FEBRUARY 16, 2021
NEAR THE BEGINNING of No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood writes a startling sentence: “chuck e cheese can munch a hole in my you-know-what.” The epigram is brilliant in its disgusting mixture of detail and vagueness, viscerally evoking the animatronic mouse “munching” with his characteristic protruding front teeth and combining that concrete image with the obscurity of the “you-know-what.” This mismatch in specificity structures the joke’s form, as it depicts another mismatch between sexual desire and the crude mouse from the greasy children’s pizza place. In the novel, Lockwood’s unnamed protagonist launches this missive into a vague place only referred to as “the portal” — the novel’s name for Twitter, the internet, wherever the posting happens. “Posting” is the verb to describe everything that happens in the portal: encompassing jokes, debates that extend from police brutality to the ethics of male feminists posting their nipples, and endless, endless pictures of dogs.
Whereas many of us post nearly all the time, Lockwood elevates it to an art. No One Is Talking About This follows an unnamed writer, famous for her internet wit, as she sends absurdity into the portal while on book tours and lecture circuits. While she is herself famed for her hilarious Twitter persona, Lockwood here depicts a mirror-world of posting, in which each alter-tweet is crafted with the same meticulous detail that characterizes her poetry, memoir, and essays. Just as her Chuck E. Cheese epigram mixes the vague and the visceral, Lockwood’s new novel repeatedly stages moments where juxtaposition becomes disjuncture, where two things should not fit but appear side by side anyway. Lockwood’s juxtapositions do not work through comparison but rather though the surprising and shockingly delicate moments of spontaneous feeling that arise from these interactions.
The novel’s main disjuncture is between the comic — Lockwood’s voice is something like Dada Dorothy Parker — and exquisite, modernist style: the book’s epigraph comes from Mayakovsky, but we can find everyone from Joyce to Woolf to Faulkner in Lockwood’s intricate prose. Despite the fact that she’s mastered their style, Lockwood has little reverence for these literary heavyweights. Of Joyce in particular, her protagonist yells from a stage: “Stream‑of‑consciousness was long ago conquered by a man who wanted his wife to fart all over him.” Lockwood’s protagonist doesn’t want to conquer anything but rather to represent the experience of being conquered, an immersion in the collectivity of experience. As her protagonist goes on: “But what about the stream‑of‑a‑consciousness that is not entirely your own? One that you participate in, but that also acts upon you?”
This collective consciousness — more “feed” than “stream” — results from the massive increase in writing produced by and on social media. As Richard Seymour notes near the beginning of his recent book The Twittering Machine, social media is essentially writing, but writing produced at an unprecedented pace: “Never before in human history have people written so much, so frantically.” And while the fact that Twitter is writing connects it to the long history of human cultural production, Seymour goes on: “But it is also indicative of new, or unleashed, passions.” Lockwood’s project in No One Is Talking About This is to capture exactly what is new (or, more properly: unleashed) about collective being, writing, and posting on the internet. In line with Seymour’s point, Lockwood investigates this newness through the intricacy of literary style, twisting and contorting language to juxtapose Twitter and literature and to show how each refracts through the other.
This might seem at first like a false division: both literature and Twitter are basically language. Some writers, even, have written literature on Twitter, and others have printed their tweets as books. However, Lockwood’s novel offers a compelling examination of the crucial differences between the two. This does not mean there’s a value judgment, whereby one is “better” or “more important” (for what it’s worth, I’d rather read chuck e cheese vulgarities than Joyce’s dirty letters to his wife). Rather, distinguishing between “the portal” and literary fiction illustrates the differentiating cultural function of each kind of writing, the way that each mediates historical experience, both distorting and conveying meaning, connection, and communication.
Indeed, in our overdeveloped moment, it seems like social media — Twitter, Facebook, the portal — has already engulfed everything that can be expressed. But No One Is Talking About This seeks out that which this expansive network of posts cannot capture, exploring what I might call “the unpostable.” If “to post” is the verb for what you do in the portal, the unpostable marks those things that you can post but don’t. Lockwood’s protagonist outlines the force of unpostability:
She knew that as you scrolled you averted your eyes from the ones who could not apply their lipstick within the lines, from the ones who were beginning to edge up into mania, from the ones who were Horny, from the dommes who were not remotely mean enough, from the nudeness that received only eight likes, from the toothpaste on the mirror in bathroom selfies, from the potato salads that looked disgusting, from the journalists who were making mistakes in real time, from the new displays of animal weakness that told us to lengthen the distance between the pack and the stragglers. But above all you averted your eyes from the ones who were in mad grief, whose mouths were open like caves with ancient paintings inside.
This dazzling array of minor human failures reads like a Whitmanian catalog for America in decline. The unpostable outlines what does not work in the algorithmically stratified world of the portal and contours the kinds of things you should post, the kind of person you should display in the portal. If posting subjects the poster to judgment, the unpostable is the negative space that makes that judgment legible.
