It’s hard to say anything interesting about the internet without sounding either completely banal or alarmist in a geriatric sort of way, so people who make those sorts of comments for a living usually have to be very funny. The unnamed protagonist of Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel, No One is Talking About This, is one of these people. The protagonist (much like Lockwood) is a creature of Twitter, one of its main characters, who somehow launched a career out of a single tweet: "can a dog be twins?" When the novel begins, she’s being invited to speak on panels all over the world about what people call the way we live now, or, worse, something like contemporary digital cultures, when they’re really just trying their best not to say the words being on Twitter all the time.
The commentary the protagonist offers is mostly in the form of declarations like, “The problem is that we’re rapidly approaching the point where all our dirty talk is going to include sentences like Fuck up my dopamine, Website!” It’s hilarious, like most things Lockwood writes. Still, the consensus that emerges from these opening chapters—all our brains are turning to mush—isn’t a particularly hot take. Another, more harrowing version of this notion is also implied, the idea that our natural response to suffering has been somehow fucked up by reflexive laughter, the nihilistic instinct to search for humor in even the most gruesome spectacles. At one point, the protagonist watches a video of people falling from a carnival ride at the Ohio State Fair: “‘Ahahaha!’ she yelled, the new and funnier way to laugh. . . .Their trajectories through the air were pure arcs of joy, T-shirts turned liquid on them, just look what the flesh could do when it gave in, right down to the surrendering snap of the. . . .” But then she scrolls down and realizes that one of those people died. It makes for a disturbing observation about us all, if also, again, a somewhat tepid take.
No One is Talking About This seems, at first, to welcome you to the party, with its glib knowingness and familiarity, the way it lays out the terms of its project for anyone to see. “Someone could write it,” the protagonist says, “but it would have to be like Jane Austen. . . .A social novel.” Got it. A social novel, finely observed, Austen but for Twitter. Cool. It also announces itself, with its references to James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, as a follow-up to the modernist novel, an attempt at a discontinuous form of stream-of-consciousness suited to the frayed edges of the collective mind. Lockwood writes in quippy fragments (like Twitter! obviously!) that make you feel like you’re in on the joke.
At times, all this feels like a reunion tour of the best viral moments from the past few years. Remember that war criminal who poisoned himself at the Hague with a comically tiny vial of cyanide? Remember “caucasianblink.gif,” and how every time you saw it you found yourself blinking along with that baffled man, because the feeling it evoked was so ineffably familiar? Turns out we all did that, and now it’s in a novel. The only occasional missteps come when a punchline is too insistently clever, too good not to include, like when the narrator describes how white people have “the political educations of potatoes—lumpy, unseasoned, and biased toward the Irish”; funny, but better on Twitter. Still, there’s a certain satisfaction in the fact that all our favorite dumb jokes have been catalogued for posterity. It’s vaguely interesting to imagine what readers will think of these references in thirty years, from the vantage of whatever fresh hell we’re all living through then. Like everything, though, it gets old. The fun of revisiting old memes dwindles. We might begin to suspect that the novel isn’t up to the task of responding to the digital age, or whatever.
But then something happens—the sort of thing Elizabeth Bowen would have called a “crude intrusion of the actual.” As Lockwood described it on Twitter, this is “a novel about being very inside the internet and then being very outside of it.” The protagonist’s sister is pregnant, something has gone wrong, the baby may not survive. We thought it was a novel about Twitter, but now it’s a novel about grief.
Somehow, this doesn’t feel like the rug has been pulled out from under us. The second half of the novel is devastating, and lyrical, and achingly sincere, but it doesn’t blame the first half for not being these things, nor does it condemn us for laughing at all the jokes. The past few years have seen a glut of Extremely Online Novels, usually followed by articles in which critics try to find in these novels an answer to the question of how fiction should respond to the digital age, whether it can actually capture it, mimetically speaking. It’s a fair question, and one that people will likely ask of this novel, too. But the question No One is Talking About This is asking isn’t whether novels are up to the demands of the moment, but whether we are. How will we, with our brains crammed with memes and ironic fury, be able to respond when faced with something intimately real and tragic? The second half of the novel offers an answer. At one point, the protagonist sings softly to her sister’s baby, and all that comes into her head are bland, universal pop songs. But that’s okay: “For whatever lives we lead,” she thinks, “they do prepare us for these moments.”
By the end of the novel, the protagonist has become someone who can have a cat named “Dr. Butthole” and who can also believably say something as unironically sentimental as this: “The doors of bland suburban houses now looked possible, outlined, pulsing—for behind any one of them could be hidden a bright and private glory.” Lockwood, after all, was raised Catholic, and lines like this are a reminder that even if she’s moved on from the Church, her moral and literary sensibilities remain profoundly shaped by faith. If the protagonist’s epiphany is plausible—if we don’t scoff at it—it’s because we, too, have been transfigured. The extent of this change can be measured by how we respond to a fragment presented late in the novel, without explanation:
i miss my son who died
i miss my son so much quotes
i miss my son in heaven
my son died and i miss him
missing my son sayings"
It's hard to believe, but if this had come in the first half of the novel, it would have been funny. We would have laughed, loudly and meaninglessly—"the new and funnier way to laugh"—though we might have felt gross about it after. No One is Talking About This manages to render the internet into a landscape of genuine pathos, rather than a venue for empty laughter at misplaced sincerity. But its actual project is more ambitious. It’s a novel ultimately less interested in life on the internet than it is in grander, maybe even religious, concerns: grief and consolation; alienation and homecoming; how, for the family of a baby who lives only six months and one day, the gift of that extra day might rightly be called grace.