May 2021

Arts & Letters

Mind over meta: ‘No One Is Talking About This’

By Oscar Schwartz
The debut novel from the extremely online Patricia Lockwood considers how the virtual invades the real

In Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel, No One Is ­Talking About This, the protagonist finds herself in Toronto sharing a meal with a man who has, over the previous year, been posting glimpses of his testicles online. The man, who is wearing cowboy boots ironically, explains that he exposes himself covertly by including “increasing amounts of ball in the background” in pictures of his garage and kitchen. “And one night I went to a bar where a bunch of posters were meeting up,” he tells her. “And a dude walked up to me and handed me a business card that had I’ve seen your balls printed on it. He didn’t say a single word. Then next to him, right on cue, his friend puked into a trash can. And I thought to myself, nothing will ever be funny in this way again.”

The woman instantaneously gets the joke. She is neither disgusted by the surreptitious exposure of balls nor the vomiting on demand, but understands these behaviours as somehow revealing a new way of life. “You could write it, you know,” she says to the man, leaning forward in her seat. “Someone could write it.” The “it” she is referring to here is being extremely online – a state of being that is characterised by spending so much time on the internet that its irony, comedy, tragedy and violence spew out into your real life. Or, as Lockwood puts it: “when it feels like you’re breathing the internet instead of reading it”.

Over the years, many writers have attempted to capture this atmosphere. The most convincing efforts, such as Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts (2004) or Tao Lin’s Taipei (2013), illustrate internet phenomenology through stylistic experimentation. In No One Is Talking About This, Lockwood’s fourth book and first novel, she continues in this tradition. It is written in many short fragments, framed by white space, which don’t lead one to the other chronologically. A riff on the timeline.

What Lockwood manages to do singularly well, though, is synthesise the voice of the internet. Her sentences are laden with the absurdity and sanctimoniousness, the irony and horniness, of online discourse. It is as if she has trained herself on thousands of hours of internet language, like an AI bot, to become the modern tone incarnate. To internalise the voice of the internet comes at a cost. Lockwood, who has been prominent online most of her adult life, has spoken of her mind being overwhelmed, “poisoned” even, by the medium’s polyphonic scream.

The novel feels like an offering to those who can relate, a consolation for we who are losing our minds by living life extremely online.

The protagonist in No One Is Talking About This, who remains unnamed throughout, is negotiating a similar relationship with the internet. She is overwhelmed by the feeling that someone else is “writing the inside of her head”. Like Lockwood, she is a writer who has gained a certain amount of notoriety for posting online. She is paid to travel around the world to appear on panels and teach classes about the social norms and cultural habits of the internet, which she refers to as “the portal”. In front of audiences in Austria, Finland, Australia, she attempts to justify the cruelty and humour of life online. How, for instance, every day we have to choose a new person to hate: “Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.”

The protagonist, who is in her thirties, is old enough to remember a time when the portal had a gentler, quieter sensibility. Back then, in this imagined Golden Age of the virtual, she spent time innocently adding butterfly animations to her weblogs and writing sincere posts on LiveJournal. In comparison, the new generation of young portal-dwellers spend their time making bigoted jokes for the lols and then laughing at people who think they mean it. “Except after a while they did mean it, and then somehow at the end of it they were Nazis.”

The overall impression we get is that the portal is both a very funny and very bad place. This is heightened by the looming spectre of Donald Trump – a very funny and very bad man – and also the first extremely online president. The story begins shortly after his election and recounts the major moments of his reign as they unfolded: the Parkland shootings, Charlottesville, the total eclipse of the sun (into which he stared directly without glasses, setting the portal alight with memes for days). 

Like Trump’s eclipse, the portal is a luminous object that the protagonist can’t look away from despite it causing obvious damage. Her husband, who is not as online as her, sometimes finds her locked into the portal, repeating “no, no, no or help, help, help” under her breath while staring at the screen. One evening, she enters one of these spirals while reading tweets about a male feminist who posted a picture of his nipple online. “‘What are you doing?’ her husband asked softly, tentatively, repeating his question until she shifted her blank gaze up to him. What was she doing?”

