say “it me,” or “unbelievably me,” rather than “that’s just how I feel!” in response to a post about a warty frog, unutterably alone. She is absolutely in command of the language of the portal, and she writes about this command in discontinuous sections of prose that appear like lengthy tweets, separated by asterisks and gaps. Naturally she wonders about this style:
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.
Is there a way to write about the Internet that doesn’t merely reproduce the language of the Internet? In Toronto she meets a man “she had talked to so often in the portal” and hears him speak through his “actual mouth.” He is “one of the secret architects of the new, shared sense of humour,” not least because of a series of posts featuring images of his testicles, in a portal-ready version of Where’s Waldo?—hiding “increasing amounts of ball” in plain sight in pictures of rooms in his home. “You could write it, you know,” says Lockwood’s unnamed protagonist. Let us call her Lockwood.
“Someone could write it. But it would have to be like Jane Austen—what someone said at breakfast over cold mutton, a fatal quadrille error, the rising of fine hackles in the drawing room.” Pale violent shadings of tone, a hair being split down to the DNA. A social novel.
Testicle man eyes her skeptically—what she is saying is possibly just not funny enough to count in his world. Or worse (a fatal error), perhaps she actually means it. The point for him is keeping one step ahead of the portal, generating new content and feeding the new sense of humor. Why would you need to write about it, rather than simply produce it? But she is interested in a different kind of future, one in which the past, including how it felt “to be a man around the turn of the century posting increasing amounts of his balls online,” might be preserved and understood. Already it may be too late for conservation, because the portal moves so fast: “Myspace was an entire life…. And it is lost, lost, lost, lost!”
It’s an odd ambition, when you think about it—to write a novel about the Internet. However much you jazz up the form you are folding new modes of communication back into old ones, and by mentioning Austen Lockwood wants us to notice this. The novel she has written is a hybrid beast: it is an arch descendant of Austen’s socio-literary style—a novel of observation, crossed with a memoir of a family crisis, and written as a prose poem, steeped in metaphor.
No One Is Talking About This does feature a plot, if not exactly a “plot!,” and the plot even belongs to a genre—the disenchanted bildungsroman. As Lockwood moves deeper inside the portal she becomes increasingly alienated from “real life,” increasingly “locked in” to the collective consciousness. Lab rats in a cage get a pellet of food when they hit a button, but all you get for living in the portal and playing the game is to be more of a rat. She looks back wistfully to a time when the portal appeared to serve people rather than the other way around. The idea of spending time in a chat room seems positively Edenic compared to the new world in which “every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate.”
A school of fish, seen from above—it’s a gorgeous metaphor for communal life online, and it points to a contradiction in this novel, in which Lockwood repeatedly discovers new ways of saying that we have lost new ways of saying things: “What began as the most elastic and snappable verbal play soon emerged in jargon, and then in doctrine, and then in dogma.” You start by pinging an elastic band at the back of the class, and before you know it you are part of a gang, talking only to the people who talk exactly as you do, listening only to your own echo:
It was a place where she knew what was going to happen, it was a place where she would always choose the right side, where the failure was in history and not herself, where she did not read the wrong writers, was not seized with surges of enthusiasm for the wrong leaders, did not eat the wrong animals…
The alternative to spouting the shared doctrine of your online community is to try to keep ahead of the portal itself. But it is such hard work, not just being an ordinary fish, but being the first fish to catch the light in a dart of new direction: “It was so tiring to have to catch each new virus, produce the perfect sneaze of it, and then mutate it into something new.” You can’t afford time off. She tries locking her phone in a safe, but that isn’t exactly self-control, and she very quickly folds. Eventually her husband diagnoses a “dead look” behind her eyes, just when she claims she is feeling most alive.
