Extremely Online and Wildly Out of Control
Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel explores the mind, and heart, of an internet-addled protagonist.
By Jordan KisnerMarch 2021
This article was published online on February 13, 2021.
On an instagram account that I like, an illustrator publishes little four-panel drawings of smooth-headed aliens doing normal human things. Two aliens with bodies like slim light bulbs encounter each other against a bubblegum-pink background. One is sitting in a chair, reading a book; the other is just poking its head in, as if to say hello: “What are you doing?” The reading alien looks up from its book. “Forming emotional bonds,” it replies.
“If I am successful I will be despondent upon completion.”
“Well I hope you are devastated,” the friend says, warmly.
“Thank you—lowering my defenses,” the reading alien says with a jaunty hand gesture.
In another drawing, an alien gives an earbud to a friend. “Put this in your head,” it says. “I want you to hear vibrations that affect my emotions.” “So that mine are also affected?” the alien’s friend asks. “If all goes as planned,” the first replies.
What I like about this particular cartoon series, called Strange Planet, drawn by the artist Nathan W. Pyle, is that it presents the most mundane human actions—reading a novel, wanting a friend to hear and appreciate your sad music—out of context and in unfamiliar language. We’re so weird, I find myself saying, while snort-laughing, looking at my own behaviors in this frame. Why are we like this?
This is the experience—snort-laughter mixed with bewilderment at the absolute strangeness of the world in which I participate—that I tend to have when reading Patricia Lockwood, the poet turned memoirist and London Review of Books essayist who has now published her first novel, No One Is Talking About This. The novel follows a protagonist who is “extremely online,” a genius of the “portal,” as the internet is called here, and naturally adept at the cleverness and absurdity of social-media exchange. She has become famous for it. Recently, she has gained worldwide recognition for a post that says, in its entirety, “Can a dog be twins?” Her cat’s name is Dr. Butthole. She travels the world, invited to speak about the portal—both as an interpreter of its patterns and as a performer of its bizarre and hilarious argot.
“Stream-of-consciousness!” she shouts to an audience in Jamaica. “Stream-of-consciousness was long ago conquered by a man who wanted his wife to fart all over him. But what about the stream-of-a-consciousness that is not entirely your own? One that you participate in, but that also acts upon you?”
These are the driving questions of No One Is Talking About This. What happens to a mind that has enthusiastically joined a worldwide Mind, yet can still occasionally see—if only in flashes—the perversity of the exercise? “Modern womanhood was more about rubbing snail mucus on your face than she had thought it would be. But it had always been something, hadn’t it?” Lockwood’s narrator notes. Elsewhere: “She had a crystal egg up her vagina. Having a crystal egg up her vagina made it difficult to walk, which made her thoughtful, which counted as meditation.”
Where do these thoughts come from? Who made them? How did it come to be that we now have crystal eggs up our vaginas?
Already it was becoming impossible to explain things she had done even the year before, why she had spent hypnotized hours of her life, say, photoshopping bags of frozen peas into pictures of historical atrocities, posting OH YES HUNNY in response to old images of Stalin, why whenever she liked anything especially, she said she was going to “chug it with her ass.” Already it was impossible to explain these things.
Ifirst encountered Lockwood, as many people did, on Twitter, where she has a large and devoted fandom, and where her current profile bio identifies her as a “hardcore berenstain bare-it-all.” One of the early Twitter projects that won her readers, circa 2011, was a series of “sexts” riffing on what was at the time an ascendant phenomenon of interpersonal communication, and turning it into a poetic mode.
This kind of weird, slyly sophisticated humor, and a deep commitment to the profane as a tool for revelation and critique, are hallmarks of Lockwood’s style. Her high-low panache extends to her fierce and wonderful literary criticism for the London Review of Books, where she’s written about Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Carson McCullers, Joan Didion, and others. About Didion, she remarks: “It would be possible to write a parody of her novels called Desert Abortion—in a Car. Possible, but why? The best joke you could make wouldn’t touch her.”
Despite her concerns about the individual mind’s dilution in the great tidal insanity of Online Discourse, Lockwood is a stylist who only ever sounds like herself. Her first poetry collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black (2012), contains poems with titles like “Killed With an Apple Corer, She Asks What Does That Make Me” and “The Salesmen Open Their Trenchcoats, All Filled With Possible Names for the Watch.” Penguin published her second collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, in 2014 after one of its poems went viral, a response to a public debate at the time about whether rape jokes could ever be funny, which played out within a larger debate about whether women were categorically less funny than men. “The rape joke is that you were 19 years old,” the poem begins. “The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend … The rape joke is he was a bouncer, and kept people out for a living / Not you!”
“Rape Joke” established Lockwood’s talent for speaking the language of the zeitgeist and knifing the zeitgeist’s heart in the same gesture—her ability to win at both humor and lacerating critique. In her 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, Lockwood recounts growing up as the daughter of one of the only married Catholic priests in the world (her father had been a Lutheran minister, but petitioned to be reordained), which gives some context to her sensibility: She weaponizes hyperbole and irreverence as only a person raised on Roman Catholicism and then weaned on the internet can. In Priestdaddy, when she’s asked for descriptions of her poetry to fuel “the machinery of book publication,” she considers suggesting as her plaudit: “Electrifying … like if a bumblebee stang you right on the clit.”
