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Patricia Lockwood’s “internet novel” belies its categorization

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Riverhead Books, 224 pages.

The closest thing I have to an inviolable principle is that it is a sacrilege to read a good book on a screen. Setting aside paper’s many sentimental attractions (gluey smell, physical heft, ample space for scribbling), to which I will admit I am susceptible, to read on what is so hideously called an “e-reader” is to concede that literature is continuous with the internet, that non-place where people go to look up one word, only to resurface lifetimes later, dazed and dead-eyed, twenty minutes into a video of someone popping pimples with a special implement. The internet scoops out the mind and mashes it into wet pulp, which is to say that it is the opposite of a novel, at least when the novel is working.

But the task of literature is to reflect (if never just replicate) even unliterary or anti-literary realities, on pain of irrelevance. Contemporary fiction full of telegrams and analog phones would smack of contrivance and cutesy nostalgia, like TV shows in which the characters show up at each other’s houses to stage confrontations in person, instead of just texting angry emojis as actual people increasingly do. The internet is real life now. The question is not whether to fictionalize it but how to incorporate its distractions and derangements into a novel that is not hellish to read.

Patricia Lockwood, an early master of so-called Weird Twitter and an accomplished writer in virtually every genre, thinks that most would-be chroniclers of life online are failing. In her debut novel, No One Is Talking About This, the meme-addled protagonist laments, “They’re getting it all wrong, aren’t they? Already when people are writing about it, they’re getting it all wrong.” They’re getting it wrong in part because it’s mutating as fast as they can document it. “Already,” Lockwood writes,

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.

But contemporary writers are not only getting the internet wrong because they cannot keep up with it: they are also getting it wrong by way of getting it right. With the exception of Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers and early works from cyberpunk visionaries like William Gibson, “internet novels” have succeeded too entirely, which is to say that they are too exactly like being online. By “internet novels,” I do not mean books in which the internet features as incidental background infrastructure, like Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, or books in which the internet merely serves the plot, like Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill. I mean books that are, essentially, pickled in the internet—books that make a point of reproducing its formal foibles (fractured texture, overlong and under-punctuated sentences) and its tonal quirks (paranoiac paroxysms, disdainful despair). Books of this sort are often so charmed by their own stylistic eccentricity that they neglect to say anything, much less muster meaningful plots or characters. Insofar as they are about anything at all, they are about clicking around online, moving from one tab to another, letting YouTube videos lapse into further YouTube videos, refreshing and re-refreshing Google News whenever it begins to rot. In this way, too, they resemble the internet, which organizes information algorithmically but not novelistically and which can seem boring and aimless as a result. It is hard not to emerge from a novel written in Tweet-length pustules feeling the way I do after hour-long Instagram binges: stupefied, with little memory of what I have consumed, yet an overwhelming sense that it was insubstantial.

“Internet novels” have succeeded too entirely, which is to say that they are too exactly like being online.

The internet therefore presents both readers and writers with what can seem like an insuperable challenge: How are we to read about the internet without reading on it? And how are to write about it without writing like it? Nobody Is Talking About This, which I insisted on reading in physical form even though the publisher initially only offered a digital copy, presents a sort of solution. It does not read like a glorified timeline or a series of blogposts strung together into a chatty necklace, but like a work of a full-fledged literature. It gets the right things wrong, for which reason it may be one of the first works of contemporary internet fiction to get the important things right.

On the face of it, Nobody Is Talking About This has many of the familiar features of the internet novels that falter, at least by my Luddite lights. There are the obligatory quips about the looming climate apocalypse and the usual complaints about Trump, whom Lockwood refers to only as “the dictator.” There are several passages that are almost identical in upshot to segments from Jenny Offill’s Weather, a widely acclaimed internet novel that I found suspiciously breezy. Both books depict the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, and they draw near-identical lessons from Trump’s victory. Offill’s narrator reports, “My friend met me at the diner for coffee. His family fled Iran one week before the Shah fell. . . . Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.” Lockwood echoes these sentiments almost exactly, reflecting, “they had a dictator now, which, according to some people (white), they had never had before, and according to other people (everyone else), they had only ever been having, constantly, since the beginning of the world.”

