Open the Portal: A Conversation with Patricia Lockwood

February 16, 2021   •   By Jenna Mahale

READING PATRICIA LOCKWOOD’S first novel feels a lot like having your brain poisoned by the internet — or at least like having that particular contemporary condition understood. No One Is Talking About This is a searing entry into the rapidly emerging pantheon of digital culture literature, told in fragments that often feel suspiciously like tweets, striking notes that span the political, the intimate, and the profane.


In addition to being an incredibly accomplished Twitter user, Lockwood is a contributing editor for the London Review of Books, has authored numerous works of cultural and literary criticism, two poetry collections, as well as the comic memoir Priestdaddy — which was named 2017’s “book of the year” 15 times, and received the 2018 Thurber Prize for American Humor.


On the new novel’s cover is an excerpted review of the book, written by Trick Mirror author Jia Tolentino, that expresses a sense of kinship between the two sharply observant millennial writers:


No One Is Talking About This is a furiously original novel, alive and unstable; the book builds to a reminder of how devastation and connection produce each other, endlessly and surprisingly, both on the internet and in human places that our shared digital consciousness can never reach.


Speaking over video call and off-the-cuff, Lockwood is every part the glowing, witty Zoom date I had imagined her to be, treating questions about her novel and her cats with the kind of generosity that journalists’ dreams are spun from.


It is the day after a mob of Trump supporters have stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, and she congratulates me for living in London, far from the chaos of the United States. I tell her, no, not “good for me,” things are not much better in the United Kingdom, on plague island. It’s always bad, everywhere, we agree.


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JENNA MAHALE: How are you doing today, among the chaos that is America?


PATRICIA LOCKWOOD: I got into a big craze of watching disaster movies during lockdown, which I highly recommend. Watch even the weirdest ones, watch the ones from the ’70s, watch — like I did — Orca, which is about a murderous killer whale that’s really upset its baby was killed by Richard Harris. And there’s this GIF that I posted from it where an orca fetus flops on to the deck of a boat, and just writhes around for like 30 seconds. And the entire day, as soon as it started to happen, my heart just felt like the orca fetus. Just flopping and flopping on the deck of the boat. I can send you the GIF, it’s absolutely horrible. No one should ever have to look at it.


Watching the events of yesterday unfold live on Twitter, my first impulse was to think, “Well, this is hilarious.” And then I started feeling mildly ill and very anxious.


It felt a little hysterical, it did. I likened it to the day that all the Republicans got coronavirus, because it was pitched at that level. On the one hand, you do have a guy in a Viking hat wandering the halls of the Capitol, and how else are we supposed to react to that? But he’s also engineered it so that we do react in that way, so it’s dangerous as well. I don’t know how you’re supposed to react in real time to absurd events that are also so serious. It’s not that it’s unprecedented, that coups have never been attempted before or that they’ve never looked silly. But this one was so particularly designed for the portal. People were livestreaming themselves, they were taking pictures of themselves at Nancy Pelosi’s computer — it was all for the benefit of this online audience.


I wanted to ask about the intention behind that phrase. You refer to an unnamed virtual platform as “the portal” exclusively throughout your novel.


It’s a very, very deep-cut reference to a former Twitter user, @grayalien, who had some of the all-time-great tweets back in the days before any of this happened. When it felt like a largely creative medium — there were no images that you could post, no quote tweets. The vibe was just that you had to create some bite-sized piece of fiction, or an observation that people could look at and just ingest and deal with, without any sort of outside context. So he was one of the greats of those days, and there was a period when he went offline for a while. And then he returned, and his returning tweet was: “Open the portal.” But it also is just a term we use, like “web portals.” It’s something that’s been in use for a long time. And it also has that Stargate sense, you know? Anytime I was writing the word, I would picture when James Spader puts his face into the Stargate and there’s molten mercury all around his face, and his little hand is going into outer space.


There do seem to be two internets you explore in your work. In your memoir Priestdaddy, you refer to “a refuge,” a more sympathetic internet that is “a place of living, moving, breathing text, a book that continually [writes] itself.” But in No One Is Talking About This, you instead have this metaphor of internet users as B. F. Skinner’s rats, “but at least the rats were getting a pellet, or the hope of a pellet, or the memory of a pellet. When we hit the button, all we were getting to be was more of a rat.”


Yes. They’ve really made it that way. So I mean, in the beginning, [Twitter] really felt like it was the people’s medium. But I think it has continually been optimized so that it works that way: so that you’ll sometimes try to go to Twitter, when you’re actually already looking at Twitter, or you’ll close the window, and then go immediately back to it again. That’s the experience of “getting to be more of a rat,” you don’t really come back from that. When [a company] can make something that addictive they will. And then, as many people have pointed out, you do become the product, you’re the thing that is being sold, that is being passed along. And you don’t necessarily have control over your work anymore: these little pieces of text that you put into it.


Do you miss that older version of the internet quite sorely then?


I think that we all do, yes. But it’s so hard to leave, I think because you do have those nostalgic feelings for it, you do remember that it’s a time of absolute communal creativity. Even something like yesterday, you see people absolutely rise to these great heights; you’re on the good side of the panopticon where there’s footage on the ground, and you’re able to see all the sides of something, like a mirror ball, that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. But I think that we all sort of long to go back to a time before that. Really, 2011 was the apex. Because as soon as you get into 2012, it’s an election year. And then something happens: I think that there’s a certain percentage of the population that starts participating in politics in a way that’s very close to participating in team sports. And then that sort of takes ascendance in those years, and [politics] becomes all that we’re talking about, which I don’t think is good for any medium, particularly.


