“God has given us the internet as a hamster wheel… strap in and ride, bitch,” Patricia Lockwood tweeted gleefully in January. The droll author has just released her first novel, No One Is Talking About This, in which she channels the whirling dervish of feeling awestruck/horrified/seduced by the online experience: that “new slipstream of information,” that locus of “context collapse!” Lockwood has previously published two books of poetry and the 2017 memoir Priestdaddy and contributes to the London Review of Books (including an uproarious deep dive into John Updike’s slimy catalogue). Her latest work features an unnamed woman with ascendant social media notoriety navigating what she terms “the portal,” a Donnie Darko-sounding term for inglorious Twitter.
“The portal” is a mélange of observations (“Capitalism! It was important to hate it, even though it was how you got money”) and imagistic curios (“a chihuahua perched on a man’s erection,” memorably). A critic for Bookforum marveled of Lockwood: “Reading her metaphors is like watching someone pull out a scalpel and cut the cleanest line you’ve ever seen, and then in the next sentence throw the knife over her shoulder with her eyes closed, grinning.” In a whiplash shift of tone, the novel’s second half shifts the stakes from digital absurdities to heartsick circumstances around early mortality and deep loss.
Lockwood spoke to ELLE.com via email about rethinking approaches to history, replicating internet behavioral patterns in literature, and the real necessity of charging one’s phone in a separate room at night.
Why the title No One is Talking About This? What is being overlooked?
I liked the idea of there being an echo of internet language in the title, something almost co-written, that had been passed from hand to hand and put to many different purposes. And the protagonist puts the line to her own purpose in the second half of the book; she speaks of wanting to stop people in the hallways, grip them by the arm, and tell them what is happening to her and the people she loves. “Do you know about this? No one is talking about this!” I think in that moment, “this” becomes an all-encompassing word, able to contain anything, even a whole human life.
Can you elaborate on form and the decision to create these ultra-short vignettes, or glimpses? How do they coalesce into a novel?
I don’t think I could’ve written it any other way—I had to work in the portal’s own form. The book had to resemble that reading experience, both in its fragmented nature and its sense of falling through a series of someone else’s thoughts.
And as for it coalescing, part of the danger and the exhilaration of working on a book like this is that you don’t know if it ever fully does. It’s like the mercury the protagonist speaks of in the novel’s second half; the beads of it are always trembling toward each other, trying to come together into one shining piece.
Can you talk about the two parts? Why unite these disparate-feeling moods?
“Disparate-feeling moods” is probably an understatement, haha. The first part takes place mostly inside the internet, so we see the protagonist’s face lit by that gentle blue glow. The second part is set in the heart of her family, and the light is that fluorescent light that we experience in the most urgent human situations. I united those moods for the simple reason that life unites them: Real life breaks in on us when we are doing something else, mindlessly moving among unexamined others, wasting our wonderful time.
The book at once skewers absurdist aspects of the internet but also conveys that absurdity is a modern cultural currency—that it’s part of what it’s important to be knowledgeable about, to be in on the joke. For example: “They were going to remember, ‘Can a dog be twins?’ instead of the date of the Treaty of Versailles, which, let’s face it, she didn’t know either.” How do you sift through these kinds of things yourself? That is to say: How do you determine your own informational hierarchies?
Are we even in charge of our own informational hierarchies? I don’t know the date of the Treaty of Versailles, but in its place I’m storing the memory of that video a woman made to explain Gritty to the French. “Gritty is popular because of nihilism. For some time, Americans have felt that life has no meaning. Gritty also has no meaning.” It might seem that we have willfully and obstinately chosen the path of the absurd, but I think we have done so for a reason. The stones of history—the facts, the dates, the interpretations—no longer march in any sort of order, and neither does there seem to be an overarching narrative to modern life. How else have we experienced the last four, ten, twenty years but as an endless series of absurdities? To reflect that is realism, not perversity.
In a 2014 New York Times profile, you stated, of your approach to reading: “I wasn’t concerned about taste…I wanted to know things.” Has this remained true over time? As someone working as a literary critic for the LRB, you might now be considered a tastemaker yourself.
Perhaps I should have said that I wasn’t concerned about having good taste, because I knew that was a standard I would never meet. But this knowledge freed me too. It allowed me to…hunt my own Bigfoot, is what I wanted to write, so I’ll just go with that. I was able to be idiosyncratic in my reading, my obsessions, the literary routes I traveled. As for my own criticism, I do write about a lot of dead people, and it’s hard to be wrong about dead people in a way that anyone cares about. So I wouldn’t describe myself as a tastemaker so much as a little freaky clerk in the dead letter office, or a silverfish that has turned completely transparent in a library.
Does being a literary critic shape, or seep into, being a writer?
As a critic you pay more attention to structure—you often have to reverse-engineer a novel in order to think about it roundly. So probably some of those thoughts about structure do make their way into my own work, buttress it a bit, give it a nice bony nose. But my turn as a critic is also fairly recent, within the last few years, and I developed my voice and my aesthetic long before I thought of writing from the other side.
I love that Lisa Hanawalt did some of your previous covers. How did that collaboration come about?
2011 Twitter was truly a wild wild west; we followed each other early on and I think I just asked her! I even paid myself for her cover art for Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, which I love so much. We definitely share an aesthetic that is very centered on the body but also out in space, shooting starlight from every hole. Cartoonish, in the most playful sense of the word.
Do you often have a visual vision of your work?
I do often have a vision of my work—I’m an unusually visual reader and that extends to my writing as well. I experience individual words as both images and tactile sensations, which I guess qualifies as synesthesia, though my form of it is not very flashy. Actually, I had a bit in the book for a while that talked about the protagonist’s “overly literal case of synesthesia, where she saw ice cubes when she read the word “refrigerator” and heard a fife whenever she thought about the Revolutionary War, and that’s pretty much me.
Do you have an internet routine or any kind of parameters you set for yourself? What is considered too online, and how often do you tip over?
It’s the easiest rule, and so impossible to live by: Don’t look at your phone first thing in the morning! Charge it in another room, so you don’t wake up at 4 a.m. and accidentally learn something new from British Twitter about Piers Morgan! No, when I’m living my best life I’m surrounded by books and pens and papers until three or four in the afternoon, totally absorbed, with a cat spread completely across my notebook because she hates all my ideas and wants me to become a tuna fisherman. “Too online” for me is absolutely a physical sensation, as it must be for all of us. When my blood starts to feel like Predator blood, I know that I have to get off.
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