by Heller McAlpin
Writing is a calling for Patricia Lockwood, as she made clear in her sacred and profane, lyrical and bawdy 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy. While still in her teens, she took the vows of literature and became “a person who almost never left the house.” Art became her emissary. She confessed: “This is the secret: when I encounter myself on the page, I am shocked at how forceful I seem. On the page I am strong, because that is where I put my strength.”
Now Lockwood has put that strength into her first novel, No One is Talking About This, which leaves no doubt that she still takes her literary vocation seriously. It’s another attention-grabbing mind-blower which toggles between irony and sincerity, sweetness and blight.
Her unnamed narrator is a social media star who achieved prominence when her post, “Can a dog be twins?” went viral. This led to speaking engagements around the world, at one of which a man asks, “This is your contribution to society?”
Even as Lockwood’s narrator acknowledges the difficulty of writing about what she calls “the portal” — especially without “a strong whiff of old white individuals being weird about the blues” — she attempts just that in the first half of this novel. In the second half, the portal’s hold on her vaporizes when real life intrudes urgently, in terrible and but also surprisingly beautiful ways. Important lessons ensue.
It’s another attention-grabbing mind-blower which toggles between irony and sincerity, sweetness and blight.
Lockwood deftly captures a life lived predominantly online in the “blizzard of everything,” this “place of the great melting,” with its vapid, mind-numbing, addictive culture. Her insider tour carefully showcases the “new shared sense of humor” and “elastic and snappable verbal play” that so insidiously morphs into jargon, dogma, and doctrine. This portrait of a disturbing world where the center will not hold is a tour de force that recalls Joan Didion’s portrait of the dissolute 1960s drug culture of Haight-Ashbury in her seminal essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
Like Didion — and Nora Ephron – Lockwood is a master of sweeping, eminently quotable proclamations that fearlessly aim to encapsulate whole movements and eras: “White people, who had the political educations of potatoes – lumpy, unseasoned, and biased toward the Irish – were suddenly feeling compelled to speak out about injustice. This happened once every 40 years on average, usually after a period when folk music became popular again,” she writes. Unfortunately, much of her humor is too raunchy to be quoted here.
Although written before the January 6th attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, there’s an eerie timeliness to Lockwood’s observations about the dark side of social media. She addresses many of the issues raised by New York Times media columnist and former BuzzFeededitor-in-chief Ben Smith in a piece written after the siege, in which he reminds us that “evil can just start with bad jokes and nihilistic behavior that is fueled by positive reinforcement on various platforms” and the “almost irresistible gravitational pull” of “getting more attention from more people than you ever have.”
Lockwood’s media maven laments how a shared sense of irony and mockery turned on itself, and what was meant to be a source of connection and individuality became instead a disturbing source of disconnection, derision, and worse. She writes of a generation that “had spent most of its time online making incredibly bigoted jokes in order to laugh at the idiots who were stupid enough to think they meant it. Except after a while they did mean it, and then somehow at the end of it they were Nazis.”
Readers may well wonder where Lockwood is going with this. Some will be less charmed by the subversive humor than others. But hang in there. The novel shifts into another realm after the narrator receives a text from her mother about dire problems with her younger sister’s pregnancy.
In response to this wakeup call, Lockwood’s narrator becomes “a citizen of necessity.” She moves into the world of NICUs, a place where urgency is real, and wonders, “Why had she entered the portal in the first place? Because she wanted to be a creature of pure call and response: she wanted to delight and to be delighted.”
Instead, she finds something far more affecting, and what results is a sort of conversion story in which sincerity supersedes irony. “It was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life,” Lockwood writes. “She wanted to stop people on the street and say, ‘Do you know about this? You should know about this. No one is talking about this!'”
Lockwood acknowledges that her novel is based on her niece’s heartbreaking case — the first person ever to be diagnosed in utero with Proteus Syndrome, a one-in-a-billion disorder whose most famous sufferer was the Elephant Man. It’s a testament to her skills as a rare writer who can navigate both sleaze and cheese, jokey tweets and surprising earnestness, that we not only buy her character’s emotional epiphany but are moved by it.
Of course, people will be talking about this meaty book, and about the questions Lockwood raises about what a human being is, what a brain is, and most important, what really matters. “What did we have the right to expect from this life?” her narrator asks. “What were the terms of the contract? … Could we … could we post about it?”