Formally, too, Nobody Is Talking About This resembles Weather and other recent predecessors, among them Kate Zambreno’s Drifts. Both books are comprised of aphoristic fragments assembled in no particular order; chapter breaks feel arbitrary, though each short segment is palpably self-contained. (“Callout culture! Were things rapidly approaching the point where even you would be seen as bad?”) In Lockwood’s novel, there are soft intimations of events, and there are characters, but more than a plot or a cast there is an ambient situation, which is that an unnamed woman composes a viral tweet that reads, “Can a dog be twins?” This feat launches her to celebrity, and she tours the world giving lectures as an authority on digital culture. She has a cat named Dr. Butthole, a pregnant sister, and an improbably well-adjusted husband who appears every so often to demand explanations for her erratic, Extremely Online behavior. These are the facts buzzing around in the background as the protagonist scrolls through “the portal,” as she calls the internet. Or as Lockwood puts it:

These disconnections were what kept the pages turning . . . these blank spaces were what moved the plot forward. The plot! That was a laugh. The plot was that she sat motionless in her chair, willing herself to stand up and take the next shower in a series of near-infinite showers, wash all the things that made her herself, all the things that just kept coming, all the things that would just keep coming, until one day they stopped so violently on the sidewalk that the plot tripped over them, stumbled, and lurched forward one more innocent inch.

The plot inches, but the writing whirls. Its sensibility varies from one image or impression or pun or provocation to the next. Sometimes, Lockwood’s musings are earnestly wistful, as when the protagonist mourns the lost physicality of life offline, recalling the distant days when “your ear used to get soft, pink, and pliant, and the swirls of hair around it like damp designs, from talking on the telephone.” Sometimes, her nostalgia shades into persiflage, and she voices doubt that the era before the internet ever really existed except in folksy fantasy: “What, in place of these sentences, marched in the brains of previous generations? Folk rhymes about planting turnips, she guessed.” On the whole, and much to her credit, she avoids the stale snideness that often characterizes online interaction, opting instead for absurdist elation. Many of her funniest and most exuberant meditations are gleeful. Once, when her husband asks the protagonist what she is doing, she responds, incredulously, “What was she doing? Couldn’t he see her arms full of the sapphires of the instant? Didn’t he realize that a male feminist had posted a picture of his nipple that day?” Still, Lockwood does not paper over the desperation that the doomscroll so often instills. One day, the protagonist logs on and wonders, along with the other habitual posters, “are we all just going to keep doing this till we die?’”

The internet is many things, but it is rarely beautiful.

Throughout, Lockwood’s heroine worries that she has shed her individuality and been clawed into a collective consciousness: increasingly, “she [has] no idea where she [ends] and the rest of the crowd [begins].” “The mind,” which was once “the place where you sounded like yourself,” is rapidly becoming the place where “we [sound] like each other, through some erosion of wind or water on a self not nearly as firm as stone.” It isn’t clear to me, or to Lockwood’s fictional avatar, or probably to Lockwood herself, whether the forms of communal authorship that the internet enables are ultimately fruitful. She wonders why we are “all writing like this now,” and can’t decide whether it’s 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 we are writing the way the portal does—because, that is, the internet talks through us.

But Lockwood herself is not really writing in the portal’s language, except superficially. No One Is Talking About This is arranged in bursts, yes, but they do not sound like tweets or Instagram captions so much as lines of poetry. Lockwood’s first two books are, in fact, poetry collections, composed in the tone she takes up once again in her novel: they draw on language that originated online, but they do not capitulate to it, largely because they care to be ravishing. The internet is many things, but it is rarely beautiful. Much of the first half of No One Is Talking About This is written in the image-drunk, cascading register of surrealist prose. In the book’s opening passage, the protagonist enters the portal only to find that inside it is “tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything [lands] on her tongue and [melts].” Later, she recalls that

she lay every morning under an avalanche of details, blissed, pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying her foundation with a hard-boiled egg, a shiba inu in Japan leaping from paw to paw to greet its owner, ghostly pale women posting pictures of their bruises—the world pressing closer and closer, the spiderweb of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk . . .

And “each morning, expectant, opened the envelope of another day.”

Writing so evocative could not be more unlike the usual online slurry, for which reason No One Is Talking About This seems to go some ways towards extricating Lockwood from the hivemind and restoring her authorial agency. Still, it is difficult to imagine the structure that predominates for the first hundred pages sustaining an entire novel. After all, the protagonist just keeps scrolling, and material reality remains largely abstract.  Good thing, then, that the novel abruptly pivots and wrenches its heroine offline. 

The problem that Lockwood’s protagonist encounters is physical, though she finds out about it virtually, when her mother texts her “Something has gone wrong,” then “How soon can you get here?” What has gone wrong is that her sister’s unborn child has been diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, Proteus syndrome. Doctors are unsure whether the baby will be born alive, and even if she is, she will almost certainly prove unable to survive for long outside the womb. The pregnancy is dangerous and sure to be difficult, but the heroine’s religious parents oppose abortion, which in any case is illegal at so late a stage in the Middle American state where her sister lives.