This account of a descent through the circles of Internet hell is well done. If it weren’t for the fact that the aim of “funnier” has been so definitively undercut by the narrator’s exhausting search for something new and funny with which to feed the portal, we could call it very funny indeed. But it also feels a bit too easy. The first half of the novel is an elongated version of “The Communal Mind,” an autobiographical account of living inside the Internet that Lockwood gave as a talk in February 2019 at the British Museum and that was subsequently published in the London Review of Books. In this first half she charts the decline of her own ability to distinguish the Internet from herself, while tracing an unfolding plot against America, carried out not only by “Our enemies!” (she is momentarily exhilarated by the thought that if the Russians have been manipulating social media by seeding misinformation, she can’t be held responsible for her spiraling information addictions) but also by America’s very own Dictator:
When you watch from your armchair people being killed on the streets and listen to “the bored officious breathing of the policemen, which was never the breathing that stopped,” then the party is definitely over. Someone is dead in the road. (“We see it here,” says a taxi driver to her in Melbourne, “every day. The police are always killing those people, even when they only steal something small.”) She writes brilliantly and bitingly—the temptation is just to keep on quoting her—but in these passages she writes for members of her own school of fish, and she knows that isn’t enough.
Lockwood has published two collections of poems, including Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014). That volume included “Rape Joke,” a poem about her experience of being raped at nineteen by a friend of the family, a former student in her father’s world religion class (“It gets funnier”). The poem became a viral sensation (an insipid phrase that Lockwood herself would never be caught using) in 2013 and was initially responsible for her being invited onto all those global stages that feature so prominently in No One Is Talking About This.
But she is now more famous for her memoir Priestdaddy (2017), a book that has been described with all sorts of insipid phrases such as “replete with whimsy and charm” and “dazzling comic memoir,” and that I am going to call a masterpiece of simmering, deflected rage, in which she anatomizes the experience of being brought up as the daughter of a right-wing priest, a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism. He’s a man who doesn’t believe in education for girls (he buys an expensive guitar rather than pay his daughter’s college tuition), and in fact doesn’t appear to believe in much except dogma and doctrine, and spreading his legs wide on the couch. He is against things. He is a crusader against Obama, Obamacare, liberal newspapers, gun reform, and “the abortion industry,” to mention just a few of his choicest enemies.
“Rape Joke” makes an appearance in Priestdaddy. Lockwood and her husband have moved back in with her parents following a medical crisis that becomes, in typical American fashion, a financial crisis. One day she discovers her mother reading “Rape Joke” online in the kitchen, tears streaming down her face. There’s a move toward a hug, but Lockwood is unsure who is supposed to be comforting whom, and anyhow she can’t forget that when she woke her parents the night of the rape, crouching in distress next to their bed, the first thing they asked her was whether she had ever slept with her attacker before, a line that should have appeared as part of “Rape Joke.” Her father refuses to read the poem at all.
This is just one of the moments in Priestdaddy when religious moralism comes up against the reality of suffering bodies and is found culpably wanting. In a chapter titled “Dinner with the Bishop,” the family troops along to support their priest father at an ultra-bishopy event to welcome Bishop Finn, the local dignitary, to the parish (“Here is the little hat, which confers total power”). But the next morning Lockwood researches him online and discovers that he was the first American bishop to be criminally charged with failure to report suspected child abuse:
Here are the glasses through which the eyes scan the numbers, how much it is worth, how much must be paid out. Here is the compassion in the face, that flowed toward the sinner and never the sinned-against, that forgave before justice had even been meted out.
When the bishop is forced to resign, Priestdaddy sides with him and against the liberal newspapers, as well as the somewhat liberal pope. His daughter writes about it, which is her way of saying no to this particular community, its dogmas and its doctrines:
All my life I have overheard, all my life I have listened to what people will let slip when they think you are part of their we. A we is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency. Its mouth is full of received, repeating language. The we closes its ranks to protect the space inside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. It protects its own shape.
You have belonged to many of them. So have I. The church was one of mine—it was my family. The story of a family is always a story of complicity. It’s about not being able to choose the secrets you’ve been let in on. The question, for someone who was raised in a closed circle and then leaves it, is what is the us, and what is the them, and how do you ever move from one to the other?
No One Is Talking About This offers at least a negative answer to this last question: you won’t find liberation from the closed circle of the church via the we of the portal. All you will find is a rival school.
