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‘No One Is Talking About This’ by Patricia Lockwood Review: An Online Consciousness

Photo by Chris J. Davis (from Unsplash)

Culture Editor Alex Blank reviews Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel “No One Is Talking About This” and its representation of an online consciousness.

Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel, “No One Is Talking About This,” shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is a fragmentary anti-meditation on living and breathing online, in the throes of an all-consuming communal mind and an ironic consciousness as a default.

In Part 1, an unnamed woman becomes famous for her “Can a dog be twins?” tweet – inspired by Lockwood’s real-life “So is Paris any good or not” viral tweet – and travels around the world doing whatever it is social media famous people do to spread her wisdom. The book is a mixture of the messages she receives and sends, real-life viral tweets, bits of conversations with other influencers, ruminations on the modern-world claustrophobia, and the constant background presence of the unnamed dictator, all within a looming how-did-we-get-here-ness of it. As reality feels like a dream or a simulation, she rides along with the current, in the paradoxical public-private online universe; or, as the book refers to it, the portal.

In Part 2, there is a visible shift towards the offline world – though the fidgety nature of the book remains the same throughout – as the protagonist’s sister is pregnant, and learns that her unborn child has Protean Syndrome (a condition most well known from the film “Elephant Man”). In this section, the woman is forcefully back in reality, as she gets to fall in love with her niece, rediscovering the vividness and openness of living in the real world, which is followed by dealing with loss over the baby’s death.

By the end, the character feels like she doesn’t belong to the portal anymore. As she re-experiences real life, and reminisces about the niece who had almost belonged to a new and hopeful landscape, a world to come, this changes everything for her. But, at the same time, it doesn’t. At one point, she reflects:

“Would it change her? Back in her childhood she used to have holy feelings, knifelike flashes that laid the earth open like a blue watermelon, when the sun came down to her like an elevator she was sure she could step inside and be lifted up, up, past all bad luck, past every skipped thirteenth floor in every building human beings had ever built. She would have these holy days and walk home from school and think, After this I will be able to be nice to my mother, but she never ever was. After this I will be able to talk only about what matters, life and death and what comes after, but still she went on about the weather.”

Aren’t many of us like this, to an extent? We have moments of serenity, beauty, epiphany; we look at nature and really feel the world; we experience Woolfian moments of being -  until we are lured back online. We’re, once again, confused by the blurred lines between truth and lie, sense and nonsense, lost in the grotesque internet vocabularies that make us seem hazy and not entirely human. Can we ever get out? And what about the baby, along with the other hidden treasures of the world: unknown, unnoticed, not flashy, performative or sensational? Well, as the title implies: no one is talking about them.

I finished the book in two days, eyes jumping from one section to another, akin to the way one tends to consume social media, I suppose. As I’m not twitter-savvy, I found the text isolating at times, but I think that might be the point. The portal we’re all in is so vast, no one consumes or possesses the same pieces of it. We might all be walking in circles that clash and intermingle, but our search histories are a scarily individual thing. As familiar as certain references were to me, others were obscure, which shows that no one really belongs in the portal, not fully. It’s a space that is both public and perversely intimate, democratic and exclusionary, open and closed off on itself. We cannot enter it and remain fully ourselves, fully alive in the real world. I don’t think we can.

“Everything tangled in the string of everything else”, the woman states, no context needed, as the danger lies not in having to manage the online entangled with the offline, but rather in treating the former as a default and the latter becoming nothing but layers of mind-junk falling over itself. As grateful I am for the luxuries of technology, I do worry about the blurriness of the world without full sentences, as well as invisible groupthink dynamics, even among the best of us.

That being said, I don’t necessarily see the book as a critique or a commentary. It is more of an unfiltered modern consciousness, where the two worlds we all juggle are not entirely compatible; and it seems as confused as we are.

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