I have a less interesting version of this question, and a more interesting one — I’m going to ask you both. The boring one is: How much of this novel would you say is fiction, and how much is nonfiction? The other one is: Did a celebrity foot fetishist actually slide into your DMs?


To me, the fiction in the book comes from its presentation; it came from the arrangement in the same way that an Instagram feed is fiction. So it wasn’t an essay, and it wasn’t necessarily autobiographical in every respect. A lot of times something would happen, that would become the launching point for it, and then I would apply a twist, or I would change something about it, or I would combine two events. But, yes, we have all had celebrity foot-fetishists slide into our DMs.


And I’m like, “Have you seen my feet, man?” My husband calls them “pre-feet.” He’s like, “They didn’t actually fully become feet.” They’re more like the idea of a foot, sketched by a child. So, you want to see pictures of my feet? Oh, you’re absolutely welcome. If you want a pair of my dirty socks, again, enjoy, because they’re not going to smell like anything because, according to my iPhone, I walked 14 steps today. And those were mostly to the bathroom and back. So have a field day with my socks, buddy.


I feel like you’ve lived a much more exciting life on the internet than I have.


The persona that I constructed when I initially got on Twitter was kind of a sex maniac who was writing about sex in a way that no part of it could be touched, really. I had this nominal reputation for being this, like, “sexy” writer. But I’m like, “You can’t even do any of the things I tweet about.” Things like cereal mascots, fucking in space, right? So it wasn’t a thing that was real, but it still allowed a certain kind of person to talk to you very familiarly. And that, for me, was always kind of okay. I always felt like I was very open to that kind of conversation, that sort of experience. And it didn’t necessarily offend me because I always want to find out about things. I like to know about perverts, I like to know what they’re getting up to. If some new perversion appears on the scene, I have to know about it. I’m very interested to see what’s going to be going on with the [medical] masks, like the fetishes everyone’s forming about them. So I think that people probably knew that about me. But that’s a particular kind of person.


You told the Guardian that you wrote Priestdaddy as “an attempt to stay sane and make money” while living with your parents. What was the impetus behind writing No One Is Talking About This?


I have a memory of beginning the book, and wanting to write about the mundane. I was reading a Rachel Ingalls novel, Mrs. Caliban, and there’s a particular way that she writes about her day-to-day work: she’s making a salad, she’s going about her business, and she hears these bulletins on the radio, and they seem personally directed at her, and they also seem supernatural. And I thought, well, “Why am I not just writing down everything that I’m doing in this particular place [online]?” If I’m spending three-plus hours a day doing this, it’s probably time to document it. And then [the manuscript] just became a place where I could put all of those observations, and even just things that didn’t actually rise to the level of thoughts, but were almost more instincts. Like when you’re in the portal and you feel other people moving with you, moving around you, shaping your opinions, when you suddenly pick up a word that everyone is using; that sort of mass movement that is almost an animal instinct, never actually rising to the level of thought — I wanted to write that down. Obviously, in the second half, it becomes a lot more autobiographical. Suddenly, you’re writing explicitly about what is happening to you. If you were writing about your day-to-day life before, now you’re really writing about your day-to-day life, except it actually feels like a life.


There’s lots about the book that is incredibly dark, but it’s also completely seamlessly hilarious. Would you say you use humor as a sort of deflective coping mechanism when moving through the world, and how effective do you find that?


I think that that is really the question of the book. Because it feels in the first half like this humor, this irony, is a tool or a weapon that you’re wielding, against the oppressors. And then gradually, as the book goes on, you start to see them adopting it, as well. So they take something that is personal to us, that is something that we have created. It’s the same thing as grassroots movements — they take control of these things, they wrest them from us, and they turn them against us. And I think, in the second half of the book, you see that you have been perhaps left completely unprotected, that the one weapon you thought you had cannot protect you in this situation, cannot protect you now.


And maybe it was never protecting you in the first place.


That’s absolutely what it is. And context does become an issue. Jokes that you made 10 years ago, in the context of those conversations, were very funny. But you look at them now, and it’s like, without that surrounding context, what are these? What actually were we doing, if some guy can look at this, and also take from it that he should put on a Viking hat and try to overthrow the government of the United States? Maybe it’s time to lay down that particular tactic, right? Maybe it’s time to enter into some new form of sincerity, or radical unprotectedness.


So, how would you describe your relationship with social media right now?


Right now? After yesterday? It became difficult. Again, in the more autobiographical, second half of my novel, you really do start thinking, “What am I doing here?” At the end of a day that you spent in a hospital, you don’t necessarily want to log on. So then you start to evaluate what you’ve been doing the entire time. And it sort of made it impossible for me to participate in the same kind of way. And I think that that’s carried through into the future. But it’s also — in the US — become so that almost everything you see is about Donald Trump in some way, or you log on and you have to find out about how Mitch McConnell is trying to kill you that day. And those are absolutely the worst days, when it feels like again, you have a job to perform. I don’t think that any of us can say that we’re having a good time right now, can we? Are you having a good time on the internet these days?


But you need to acknowledge that there’s joy there as well. And I think you do do that.


There are those days. There are the days when llamas are chasing each other down the highway. There are the days when we can’t decide whether a dress is blue and black, or white and gold. There are those days when everyone has the same sentence in their mouths in a good way. There is that good kind of day. And then there’s the other kind of day where you have the same sentence in your mouth, but it feels like a poison pill, and you’re wondering, “How do I get this pill out of my mouth?”


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Jenna Mahale is a writer and editor based in London.