In 2013, American writer Patricia Lockwood was catapulted into overnight internet fame—or virality, as we now call it—after her shocking poem “Rape Joke” appeared online. It brought publishers knocking at her door, though, by then, she had already built a reputation of sorts by posting droll “sexts” on Twitter. Christened “the poet laureate of Twitter” (the New Yorker called her, less effusively, “an exemplar of brilliant silliness”), she seemed to flourish a magic wand that turned internet memes into material worthy of books.
In her first novel Nobody Is Talking About This, recently longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2021, Lockwood harnesses her talent for scavenging the sinkhole that is the internet to create a narrative that is at once intensely real and profoundly irksome. Her unnamed protagonist is a writer, quite like herself, with a serious addiction to “the portal”—a stand in for the internet. A globe-trotting speaker who has found her celebrity through the portal, the narrator wields immense influence over her followers. One of her tweets (“Can a dog be twins?”), we learn, “recently reached the stage of penetration where teenagers posted the cry-face emoji at her”. Her husband is flummoxed by the hold her cyber life has over her, making her moods swing like a pendulum.
Between vapid nonsense (like the aforementioned tweet) and mounting rage at the state of the world, especially her country, ruled by a blustering fool of a tyrant (Donald Trump), every breath the narrator takes is a performance without pause. Sometimes it is hard to tell where the portal ends and real life begins. On a flight, for instance, she is seated to a man who has attained internet notoriety for posting images of his balls on social media. The two of them proceed to have a seemingly normal conversation about it.
So runs the first half of the novel, breathlessly in bite-sized passages, unfurling like an infinite scroll of banalities, "brilliant silliness" and scatological jokes, all cohering to simulate the feckless waste of time that is a byproduct of living 24/7 on the internet.
The novel of fragments isn’t a particularly new format, nor is it easy to handle. Olivia Laing used it, recently, in Crudo, with a lot less success than Lockwood, and it goes back to pre-social media writers like Renata Adler (Speedboat). Last year, Jenny Offill published Weather, a novel narrated in broken prose but also beautifully whole in its attempt to hold a mirror to a world that is disintegrating under climate change.
Lockwood’s novel, in contrast, is a reflection of our collective inner lives (or rather, whatever is left of it), fractured by the relentless assault of the internet and social media. The device is clever but also ironic because, if anything, it is through the restorative energies of fiction that 21st-century readers can hope to shore up the broken shards of their attention, expect to be nourished and made whole again, even for a few moments, by the absorbing appeal of a make-believe universe.
Instead of acting as an adhesive that might put our broken consciousness back together again, Lockwood’s prose smashes it further into smithereens, leaving us exasperated as it gallops between time zones, physical and cyber realities, and volatile states of being. And then, the second half hits us like a bolt from the blue. Our focus is suddenly forced to shift to a singular theme: of a baby born with severe defects to the narrator’s sister, and the trials of her short life on earth.
It’s as though the floodlights are switched off all of sudden. The narrator, so far hungry for the gratification of the internet, has finally somewhere else to direct her energies, learn to feel something other than a dopamine hit. But the rising tide of love she experiences for the fragile baby doesn’t offer her much comfort, even though it is laced with moments of self-knowledge and tenderness. There is heartbreak and sorrow and the portal does not pause to mourn. The memes continue to proliferate, the forests burn away with abandon, as authoritarian politics rears its head around the world.
For the reader, the hardest truth of the novel is in the dissonance between the universe that unfolds within the portal and the world of circumstances outside, where lives begin, flicker and end. If Lockwood does not offer us a way out of this black hole, at least not directly, she pricks our conscience obliquely. Her plot (if you can call it that) chips away at the crust of our collective humanity that had congealed into dopamine gunk on the internet.
Ambivalence was central to Lockwood’s her blisteringly funny memoir Priestdaddy (2017), where her portrait of her unconventional Catholic priest father stole the show. Nobody Is Talking About This is more arch in its appeal, looking askance at reality because its entire gaze is so obsessively caught up by the portal. To 21st-century internet-infected readers, the novel is proof that they are, indeed, being slowly swallowed up by a dystopic monster. Not even fiction, that trusty old defence against reality, can save them from its maw.