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Close reading the fleshy, obsessive internet of No One Is Talking About This

The Vox Book Club’s January pick delves into our collective internet consciousness.

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The cover of the novel 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.

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One of the most striking things about the internet in No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel and the Vox Book Club’s pick for January, is how physical it feels. Most internet novels treat the internet as a place of abstractions, somewhere disembodied and fleshless. But rendered in Lockwood’s perverse, funny poet’s prose, this internet is embodied, is warm, is heaving with breath.

“She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway,” No One Is Talking About This begins. “Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.”

The internet here is a portal: a place that promises to take you from one location to another, but fails entirely to do so, leaving you stuck only within its own cramped quarters. It’s hot inside, and blaring white, and everything in the world is there.

The internet acts on the body. Scrolling through her phone, the unnamed protagonist finds that the tip of her finger has gone numb: “This in the way that your ear used to get soft, pink, and pliant, and the swirls of hair around it like damp designs, from talking on the telephone.” Early on, the protagonist dismisses the portal as “this place where we are on the verge of losing our bodies.” But when a tragedy in offline life pushes the protagonist out of the portal, she looks back at the portal as though it were its own body. “She laid her hand against the white wall,” Lockwood writes, “and the heart beat, strong and striding, even healthy. But she was no longer in that body.”

Part of the physicality of Lockwood’s portal comes from her attention to the idea of both the internet as a mind and the mind as a physical object. She imagines the internet as its own mind, so that to enter the portal is to be swept up in the collective thoughts of everyone else there.

But she is also interested in the idea of a mind as something tactile and fleshy, of thought being something that is enacted by the body. Her protagonist flinches squeamishly from the idea of eating octopus after reading an article online about octopus intelligence, in part because she starts to think of the octopus’s body as its mind. “Every time she sliced into a charred tentacle among blameless new potatoes,” Lockwood writes, “she thought to herself, I am eating a mind, I am eating a mind, I am eating a fine grasp of the subject at hand.” If an octopus’s body is a mind, then the internet’s mind must be, surely, a body.

The idea of any split between mind and body collapses utterly in the face of the protagonist’s infant niece. Born with Proteus syndrome, the baby is not expected to live long, and to live fully in her flesh for as long as she is around.

“She would live in her senses,” the doctors explain, as Lockwood’s prose goes transparent with tenderness. “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. Tidepools full of slow blinks and bubbles and little waving fronds. The self, but more, like a sponge. But thirsty.”

The baby’s self is located in her senses. She can’t see, but she loves music, and she responds with delight when her family plays a game called Little Touch, where they touch her lightly all over. And while a lesser book would have the baby’s condition jolting the protagonist away from her phone, into the recognition that it is real life that matters and not the internet, No One Is Talking About This recognizes that real life and the internet are not quite so easily separated. The protagonist stops posting on the portal quite so much, sure. But she plays the baby the Andrews Sisters on her phone and reads aloud to her from Marlon Brando’s Wikipedia entry. She keeps pictures of the baby on her phone and considers them to make up her full self.

The baby, too, is inarguably a full self, a mind and body in complete union — and so, in this book, is the internet.

Share your thoughts on No One Is Talking About This in the comments section below, and be sure to RSVP for our upcoming live discussion event with Lauren Oyler and Patricia Lockwood. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Discussion questions

  1. As someone deeply brain poisoned, I approached the first half of No One Is Talking About This with delighted recognition: look at all those memes I forgot! If you are less brain poisoned, or brain poisoned from a different part of the internet that leaves you unfamiliar with Lockwood’s favorite memes, how does that section read to you? Does any of it make sense?
  2. Every time I read this novel, I’m astonished by how vulnerable the second half is. In the hands of a less accomplished writer, it would be very easy for a book about a terminally ill baby to feel crass and manipulative, or for the protagonist to reflexively cover the vulnerability of her emotions under glib cynicism. Lockwood does neither, and manages to just make her account look truthful. Did it work for you? How did she do it?
  3. Like Lauren Oyler’s narrator in Fake Accounts, Lockwood’s protagonist frets that she writes in fragments because “it was the way the portal wrote.” Oyler’s narrator first parodies and then rejects fragmented prose, while Lockwood’s protagonist embraces it. Do you think it’s true that novels in fragments are on the rise because of social media? Which approach to the fragments do you find more fruitful?
  4. If the internet is a portal, where were you aiming to go when you first logged on? Are you aiming to go anywhere at all now, or is the portal its own destination?
  5. Is the internet a mind?