But the unpostable extends beyond mere social faux pas. Part Two of No One Is Talking About This disrupts the hilarious capers of Lockwood’s posting protagonist after she receives a jarring text and flies to be with family while her sister gives birth to and then cares for a child diagnosed with Proteus syndrome. Grappling with how to care for a child with a rare disease, the previously distant family flails in their attempt to connect to each other and the world. Lockwood depicts this adjustment through the novel’s mix of tragedy and indignant comedy. “Oh, she dared the geneticist to try to tell her who Proteus was,” her protagonist thinks: “Who do you think you’re talking to? I was a mythology girl.” Here, another out-of-place juxtaposition — niche mythological knowledge attempts to conquer the geneticist through the chance name of a disease — reveals the futile attempt to find past experience that might prepare her for an incomprehensible event. In the “Proteus” episode of Joyce’s novel Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus similarly grapples with his mother’s death by meditating on a man who had recently drowned: “I want his life still to be his, mine to be mine.” In moments of incoherent loss, we try to center ourselves in our own life, experience, knowledge, or language, even as those things are precisely what loss proves futile.
Indeed, the novel’s depiction of grappling with a child’s disease causes the protagonist to question her life in the portal: “If all she was was funny, and none of this was funny, where did that leave her?” This seems to be the question that motivates Lockwood’s novel. Rather than merely a loss of humor, Lockwood’s protagonist learns to adapt to the impossibility of being prepared for a situation you could not expect, which is to say what we all do in life all the time. Here, Lockwood’s use of juxtaposition reveals the necessity of clinging to comedy when that at first seems to be the most inappropriate option.
Unpostability, then, does not put up a hard separation between the funny and the unfunny but rather reveals their necessary coexistence. Just because she’s not posting about this doesn’t mean that the protagonist’s engagement with the world lacks the invigorating creativity that structures her portal persona. And some of the novel’s most heartbreakingly intense moments arise when Lockwood’s comedy insists on its own presence despite its being out of place. Absurdity becomes something of a survival mechanism for another family in the hospital: “Bo’s mother called his feeding tube his cheeseburgers. It was important to do things like that — if you didn’t call your baby’s feeding tube his cheeseburgers, then somehow the feeding tube won.” This moment unleashes a startling tenderness, a moment in which the absurdity of life and loss crystallizes in language, at once illuminating and putting a sharp point on the ways that we get by.
In these moments of coping, collectivity becomes something irreducible to the feed-of-consciousness. Rather, Lockwood’s wordplay reveals other moments of collectivity, in which people reach across familial rifts, across rare genetic diseases, which Lockwood shows can be just as insurmountable as the whole expanse of the portal: “The heart grew. It hurt, where it hit the limit of the individual. It tried to follow the pathways as far as they would go. It tried not to know.” In this passage, it’s unclear whether Lockwood’s talking about the child’s heart or her protagonist’s own because life has thrown them into such a situation that the two become inseparable from each other. Just as Joyce’s protagonist wishes for his life to be simply his, Lockwood’s depiction of death and disease proves individuality’s impossibility.
The novel’s second half follows the family’s brilliant moments of togetherness through the baby’s premature death. Lockwood’s narration captures the estranged details of ordinary life refracting momentous, nonsensical loss through the insufficiency of humor to this occasion. While watching her mother change the deceased baby’s diaper for the last time, the protagonist realizes that “every joke she had ever told about diapers vanished up into the air like an incense.” This vanishing reveals the vacancy left by an experience like this one. In life after unavoidable loss, there’s no straightforward way to make sense, to crack a joke, to interpret something. There’s nothing you can post. It’s not that the portal matters in the same way as the loss of a child or any loved one, but rather their juxtaposition in fiction teaches us something through its insufficient reflection of what we have lost: “[I]n the portal, where the entirety of human experience seemed to be represented, and never the shining difference of that face, those eyes, that hair.”
In this process, Lockwood’s protagonist learns something about connection and collectivity. Her voice and style shift after the baby’s death, as the novel closes on a lecture she gives at the British Museum. There, Lockwood’s protagonist reads aloud a narration of her presence in the museum:
It was fitting finally to appear in that place, an exhibit herself and from far away, collaged together in body and mind, monstrous in the eyes of the future, an imbecile before the Rosetta Stone, disturber of the deadest tombs, butterfly catcher and butterfly killer, soon to be folded between two pages herself, and speak about the liftedness of little and large things.
As the museum becomes an image of incommensurability rather than connectedness, Lockwood imagines carrying the baby through the museum, which becomes a microcosm of the world: “[M]ore and more I begin to feel that the whole world is conscious.” The unthinkable, unspeakable, and unpostable become intimately necessary to consciousness itself. The incomprehensible is revealed not to be knowledge’s opposition but rather its constitutive condition of possibility. This seems to be the primary lesson of unpostability: we are all walking through life, only partly understanding it, getting by through small absurdities and ill-fitting jokes, and Lockwood’s writing obliquely reveals these moments of conscious unknowing and unconscious knowledge both online and off.
The dilemmas of unpostability structure the strange position of Lockwood’s own career. Known for her shockingly funny posts on Twitter but also for the waves of tenderness and pain that populate her published work, Lockwood combines two ways of engaging with the world that we often hold separate. Across her career, Lockwood has refused this separation, asserting that these contradictory juxtapositions are fundamental to language, humor, communication, and collectivity. It is only through revealing the moments of empathy in our jokes as well as the ridiculousness of our most heartbreaking experiences that we can glimpse the breadth of life both in and out of the portal.
Adam Fales is a PhD student at the University of Chicago and managing editor at Chicago Review. His writing has appeared in LARB, Public Books, Avidly, and homintern, among other places. You can find him on Twitter @damfales.