In part 2 of the novel, Lockwood returns to her family and her church—rather than a priest, here her father is “the reddest man I’ve ever known,” an anti-choice, gun-toting retired policeman, which is a very good joke—and she places a suffering body right at the center of the plot. She is yet again on a stage somewhere in Europe when a text from home buzzes through the air: “Something has gone wrong.” She flies back to her mother, her sister, and her sister’s baby, still in utero, who is not developing as she should. The fetus has proteus syndrome, a genetic mutation that causes the overgrowth of cells so that not only its own life but the life of the mother is in danger.
Plot-wise, the baby levers open family-state complicity in denying women’s reproductive rights, even when their lives are at risk. Her sister lives in Ohio, where there is a new law (“the governor’s pen was constantly hovering over terrible new legislation”); she is being treated in a Catholic hospital; the social worker advises her sister to just “go out running and see what happen[s],” causing them to wonder, “Surely they hadn’t been transported back to 1950s Ireland?”; a doctor, “who must have felt a ping in her lower belly the moment we lost the Supreme Court,” weeps.
Copdaddy fares badly in these passages, although not as badly as when, later, he is offered the opportunity to meet the baby herself, as one human encountering another: “Sweating, panicked—had he never held a baby before?” (This from one of his children.) The difference between the novel and Priestdaddy is that this is no longer deflected rage—when the father makes an entrance here, the jokes flee from the page—it’s pure rage, and simple:
“Do you understand that your daughter’s life is in danger?” she screamed quietly to her father in the car, for the baby’s head was still growing exponentially with no sign of slowing down, and her sister could not walk more than a few steps without starting contractions. “Do you understand that a century ago—” but stopped, because her father’s eyes were swimming, he was starting to see, and she couldn’t bear if this was the thing that did it, and after all these years. She tried to wrench the door open, but it was locked; “Bad to the Bone” was playing on the radio, and it was not in her father’s nature to let her out of the car until it had finished.
* * *
“Fucking cops!” she yelled when she finally escaped, slamming the car door shut and kicking the back tire with the force of thirty-six law-abiding years. “Stank…nasty…pigs!” she hollered, radicalized at last, to the sad familiar face in the rearview mirror, redder than ever before.
Despite the odds, both mother and baby make it through, at least for a time, and the book morphs into a celebration of the life of this delicate new “winged thing.” A being of pure uniqueness in a world where everyone else is trying to be a better version of the same we (whichever we they choose), the baby, as Lockwood depicts her, provides exquisite images of sheer body, pure sense. The baby’s brain approaches “total abstraction”; she is absolute reproduction, proliferation of existence. “She only knows what it is to be herself”:
Her fingertips, her ears, her sleepiness and her wide awake, a ripple along the skin wherever she was touched. All along her edges, just where she turned to another state. Tidepools full of slow blinks and bubbles and little waving fronds. The self, but more, like a sponge. But thirsty.
This is undoubtedly a strange intrusion, in view of the style of the novel that we thought we were reading. The unknowable and unknowing baby stands in contradiction to almost everything we have encountered so far; she exists outside of any we. We suddenly appear to be inside a kind of creation story, one that draws on a language of faith but not of organized religion: “Here at last was a child religion could not frighten, here was a child who could not be made to dread the afterlife.” Or it’s a love story, with the baby a cure for all that bubbling disenchantment.
Lockwood doesn’t attempt to resolve these contradictions. She isn’t interested in analysis but in registering experience as it unfolds. If, as readers, we are tempted to object that the opposition between creative life and murderous dogma is too neat, we are brought up short by the fact that the baby is real. And we should not be surprised by the aura of sanctity that surrounds the baby. The transcendent experience of the body, in sex, or pain, or love, has always been Lockwood’s subject. All along she has been interested in reaching the thing beyond words, that words can only point to. To that extent she is a religious writer.
Nonetheless, given that up to this point the novel has played with multiple images concerning the difference between the real and the metaphoric—real hurt from the stings of a swarm of bees functioning, as bees do and as her simile requires, as a hive mind; real pain from a dildo that comes complete with fake veins; real period blood dripping onto a tree of liberty made of pipe cleaners, photographed and posted online—we are, I think, entitled to wonder: real baby? Lockwood herself sometimes seems unsure: “How hard she had to pinch herself when she started thinking of it all as a metaphor.”
