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Patricia Lockwood takes a scalpel to the extremely online brain in her excellent debut novel

A new book from Twitter’s greatest poet is strange and sad and beautiful.

The cover of the novel No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.
Riverhead Books
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Is Twitter a mind?

I argue with my editor sometimes about that question. There’s a genre of culture story that’s just “here is a summary of the past day’s Twitter discourse,” and every time I write one of those stories, I always want to title it, “Twitter is mad about something.”

“Twitter isn’t sentient,” my editor will say. “It can’t be mad about anything. It’s the people on Twitter who are mad.”

But Twitter is the one that’s mad, I always think. Twitter is the one with the emotions. It has its own moods, the way a mob has its own moods, that have nothing to do with the individuals using it. It’s this seething and furious mass consciousness, and to log on to Twitter is to find your small and singular mind subsumed in it. You are part of that consciousness, but also it is bigger than you. You shape it and it shapes you.

When you go on Twitter, you take on Twitter’s outrage, Twitter’s preoccupations, its speech patterns, its memes, its worldview. You are overwhelmed by it. When you get mad on Twitter, it feels as though something else is getting mad through you.

Twitter, of course, has a whole lexicon for this experience. It is the state of being brain-poisoned, or having brain worms. It is being Extremely Online. It is being On Here. And it is this state that takes up the first half of the poet Patricia Lockwood’s excellent new novel, No One Is Talking About This.

“She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway,” Lockwood begins. “Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.”

“The portal” is the internet, where our unnamed protagonist spends most of her time. She is famous for having composed a viral tweet: “Can a dog be twins?” On the basis of this fame, she travels across the world to appear on various panels, where she offers her thoughts on the portal, its problems, and why it is funnier to spell “sneezing” as “sneazing.” “This is your contribution to society?” demands an audience member in Bristol, and then he rips up a printout of her tweet.

When she is not on panels, the protagonist is mostly Online. There she struggles to learn to hate the police (her dad is a retired officer), googles such questions as “can’t learn since losing my virginity? and notes that things must be really bad because we have all stopped paying attention to celebrity dogs.

She is not entirely certain what she is doing on the portal all the time. She is gleeful about her existence there sometimes; she finds the sense of righteousness it offers her overwhelmingly pleasurable. “It was a place where she knew what was going to happen,” Lockwood writes, “it was a place where she would always choose the right side, where the failure was in history and not herself.”

The portal acts on her with a seductive force. When she cannot reach it, she thinks with longing: “My information. Oh, my answers. Oh, my everything I never knew I needed to know.”

All the same, she is bewildered by the ironic detachment, the bizarrely dirty Dadaist humor encouraged by her circle of the portal, even as she cannot stop herself from participating in it. She says helplessly, “yes binch;” laughs “ahahahahaha!” (“the newer, funnier way”) out loud because she started to, years ago, as a joke, and now finds herself unable to stop; and has named her cat Dr. Butthole. “There was no way out of it,” Lockwood writes.

All these ideas we learn in a long and cascading torrent of fragments, following one after another, often no longer than 280 characters at a time. And this form, too, becomes the object of much consideration on our protagonist’s part.

Fragmented novels are recently trendy, with Jenny Offill considered the master of the form. They are the subject of extended parody in Lauren Oyler’s new novel Fake Accounts, which, like No One Is Talking About This, is highly concerned with Twitter and with what it has done to our minds.

“Fragmentation is one of the worst aspects of modern life. It’s extremely stressful,” says Oyler’s protagonist (also unnamed) in Fake Accounts. “‘Fragmented’ is a euphemism for ‘interrupted.’ Why would I want to make my book like Twitter? If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.”

Lockwood’s protagonist, too, fears that Twitter has corrupted the form through which she is narrating. “Why were we all writing like this now?” she asks in one fragment. “Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.”

But No One Is Talking About This is not written in the way the portal writes. It is about the internet but not of it; it describes the internet without replicating it. It is a poetic examination of what it means to exist within that huge and seething mind.

“Stream-of-consciousness was long ago conquered by a man who wanted his wife to fart all over him,” Lockwood’s protagonist says at one of her panels. (The fart-loving man is James Joyce.) “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?”

Within that consciousness, a man is swallowed by a hippo. “A few years ago,” the protagonist says, “that story would have made a sensation.” But now, after the election of the man Lockwood refers to only as “the dictator,” “they had all been swallowed by a hippo. Big deal. That’s life.”