While Lockwood’s protagonist is confused by her online behaviour, Lockwood herself is one of the few people who actually appears to know what she’s doing on the internet. She understood the poetic potential of Twitter’s constraints a decade ago, back when most of us were still either tweeting about lunch or declaring that the platform would bring down authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. She invented, for example, the absurdist tweet sext: “I am a living male turtleneck. You are an art teacher in winter. You put your whole head through me.” She is not only fluent in the contemporary dialect of online English, but an architect of it. And all of this has earned her the dubious title of “the poet laureate of Twitter”.

If the internet is Lockwood’s primary literary preoccupation, a close second is family. She uses them as she does Twitter – as material for her books – particularly her father, a loud-mouthed, Rush Limbaugh–listening Catholic priest who took the sacrament in later life, years after getting married and having five kids. Her 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, records the nine months she and her husband spent living with her parents in Midwest America after a medical emergency. In No One Is Talking About This, Lockwood’s family, or their fictional representations, appear again. In the first half of the book, they are minor characters who pop into view between long periods in the portal. In the second half, they become the umbilical centre of the action.

After learning of a complication with her sister’s pregnancy, the protagonist returns from overseas to be with her family in Ohio. They learn that the unborn baby has Proteus syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disease, which causes her head to grow much faster than the rest of her body. Suddenly, the perils of Trumpism are less funny and more real. The doctors advise the family that the baby will likely die after birth or be stillborn. New legislation means her sister is banned from seeking an abortion in the state. She delivers at 26 weeks. The baby survives.

The action in the second half of the book moves faster and more coherently than the impressionistic online meanderings of the first. Lockwood’s protagonist spends time at a neonatal intensive care unit and then moves in with her sister to help care for the baby, dressing her ever-growing head in “pink, polka-dot, leopard-print turbans, until she looked like a psychic, until she looked like a little Golden Girl who had lived a hundred years”. All this love and turmoil lifts the protagonist out of the stream of her previous life. As she tends to her niece, everyone on the portal is still arguing about baffling things, such as whether it is evil to merely think the n-word, “with some people actually professing that their minds blanked it out when they encountered it in a book”. Life in the portal suddenly appears abstract, ironic, disembodied. Life with the baby, in contrast, is organic, authentic, embodied.

Such mind-body dualisms have long influenced how we talk about the internet. Our online world has so often been theorised in opposition to the supposedly real one. If we learnt anything during the Trump years, though, it was perhaps the illusion of this polarity. If the American president can fire senior staff on Twitter, if an online conspiracy can motivate men in horned helmets to storm the Capitol, or to not get vaccinated, doesn’t that mean that the internet is as real as it gets?

Lockwood’s novel suggests that the blurring of boundaries between the virtual and the real might more accurately signify the former invading the latter: the triumph of mind over body. Even when she is most offline – tending to her sister and the newborn – the protagonist finds herself posting about a concrete goose in the front yard of her neighbours, which they dress up according to mood and season, just to let people in the portal know she’s still alive. She can’t fully escape the portal’s way of thinking, admitting to herself: “I’ve been this way so long, I don’t know how to be anymore.” In the end, she begins to think of her niece’s condition – a head growing out of pace with the body – as a metaphor for the grip the portal has on her mind, or perhaps the life of the mind in the 21st century.

Lockwood’s talents as a writer, though, are an affirmation of the creative power of the singular mind. And this novel brilliantly, and hilariously, captures this transitional moment so that the coming cyborg generations might know what it was like to be an embodied creature before we all blended into one algorithmic stew. “[H]ow it felt,” as Lockwood writes, “to be a man around the turn of the century posting increasing amounts of his ball online.”

But resistance is futile. After a family tragedy, the protagonist returns to the portal and once again finds herself travelling around the world explaining internet jokes for money. At a club in London someone steals her phone from her back pocket as she’s dancing. She feels momentarily “lifted off her feet, lighter”. But, of course, the portal is waiting for her unchanged on the next device – a mind that needs no body in particular.

Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz is a Melbourne-based writer.

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