Some writers — Jane Austen, for example — get to funny sideways, using irony and understatement. The American poet and essayist Patricia Lockwood isn’t one of them. She is straightforwardly hit-the-rubber-nail-on-the-head funny. There are punchlines, there are callbacks. On Twitter she is known for her zany ‘sexts’: ‘I am a living male turtleneck. You are an art teacher in winter. You put your whole head through me.’ In 2013 she went viral with her prose-poem ‘Rape Joke’, which was deliberately, powerfully not funny, yet still let in some killer laughs. (‘The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.’) Her memoir Priestdaddy (2017) featured a hilarious, tender portrait of her guitar-shredding, gun-loving Catholic priest father.
No One is Talking About This is her first novel. ‘This’ refers to ‘the portal’, the book’s word for the internet. ‘She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway. Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.’ Lockwood employs a format popularized by Maggie Nelson and Jenny Offill: each discrete section of prose is on average eight lines long, occasionally longer, often shorter. These tweet-style utterances are separated by asterisks. It can make for an arresting rhythm, full of pregnant pauses and comic juxtapositions.
The strenuously entertaining narrator doesn’t do much. She looks at the portal and takes the occasional shower. Soon you’re wondering how long she can keep it up. Then, Part Two begins and we’re jolted out of the portal. A real-life event has overtaken the narrator: her sister’s pregnancy is complicated. The family find themselves up against an arcane, inhumane US law relating to when babies can be delivered. The baby is finally born at 35 weeks. To everyone’s surprise, she lives, despite a rare genetic condition that makes her head grow abnormally fast. They know they don’t have long with her — just six months, it turns out — but they nurture her and love her with intense, unflagging focus.
Lockwood’s energetic prose zips from killer simile to daft gag to wise epigram. But the novel isn’t entirely successful. One obvious issue is the sheer friability of the material. If you’re not au fait with Twitter — more specifically, if you haven’t been keeping up with recent online trends — you will struggle to understand the first half. Entry level test: what is the narrator referring to here? ‘Everyone was reading the same short story. It was about texting….’ If you don’t instantly know that this is Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’, then you are not ‘everyone’ and this book is not for you.
Irritatingly, Trump is never mentioned by name; he is just ‘the dictator’. Whether or not you think that’s an exaggeration, it’s true that he was a very big deal between 2016 and 2020; that he’s already less of a big deal in 2021; and that by 2030 we’ll have a whole lot of other things to worry about. Lockwood’s book is much better than Olivia Laing’s Crudo, but the two novels share a seriously short read-by date and a blithe disregard for those not ‘in the know’.
There is also a problem with structure. Those tweet-like paragraphs make for a rather shapeless novel; by the end, the format that felt fresh at first becomes repetitive. In the second half, when the narrator’s not being so funny, the tension drops, despite shining moments of poetry. The baby is seen through the gaze of an adoring aunt. Everyone’s emotions towards her are unconvincingly uncomplicated, too purely good.
But if you passed the ‘Cat Person’ test, you should read this quirky, pioneering book. Lockwood is right; no one is really talking about this, even though it’s a major part of modern life. It’s a thrill to see the qualia of idle scrolling and various online oubliettes rendered so expertly.