Patricia Lockwood’s Booker nominated No One Is Talking About This is now out in paperback. I know because I went out, bought it, and read it. In real life. It is one of the most widely reviewed novels of 2021, in part because Lockwood is unquestionably an exciting writer with a clear voice and real style, but also because this book was a potential candidate for carrying home the title of “The Great Internet Novel”.
The events of NOITAT track the contours and trajectory, both broadly and in many details, of Lockwood’s own life, starting with becoming internet famous. The protagonist, who we assume is half-Lockwood, is brought to the center of the online stage for asking “can a dog be twins?”. Because we are to understand that virality really can hinge on something so slight. Actual-Lockwood achieved some kind of Twitter fame for retweeting the Paris Review, asking “So is Paris any good or not”, although I believe her trajectory involved more than that one tweet. A dog can in fact be twins, although very rarely in the sense of actually being identical twins (or so Google tells me). Half-Lockwood’s joke is funny in the same way that slant rhyme rhymes. It is also pretty dumb, and I have to wonder if there is some commentary in Lockwood’s part on the disproportionate accolade such a dumb joke can receive online. People write about her Paris Review tweet as if it was the height of wit, but really it just flatters a reader for knowing what the Paris Review even is.
Written in the manner of oblique fragments, NOITAT might evoke for some the fragmentary, non-linear nature of social media — or “the portal” as it is referred to. But my own reading left me recalling Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer with her flashcuts jumping in and out of scenes, with the typical literary constructions and table setting eschewed, leaving you to carefully to follow the thread of each sentence so you can hopefully make it to the eventual destination. Fortunately, I have a better grasp on memes than I did on Central American politics in the seventies. But God help you if you are not on some basic level online.
Lockwood has an almost Talismanic status in the world of young and hip American lit. She does not have an MFA and did not attend college. Here is the immaculately conceived American poet, free from the sin of credentialism, the careerism, and the workshopping. Evidence that perhaps free verse isn’t just bullshit you have to attend grad school to “appreciate”. There is a wonderful passage in Priestdaddy where she describes the depth of texture and connotation words have for her, and reading it you too can begin to believe.
I am a great fan of her writing, especially the memoir. And also especially in the context of a certain popular idea of what constitutes good writing. The suggestion that dialogue tags would perhaps be best restricted to the inoffensive “said”, “asked”, and “told”, has become a stupefying dictum, so it is a pleasure to be reading a writer who is not afraid to have their speech “yelled”, “yelped”, “hissed”, and even “peeped” when the occasion arises. But that is to under-represent Lockwood’s qualities as a prose stylist. Even after the critics have had their pickings you can still find “the unstoppable jigsaw roll of tanks”, and now I too am one of those critics, unfortunately.
If the first half of the novel sees the half-Lockwood protagonist being submerged, and possibly drowned in the online, the second half finds her abruptly washed up on shore to deal with Real Life — not only in the world of flesh and blood, a life-threatening pregnancy, and a rare and terminal genetic disorder, but also Real as in we are still following events that actually transpired. What does it mean about very online life, that it served half-Lockwood very badly in these circumstances? What does it mean that online life is not well suited to these truths?
If I had a dollar for every time I made a friend laugh… Well, at best this would be a strange side hustle. But I don’t get a dollar for making casual quips. Nor for the hot takes or deeper thoughts I impart to those about me. Actual humour writing, as with all writing, is a harder, more laboured, and quite deliberate practice when it has to be done consistently and in quantity. Yet a lot of the internet seems to offer up the possible promise getting all those likes and subscribes for basically turning up and being you. Twitter, Youtube, and podcasts can give you the impression that sometimes it is simply a matter of typing it into your phone, or just setting the tape rolling. But after a while some of that back and forth between the hosts, and quite a lot of that laughter, feels more laboured than it should. Do I really believe that the Youtuber really captured the unpracticed vitality of their own genuine laughter?
Obviously not. It was all — or at least most of it — utterly scripted. Which in general is fine. There should be some mediation between our personal and public lives. A kind of negotiation and consideration. What is captured in NOITAT is an experience from the small class of people (workers? writers? creators?), mostly very young, who have been able to put a relatively unmediated portion of themselves out onto the web for the viewing benefit of the rest of us. Who have committed themselves to being “very online”. Because most people are not “very online”. For most of us there is a line, and although we may occasionally find ourselves on the wrong side of it, we get to enjoy the separation.
I think when critics were scouring the Earth for the “Great Internet Novel” they were hoping for all the sordid vicarious thrills that you might expect from a medium that has offered us strange new breeds of humour and fed our prurient desire for the salacious. Half-Lockwood’s “very online” quickly seems very exhausting. The contradictions and hypocrisy and inconsistency was already self diagnosed on the portal itself before it even arrived on the printed page. But all this is the point, I suspect.