Oh, right! I scribbled in the margin when I read this, and remembered the period of a few hours several years ago when my Twitter timeline noted, with only pro forma interest, that apparently being swallowed by a hippo is something you can survive three whole times. And I, within the consciousness of Twitter, noted it too, and thought that pre-Trump I probably would have been more interested in it.

Being this brain-poisoned is a specific way of life, one that people who don’t live within the digital media ecosystem are generally less prone to. It is a mystery to me how the densely allusive first half of No One Is Talking About This will read to someone in a happy state of Not-On-Here-ness, someone who does not remember ever reading about the guy who got swallowed by a hippo (three times!) and has no sense of why it is currently considered funnier to type “ahahahahaha!” than it is to type “LOL.”

Lockwood’s language is dense and lovely as a Cezanne painting, always, but surely it is easier to understand what you are looking at when you know which Cezanne brush strokes are indicating mountains and which ones are indicating houses. How do you comprehend a stream of communal consciousness if you have never been a part of that consciousness?

But anyone who can make it through that first half of No One Is Talking About This — whether with a pleasurable wince of recognition, as I did, or in a state of bewilderment, as a not-Online reader might — will be jolted awake by the second half, when the world outside the portal intrudes violently in on our protagonist.

“Something has gone wrong,” her mother texts. “How soon can you get here?”

The protagonist’s pregnant sister has developed complications. The fetus has Proteus syndrome, a genetic disorder that is making her head outgrow the rest of her body, and the doctors are unsure of whether she can be born alive. The pregnancy could, they say, kill the protagonist’s sister, but it is already too far advanced for a legal abortion.

If the baby survives, “she would live in her senses,” the protagonist understands. “Her fingertips, her ears, her sleepiness and her wide awake, a ripple along the skin wherever she was touched. All along her edges, just where she turned to another state.” The baby, if she lives, will be the inverse of the consciousness of the portal. She will be the self expanding outward into the world, rather than the world compressing the self in. And she will live in her body, rather than in someone else’s mind.

The baby is born, and does live, at least for a little while. So does the sister. And the protagonist loves them both, deeply and radiantly.

She goes off the portal, “where everything was happening except for this.” She devotes herself instead to the baby, whom she finds overwhelmingly beautiful, and Lockwood’s prose here becomes so tender that you have to read it delicately, touching it with only one finger of your mind, so as not to bruise it.

“The great gift of the baby knowing their voices, contentless entirely except for love,” Lockwood writes — “how she turned so wildly to where the pouring and continuous element was, strained her limbs toward the human sunshine, would fight her way through anything to get there.”

In the presence of the baby, the protagonist finds, at last, “The previous unshakable conviction that someone else was writing the inside of her head was gone.”

The fact that we are reading here about a sinful world redeemed through a miraculous child is unlikely to be lost on Lockwood, whose 2017 memoir Priestdaddy dealt extensively with what it was like to grow up as the child of a Catholic priest. Moreover, Lockwood, who describes at one point watching Hallmark movies as the baby seizes in her arms, is unlikely to miss the fact that adults learning valuable lessons about life because of a disabled child is one of the basic tropes of cheap and tawdry sentimental fiction.

But No One Is Talking About This only ever flirts with religious awe, never making those parallels explicit. And it seems to dare the reader to experience the baby’s life as cheap sentiment: Go ahead, it seems to suggest, try to take an ironic distance here. Try to experience this plot as manipulative. (In the book’s acknowledgments, Lockwood suggests that this particular storyline was born of her own experiences.)

As I read the second half of No One Is Talking About This, I could feel my brain-poisoning urging me toward lazy cynicism, toward the detached, sardonic skepticism that animates Twitter Voice. But Lockwood’s language was so clear, so tender, so radiant that I could not bear to read her book cruelly. Doing so would be a betrayal of something raw and vulnerable.

And it would be bad reading, because what the baby offers our protagonist is not sentiment. There is love, and there is love as thought. There is experience as thought. There is experience away from the portal as thought.

The baby cannot create the neural connections that the protagonist experiences as thought. Yet she is alive, she experiences, she has consciousness.

“More and more,” the protagonist imagines telling the baby as the novel ends, “I begin to feel that the whole world is conscious.”

It is that consciousness, in the end, that Lockwood’s dense and slippery prose evokes: not the consciousness of Twitter, but of the world. Of being alive in the world, and experiencing love for it.

And so yes, Twitter is a mind. But so is everything else.

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