At an archaeological museum, the unnamed main character of Patricia Lockwood’s newly released “No One Is Talking About This” encounters the petrified remains of a bog body, probably dating from some two thousand years ago. Except, in this novel, the protagonist describes the bog body as having a pointer finger “raised as if to post.” A bog body with an Instagram account. Unexpected, yes, but strangely fitting, given how extensively the internet has infiltrated our everyday lives. “No One Is Talking About This” shows how the language, norms and memes of the internet era are affecting how we view the present, but also — as disarming as a bog body tweeting a photo of its last meal — how we rationalize the past. Brisk, smart and original, the newest novel from the acclaimed author of “Priestdaddy” explores what it means to be living half online and half in the real world — which, as the protagonist continually pinches herself to remember, still exists.
The novel follows an unnamed woman as she tries to comprehend the incomprehensible: the internet. Harambe, the Trump presidency, Candida overgrowth forums, the infamous Folgers incest commercial — it all collides in what the protagonist terms the “portal,” where one of her nonsensical, random posts (“Can a dog be twins?”) goes viral. The harder she tries to make sense of information overload and internet stardom, the more progressively absurd everything becomes. “Her most secret pleasures,” Lockwood writes, “were sentences that only half a percent of people on earth would understand, and that no one would be able to decipher at all in ten years.” Sentences like “that’s the cost of my vegan lunch” and “what is binch?” Ultimately, only an urgent text from her mother can interrupt the overflowing stream of content, sending the real world hurtling back into frame. Her sister’s baby has been diagnosed in utero with the incurable and deadly overgrowth disorder Protean syndrome. After an induced labor, the baby will live only six months at most. For those six months, the protagonist stays with her sister, helping take care of the baby and grieving when she passes.
The baby’s birth in the second half of the novel introduces new life into a book that, for the better part of 100 pages, repetitively attempts to describe the internet age and its endless crises. Climate change. Police brutality. Fascism. “No One Is Talking About This” mentions cataclysmic events in mere passing, hoping to replicate the transience of headlines as they pass under a scrolling thumb. Broken into fragmented prose, the novel tries to mirror the choppiness of Reddit’s home page, where topics group together not because of some intrinsic relation but because the algorithm decided, this is popular, this is new, this is happening now.
It’s not that these topics can’t be merged together. On the contrary, every day, current events and information overload and arguments in the comment section merge together with abandon. All of us live both online and offline, perhaps online more than ever, thanks to the pandemic. We have all experienced the overwhelm of the news cycle; we have all stayed up into the early hours of the morning doom-scrolling. Reading the first half of the novel can get tedious fast, as every reader already knows what it’s like to be on the internet. And obviously, the internet itself can be tedious, disjointed, overwhelming and nonsensical, an experience that Lockwood tries to capture.
But in an attempt to pry her reader from virtual reality for a second so they can better see the internet for what it truly is, Lockwood entirely removes the human element from the first half — a move that proves just as disjointed and nonsensical. Sure, we might feel mindless when we scroll for too long. But unlike the characters in this book, we still have names. We’re still people. We have families and jobs and personalities. Lockwood reverses this depersonalization in the second half of the novel and frames the move as some sort of revelation (hey everyone, the real world exists!) but the set up altogether feels cheap. When were we ever not people? Was that ever really the question?
A day after the six-month mark, the narrator’s sister’s baby passes away. To her surprise, she finds the internet has provided her and her sister with the language — no matter how absurd, senseless or inexplicable it may seem — they need to process their grief. Choosing a casket, her sister picks one made of satin like an “open valentine,” because, as her sister puts it: “She classy.” Getting dressed for the funeral, the sister, clad in a hot pink dress, high heels and lipstick, yells, “WE GOTTA LOOK GOOD FOR OUR BABY!” While eating barbecue after the wake, their brother tells the sister, “Girl, she was a real one.” Ultimately, the “portal” is not some separate sphere; the language the protagonist has picked up there is not some foreign tongue. All along, the internet and the “real” world have been intertwined. Where artificial reality streams into the outside world and vice versa, Lockwood demonstrates how we are never simply online or offline. We’re just alive.
“It was a place where she knew what was going to happen,” Lockwood writes of the internet, “it was a place where she would always choose the right side, where the failure was in history and not herself.” Where she would never “read the wrong writers,” would never feel “surges of enthusiasm for the wrong leaders.” Call it a dopamine rush, call it validation seeking — this is the aspect of the internet that Lockwood captures best. Because don’t all of us just want to be right? And isn’t it exhausting? The internet draws us in because we all just want to believe the right things and be liked for it, which means we always have to stay updated, refreshing our feeds and awaiting notifications, so we’re not missing something.
When I was talking to my own sister about “No One Is Talking About This,” our conversation veered into the subject of subscription boxes, like Ipsy, StitchFix and FabFitFun. Subscription boxes aren’t discussed in the book, but they encapsulate that desire in all of us to have the right thing. To use the correct product. To own the absolute best object. Faced with the onslaught of too many choices and way too much information, it’s a relief to have a brightly hued box of exactly the right things delivered to your door, hand-picked by an algorithm that will make sure you’re on the right side of history. At its core, “No One Is Talking About This” reveals a woman caught, like all of us, in the glut of information, trying to discern a definitive, right answer. Except there isn’t one. Sometimes, for no reason, out of nowhere, the unthinkable happens. And when the unthinkable does happen, and the baby dies, the family is gripped by the urge to reassure her, incessantly, that she’s done a good job. “‘Such a good job,’ they all said to the end.”
“She would have these holy days and walk home from school and think, after this I will be able to be nice to my mother, but she never ever was,” Lockwood writes. “After this, I will be able to talk about what matters, life and death and what comes after, but still she went on about the weather.” Finding a way through the overwhelming parts of life doesn’t mean doing everything right all the time. It doesn’t mean only saying things that make perfect sense. It means going on about the weather, laughing at memes and talking about what everyone’s talking about — so that when the catastrophic, dreaded thing happens that no one’s talking about, you have the entire world, both online and offline, to help you keep on living.