On Twitter Lockwood has described the novel as a story about “being very inside the internet and then being very outside of it.” That’s sort of true. The ironic mode that keeps Lockwood afloat in the portal is no help whatever when confronted by the suffering bodies of sister and niece. But viruses and mutations are everywhere, on the inside and the outside. The very word “meme,” coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), derives from an analogy with genetics. Memes are contagious bits of language, jokes, and images with viral appeal. They spread by recognition and imitation rather than genetic replication, and they mutate as they spread. Memes are to culture what genes are to life, and they are part of Lockwood’s linguistic DNA:
Strange, how the best things in the portal seemed to belong to everyone. There was no use in saying That’s mine to a teenager who had carefully cropped the face, name, and fingerprint out of your sentence—she loved it, the unitless free language inside her head had said it a hundred times, it was hers. Your slice of life cut its cord and multiplied among the people, first nowhere and little and then everywhere and large.
What Lockwood is asking throughout this book is, How far can you stretch meaning and who does it belong to? When does the endless replication of the same become something different, something unique, and something meaningful? And the reason why her question matters is because unless we know the answer—or at least are clear about the question—we are subject to command. Not only to the command of the bishopy men in little hats who wield authority explicitly through that “received, repeating language,” but to the insidious commands of the portal, which requires people to steal—and to know what to steal and when—in order to gain followers, and in order to win.
This, I think, is the reason for the many stages and platforms that appear so insistently throughout the novel. Lockwood has a following, and she is worried about it. What makes her charisma different from that of Priestdaddy, or from his alter ego and model, the Dictator? She’s been worried about this for a while. She does a lot of work in Priestdaddy to discover an alternative lineage for her way with words. Her father is sure she got it from him and his pulpit, but she scribbles down her mother’s jokes to prove the opposite. In No One Is Talking About This she outlines a bizarre female lineage that stretches back to a disabled great-grandmother who chained her son in the yard, a grandmother with a humped back, and, in the present, her niece, abstract-baby.
It’s an ironic (or rather, “ironic!”) backstory, but part of its point is that all these maimed bodies are women’s bodies, and their pain looms forward into the future as well as back into the past: “Ancestors weren’t just behind, they were the ones who were to come.” Lockwood teeters on the edge of sentimentalism in her descriptions of suffering bodies, and she even repurposes a language of everyday “holiness” in which rituals of kindness and care are suffused with grace. But the hurt bodies are always a little too strange, a little too metaphoric, for us to read the sentiment entirely straight. The baby is uniqueness and heart and love, but she also stands for those things. It’s a balance between being and knowing that Lockwood pulls off brilliantly with a seriously weird subplot involving a little dog. Like the baby, the dog is its own small creature, a body that lives at the limits of verbal communication and so reaches beyond language.
There are portal dogs and real dogs. In this version of the tale, Lockwood has become famous not for “Rape Joke” but for a tweet that reads, “Can a dog be twins.” Later a hospital service dog comes to meet the baby. Later still the dog returns and scrambles about in the satin of a casket licking a dead face clean of make-up. “I am I because my little dog knows me—who said that?” asks the narrator, and the answer is Gertrude Stein (several times), who also went on to say:
Even if the little dog is a big one, and yet the little dog knowing me does not really make me be I no not really because after all being I I am I has really nothing to do with the little dog knowing me, he is my audience, but an audience never does prove to you that you are you.
An audience does not prove to you that you are you, and in Lockwood’s case it seems to prove the opposite. An audience can prove to you only that you look like a version of everyone else and talk like everyone else too. An audience looks for something they can recognize; fame has its roots in the same. Toward the end of the novel Lockwood stands up on stage in the British Museum to give the lecture about the portal with which the book began. But something has happened along the way that makes all the memes mean differently. “The audience was silent, and the faces in the front row were shining. This did not feel like real life exactly, but nowadays what did.”
Lockwood is too canny a writer to offer the baby as a straightforward “answer” to the question of real life—to the problem of where ironic knowing ends and sincere being begins. The portal and the baby halves of the novel are not resolved, but speak to and across each other rather like poems in a densely wrought collection. There are readers who will find this lack of resolution frustrating, but it feels a bit like real life to me.
February 25, 2021
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