In the face of a misfortune so corporeal, the protagonist’s habitual defenses are useless. “I’ll write an article,” she thinks, ridiculously. “I’ll blow the whole thing wide open! I’ll . . . I’ll . . . I’ll post about it!” But she doesn’t post about it, because she soon concludes that the internet is worse than useless: the mass-mind that animates it is actively repulsed by injury and sorrow. As Lockwood writes,

She went silent in the portal; she knew how it was. She knew that as you scrolled you averted your eyes from the ones who could not apply their lipstick within the lines, from the ones who were beginning to edge up into mania, from the ones who were Horny, from the dommes who were not remotely mean enough, from the nudeness that received only eight likes, from the toothpaste on the mirror in the bathroom selfies, from the potato salads that looked disgusting, from the journalists who were making mistakes in real time, from the new displays of animal weakness that told us to lengthen the distance between the pack and the stragglers. But above all you averted your eyes from the ones who were in mad grief, whose mouths were open like caves with ancient paintings inside.

One reason the internet is anti-literary, then, is its allergy to weakness and “vulnerability,” a word I can scarcely bring myself to type without scare-quotes, so too-online am I. But as soft and goopy and embarrassing and easily coopted as “vulnerability” may be, it is also an essential ingredient in the novelistic recipe. A book that is as self-defensive as the resident cynics of Twitter can only be empty and fatiguing—after all, what makes the internet itself so empty and fatiguing is that its denizens become as prickly as porcupines curled into guarded balls. To be Extremely Online is to hear the condemning voices echoing in your head until they become your head, to erect so many proleptic barricades that you become a barricade with nothing cowering behind it. A novel composed the way tweets are composed, a novel reverse-engineered to satisfy the shit-posters, cannot but take a riskless form, designed above all to deflect hypothetical blows inflicted by hypothetical writers of hypothetical hatchet jobs. Sometimes I wonder if the point of the “fragment novel” is to reduce the size of the target at which to swing the axe.

So much the worse for the internet, then. The baby is born despite the odds, and Lockwood’s protagonist logs off. All her worries about meme-doctoring “[fall] away as soon as the baby [is] placed in her arms.” Even “the previous unshakable conviction that someone else was writing the inside of her head” evaporates. The experience is scalding and renewing. She is sorry for her sister, enamored of her niece, and monumentally relieved to have escaped the portal and its emotional eviscerations. When she tries to “reenter” now, what she finds strikes her as irredeemably frivolous: “inside it everyone was having an enormous argument about whether they had ever thought the n-word, with some people actually professing that their minds blanked it out when they encountered it in a book.” She “[backs] out again without a sound.” What no one is talking about, it turns out, is everything but the internet.

Life still extends so far beyond the internet that it can pluck the portal right out of your grasping hands.

The best parts of No One Is Talking About This are the protagonist’s tender encounters with the baby, who suffers from a litany of health problems and is moribund almost from the start. The doctors cannot tell the family “how long they would have her, how long the open cloud of her would last.” These sections are occasionally twee, but for the most part both funny and touching. (As Lockwood writes of her protagonist, she cannot “tell the difference between beauty and a joke.”) When the heroine leans down to touch her niece, the moment is “so pristine and so meaningful that something must be done to alleviate it, so she [picks] up her phone and [begins] scrolling through Jason Momoa pics.” But when the book ends, the protagonist rejects even Jason Momoa pics: after the baby dies, she goes to a bar, where her phone is stolen for good.

The implication, I think, is that life still extends so far beyond the internet that it can pluck the portal right out of your grasping hands. Lockwood is not hostile to the sapphires of the instant, but she is not hostage to them either—and as a result, her novel is not hostage to the world in its current incarnation. No One Is Talking About This models the art of logging on, laughing, and logging off again. What else, really, could a novel that features the portal hope to do? If the internet is so terrible, so badly written, so flattening of the human element, so eye-glazing, so mind-mashing, so identity-warping, so attention-destroying, so capitalism-abetting, so character-annihilating, so plotless, so ugly, so boring—in a word, so hideously anti-novelistic—then the writer has no choice but to instantiate something better if she is to produce an aesthetically successful novel at all. A novel is barely a novel if it does not succeed in slipping your phone out of your pocket.

Indeed, the more I read the phrase “internet novel,” the more it seems to me to verge on pabulum. Is there really something distinctive about a book that mimics or mentions or in some way involves a medium that is as much a part of the modern landscape as the shower head? There is a reason we do not speak of “phone novels” or “flag semaphore novels” or “novels in which people talk”: these novels do have something in common—as do novels containing the word “the” or novels with blue covers—but what they have in common is not especially meaningful. Even epistolary novels are not about letters as such so much as what the letters in question say. A medium bears on but does not constitute a message. Like every worthwhile piece of fiction, a so-called internet novel must be, at heart, about human interactions, facilitated or hindered as they are by new forms of communication.

No One Is Talking About This is a good novel because it is more essentially about the brief life of a baby than about time spent browsing a website. It does not really answer the question of how a book about the internet should be, except to suggest that the best books about the internet will be about the people who resist it. I hope we will read them on paper.