Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (2017) more than proved that she could tell a good story. The eccentric brilliance of her material undoubtedly spoke for itself – she grew up in a nuclear waste-riddled area of the American Midwest, with a gun-toting, more often than not semi-naked Catholic priest for a father (a man who underwent a religious conversion on a submarine, and was given special dispensation from the Vatican to be ordained, despite being married with children) – but she used her not inconsiderable talents to shape it into a multifaceted tale that glittered from every discernible angle. And it’s not hyperbole to declare that she has now achieved the same feat with her first novel.
Often filthy and irreverent, sometimes extremely funny, and ultimately surprisingly poignant, No One Is Talking About This offers more proof of Lockwood’s particular genius. But it’s also that rarer thing: a novel about the way we live now that manages to be something more than just an exercise in the replication of our fragmented, fake-truth-addled, part IRL/part online existence. Lots of novelists have tried to get inside this experience, but none that I’ve read does it as well – or as movingly – as this.
It’s a book of two distinct halves. In the first, we’re introduced to an unnamed woman who became famous when her social media post – "Can a dog be twins?" – went viral. She now travels the world, speaking on panels about important issues like why "sneazing" is a funnier spelling than "sneezing". (It just is, don’t try to fight it.) Then, in the second half – "Something has gone wrong," her mother messages. "How soon can you get here?" – the narrator finds herself lifted "cleanly and completely [...] out of the stream of regular life", and thrust into a new slipstream: "She was a gleaming, a sterilised instrument, flashing out at the precise moment of emergency." Her sister is pregnant, but the foetus has a profound congenital disorder.
Lockwood calls No One Is Talking About This "a novel about being very inside the internet and then being very outside of it". But rather than focusing on the obvious differences between these two states, she is attuned to the ways in which they overlap. "This did not feel like real life exactly," the narrator thinks, sitting in front of an audience, "but nowadays, what did?" The world of "the portal" (the name given to the internet here), governed by the logic of memes and likes, makes just as much – or as little – sense as a reality that forces a woman to continue with a pregnancy that endangers her own life. The foetus’s head is growing at an exponential rate, but this is Ohio, a state where it is a felony to induce a pregnant woman before 37 weeks, "no matter what had gone wrong".
Lockwood employs a prose style reminiscent of that used by Jenny Offill in Dept of Speculation (2014) and last year’s Weather. Short, all-but stand-alone paragraphs; little eruptions of information on which the story bubbles and bursts along. In the first section, it makes sense to think of these as social media posts. "Why were we all writing like this now?" asks the narrator. "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 they’re no less efficacious a means of communication in the second section; moments of breath gasped between doctors’ appointments when bad – or good (relatively speaking) – news is processed, or those stolen while caring for a gravely sick infant.
In the same way that the birth of the narrator’s niece changes everything – "The baby, like a soft pink machete, swung and chopped her way through the living leaves" – Lockwood barrels through the predictable discourse about how a life lived online leaves us ill-prepared for the real world, drawing our attention instead to the viscerality of our digital experiences. That first morning dopamine hit of content – consumed while still prone in bed – leaves the narrator lying "under an avalanche of detail [...] the world pressing closer and closer, the spiderweb of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk".
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this novel is that it shows us beauty and magnificence everywhere, especially when we’re not expecting it.