atricia Lockwood’s 2017 memoir Priestdaddy was, on the face of it, the story of a comically eccentric Catholic upbringing in midwest America. But it also recounted a life shaped just as forcefully by the internet, where Lockwood found an education (after her family stopped her going to university), a husband, and a break: the autobiographical poem Rape Joke, from a 2012 collection issued by a small indie press, went viral only when an online magazine ran it a year later – at which point a poetry editor at Penguin suddenly remembered he had one of Lockwood’s manuscripts sitting on his desk.
In 2019 Lockwood published a third-person diary of what she half-jokingly called her mental “disintegration” as a result of spending too much time on Twitter, or “the portal”, ever more grimly addictive in the wake of Trump’s election. Delivered as a lecture at the British Museum before being printed in the London Review of Books, it took the form of a feed-like stream of quasi-satirical reflections on the oddities of online life, as experienced by a Lockwood-adjacent “she” who finds herself sought after as an authority on internet culture, thanks to her much-circulated social media post: “Can a dog be twins?”
When Lockwood told the audience it was a taster of a book in progress, I didn’t imagine she meant fiction. Seeing it again here as the first part of her debut novel, I wondered how she would wring any kind of story from material that seemed essentially observational in quality. Yet I also found myself laughing too much to care: at one point, the protagonist, inexplicably spending “hypnotized hours of her life... posting OH YES HUNNY in response to old images of Stalin”, puts down her cup of tea and then can’t find it again, struck by the sense that she must have put it inside her phone – the kind of warning sign that makes her ask her husband to lock her phone away in a safe crafted from a hollowed-out dictionary whose spine, tellingly, reads “NEW ENGLISH”.
The figurative pizzazz of Lockwood’s language lends strange beauty to her portrait of an all-too-recognisable world in which “every day... attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.”
Still, where is this going? The answer comes when the protagonist’s pregnant sister sends a photo of her 20-week scan, texting “look how big her head is lol”, in a line that softens us up for a gear-shifting second-half sucker punch. As Lockwood’s proxy devotes herself to supporting her sister (“What was I doing... before?”), the title morphs: less a complaint about “old white intellectuals” who don’t get Twitter, more a rallying cry to struggles for reproductive rights and healthcare in the US.
There’s a hint of hair shirt here, for sure, but it’s redeemed by Lockwood’s nose for juggling contradictory moods: just as Rape Joke targeted rape jokes without renouncing comedy, the internet keeps on being the prism through which we experience the gut-plummeting sadness at the novel’s core. One paragraph simply lists the Google searches of bereaved parents; a curly memento of baby hair is likened to “that gif of the grinch”.
As that indicates, the book’s references encourage readerly twitchiness: never having seen what Lockwood (and, it turns out, everyone else in the US) calls the “incest commercial” for a particular coffee brand mentioned here, I looked it up, and soon found myself deep in US GQ’s 3,000-word oral history of its creation. “Can a dog be twins?” inevitably draws you to Lockwood’s own online posts, from her 2013 tweet to the Paris Review (“So is Paris any good or not”), to a five-line story about Jonathan Franzen shushing his pregnant wife: “No, it is I who am pregnant... Pregnant with the next great American novel”.
Franzen, lest we forget, once wondered whether adopting Iraqi war orphans might help aid his creative process. Prior generations of literary superstars worried that world events had the capacity to make their novels look flat-footed; Lockwood’s cohort probably faces stiffer competition from its own social media shadow. “Tweeting is an art form,” Lockwood tells her mother in Priestdaddy; and for all its virtues, this richly tragicomic debut never quite shakes the sense that you could just as well drink the author’s gleefully surreal wit straight from the tap.