“Keep reading a little longer, not totally against your will.”
So goes the Booker Prize-shortlisted “No One is Talking About This,” the debut novel from poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood.
I’ll cut to the chase: It’s a strange book. The form is stuttering and disjointed. The jokes don’t always land. The prose isn’t exactly prose. The fiction isn’t exactly fiction. And still, the novel is a resounding success. Lockwood captures the moment, vocalizing the boredom and sensory overload of social media. It’s gonzo fiction — the strangeness of our cyborg present, of lives half-lived on a screen, is felt in the form and style of the novel.
In “the portal” — a platform analogous to Twitter — a single voice is forming. People are starting to sound too similar. They’re adopting a universal language, quoting each other until an original phrase is a delicacy, another snippet to co-opt. Lockwood’s unnamed protagonist finds fame and an online career after she posts, “Can a dog be twins?”
The format of her post is picked up by others, and countless variations spread through the portal until the words no longer belong to her: “Your slice of life cut its cord and multiplied among the people, first nowhere and little and then everywhere and large. No one and everyone. Can a _____ be twins.”
Why do writers so often ignore the existence of cell phones in their novels? Why does every transcription of text messages into prose feel so awkward and out of touch? To quote Lockwood, most attempts to describe the internet in fiction have “the strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.”
It’s a marvel, then, that Lockwood’s depiction of our curt digital tone feels so natural and so uncomfortably accurate: “(The internet) had also once been the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually it had become the place where we sounded like each other, through some erosion of wind or water on a self not nearly as firm as stone.”
“The mind we were in was obsessive, perseverant,” Lockwood writes of social media. A prominent presence on Twitter, we’d expect her to understand our current voice. But Lockwood’s portrayal of social media isn’t just well-tuned, it’s journalistic. The novel foregoes a stable plot for the first hundred or so pages, jumping from one topic to the next — an endless scroll of ellipted paragraphs, linked only by their shared presence on the page.
The effect is instant and familiar: the breeze of half-watched TikToks, the grainy hike of a long Twitter thread. Fifty pages sneak by before you look up, before you remember the rest of the world. And then you do look up:
“Despite everything, the world had not ended yet. What was the reflex that made it catch itself? What was the balance it regained?”
At the midpoint, the novel turns into a more conventional story. The protagonist’s sister is pregnant, and her child is born with a rare genetic disorder. Her time is limited, and they know this. They’ll lose her, and they know this.
The story to this point has been a stream of shared consciousness, of infinite bullet points from faceless usernames. Our main character was an information junkie with an endless supply, but her niece’s life cannot stretch so far: “All day long she drank in information, but no one was telling them the main thing. No one was telling them how long they would have her, how long the open cloud of her would last.”
This is the turn, “the portal, where the entirety of human experience seemed to be represented, and never the shining difference of that face, those eyes, that hair.” Here’s the real story, the love felt in human presence. What’s the value of limitless information if it can be dismissed with a swipe of the thumb? This is where Lockwood achieves something more than an experiment of craft, where the oddity and success of the form rises above curiosity and poignance. This is worth talking about.
“No One is Talking About This” will be labeled as cultural critique, but I don’t think there’s such a perverse intention to it. There’s only the honesty of autofiction, of the first primary source from our bleak and side-splitting bell jar. It just might win the Booker Prize. And it just might deserve to.
Daily Arts Writer Julian Wray can be reached at email@example.com.