Lockwood’s affinity for the surreal, for baroque wit, for the sexually weird, for the inane and shocking—for the “worst things the English language is capable of,” as she phrased it to The New York Times Magazine—has made her one of the most interesting writers of the past 10 years. It has also made her a master of Twitter. (Her feed remains disturbing and hilarious. In November, she posted the back end of an uncastrated hog, generously endowed. Another time: “Was asked to pitch something to a ‘women’s magazine’ and the first thing that came to mind was ‘Covid Gave Me Really Soft Pubes Like A Chinchilla’ … but on second thought I’ll be saving that for a men’s magazine.”) But in No One Is Talking About This, Lockwood betrays suspicion of the skills that she wields with relish. She turns her critical streak toward the medium in which her writing, and her public life, has been forged.
The first half of No One Is Talking About This has the feeling of an endless scroll—it’s largely made up of brief, one-to-four-sentence increments, approximately tweet-length, rendered in super-close third person. These seem to have little relation to one another chronologically, and they don’t proceed logically. Instead, they are sporadic and self-contained: a joke, a story, a note, a question, a pithy comment. They pass the way social-media feeds pass. “Why were we all writing like this now?” the protagonist wonders. “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.”
The portal, the protagonist realizes, “had also once been the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually it had become the place where we sounded like each other, through some erosion of wind or water on a self not nearly as firm as stone.” She meets people at events on her tours who remember her old blog, and she remembers their blogs. “Tears sparked in her eyes instantaneously … His had been one of her very favorite lives.” But is any of this real? Real to whom? Real in what sense? Anyway, the self (whose self?) devised on the internet vanishes. “Myspace was an entire life,” she half-sobs at an event. “And it is lost, lost, lost, lost!”
The narrator’s endless, directionless tumble in time and language is interrupted by the hard stop of a very offline tragedy. Her younger sister, who is “leading a life that was 200 percent less ironic than hers,” is pregnant, and something has gone terribly wrong. The baby has Proteus syndrome, which causes tissues in some parts of the body to grow far out of correct proportion. The baby’s head is too big: She’s unlikely to survive birth, and certainly won’t survive infancy.
Proteus syndrome is a poetic choice here, an ironic choice even. It is a biological hyperbole suited to the sensibilities of the internet: runaway proliferation turning the body into a wildly exaggerated, Daliesque version of itself. It is surreality visited on the human form. With a less skillful writer, this would be a heavy-handed—or worse, manipulative—plot device, but the baby and her terminal condition turn the book into something unexpected: not a tragedy, but a romance. The baby is born and—improbably—survives, and Lockwood’s narrator is immediately and wholly lovestruck by this tiny creature and her runaway everything. “In every reaching cell of her she was a genius.” She is obsessed with the baby’s body, with the way the baby experiences the world purely physically and not in her mind, or in The Mind.
Her fingertips, her ears, her sleepiness and her wide awake, a ripple along the skin wherever she was touched. All along her edges, just where she turned to another state … The self, but more, like a sponge.
Through this baby, the narrator falls out of the life she spent “with a notebook, painstakingly writing ‘oh my god—thor’s hammer was a chode metaphor’ with a feeling of unbelievable accomplishment.” She falls “out of the broad warm us, out of the story that had seemed, up till the very last minute, to require her perpetual co-writing.” Now she realizes that it doesn’t need her co-writing, and that she maybe doesn’t care.
Through the membrane of a white hospital wall she could feel the thump of the life that went on without her, the hugeness of the arguments about whether you could say the word retard on a podcast. She laid her hand against the white wall and the heart beat, strong and striding, even healthy. But she was no longer in that body.
Lockwood uses the same language to describe the internet—a broad, warm body; a strong heartbeat—and the fragile corporeality of the baby, though those two domains are mutually incompatible. The baby the narrator can hold in her arms; the baby is broken and holy. The internet is elsewhere, voracious, profane. But they act on her similarly. The internet is a collective reality that swallows and reconfigures us—it is a kind of corpus. And so, of course, is the one truly universal human experience: confronting mortality. The truth of the body that suffers and fails is a reality—a hyper-reality, an inevitability—just as ready to swallow and reconfigure her. Which body does this narrator love? To which does she wish to ultimately belong?
Fortunately, Lockwood doesn’t make her narrator piously renounce her wild tweeting in favor of the “real world,” whatever that might mean. There’s a joke (on the internet) about the “broken brain”—“The internet broke my brain,” people commonly lament. The narrator has a broken brain, still; it’s just that now she has an incandescently broken heart, too. Sitting next to the baby, who is struggling to breathe, she is Googling Ray Liotta’s plastic surgery. She is telling the baby about Marlon Brando because “one of the fine spendthrift privileges of being alive [is] wasting a cubic inch of mind and memory on the vital statistics of Marlon Brando.” She is grieving and scrolling. Reading this, I suddenly remembered sitting in a hospital room, next to a loved one on a ventilator, and trying to scroll back through years of images online of some random dancer’s nondancing twin to see whether she, too, had a fraught relationship with her arms on account of having been raised in a religious cult. We’re so weird. Why are we like this?
The second half of the book, in which the narrator is newly deranged by the immovable reality of loving what must die—in addition to being deranged by the portal, which feels, by contrast, both eternal and editable—is electric with tenderness. “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.” She becomes like the baby, who “could not tell the difference between beauty and a joke.”
Lockwood’s genius for irony is matched by the radiance of her reverence, when she lets it show. A glory, the portal tells her, is also what you call the round rainbow that plane passengers sometimes see haloing the plane’s shadow as it moves through mist. “Every time she looked out the window it was there, traveling fleetly over clouds that had the same dense flocked pattern that had begun to appear on the baby’s skin, the soles of her feet and palms of her hands, so she seemed to have weather for finger and footprints.” Glories follow her through the sky, made only of water and light. Unusually for me, I wept through parts of this book, but in the best, beautiful-sad-music way—a grand success, the aliens would say.