Books

“My Book Smells Better Than Twitter Smells”

A conversation with Patricia Lockwood, right after she took a sleeping pill.

A woman in a white shirt leans against a brick wall.
“Do I look like a person who makes arguments? Is this like high school debate club?” Grep Hoax

The first half of the poet Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel No One Is Talking About This is a beautiful, unnerving simulacrum of the experience of living on and talking about the internet, as Lockwood’s unnamed narrator travels the world participating in panel discussions about “the portal,” as she calls the new world. The second half veers sharply into the real, as the narrator’s infant niece, stricken with the genetic disorder Proteus syndrome, becomes the sun around which her family revolves. I talked to Lockwood about being part of the perfect Internet generation, about her real-life niece’s story, and about her famous cat, Miette—replaced, in the novel, by a cat named Dr. Butthole. She’s a self-described “loudmouth,” and also, she told me, “I went to take a vitamin just now, and I took a sleeping pill instead, so I can feel myself even getting a little bit chattier.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed, but not very much.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I’m very struck by the metaphor of “the portal” for the internet. What I like is the physicality of it. It suggests that you’re leaving yourself a little bit when you go to this place. It’s not just you sitting on your butt, looking at your phone or looking at a computer. When you think back on sort of the early promise of the portal for you, was there some measure of escape that you got out of it?

It was definitely an escape, but what it felt like is in a movie where you go through the wormhole and everything goes plaid, and your face hurtles away from you, light-years away or into the future. It felt like Stargate, for sure, when you dip the face in. My very early experiences of the internet were that it was definitely an escape portal. It was, for me, a very educational place. It was the place that I went to learn about things, but also to meet other people who were interested in that, who were interested in hurtling their faces forward, interested in learning about things as well.

Advertisement
Advertisement

How old were you when you first started dealing with the internet?

So I’m from the perfect internet generation, and you can put that in a pull quote because this is very important.

Will do.

I remember what it was like to not have the internet in your house, and then I remember what it was like to have the internet in your house. My dad was… he strongly believed that he was a computer genius, and he would build them from scratch. So we had these sort of like jerry-rigged Frankensteins in our homes, and they would always be in the corner of the living room or the TV room. I was about maybe 11 or 12. And what I really remember afterwards is that the information that came to me was not as controlled, and I’m not sure if my parents were actually aware of that.

Advertisement

I’m sure at that point, they had no idea.

They had no idea. No. I don’t even know what my father was doing on the internet. Maybe he just considered it a sort of tiny submarine that he was building in our house.

But yeah, so suddenly there was this place in the corner where you could go, and the information you received seemed free, which had never been true my entire life. I lived in a very tightly controlled sphere of information previous to that time.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Right. I have a kid exactly that age, basically, but I feel like I have a firm grasp on all the good and the evil the internet can do.

But you probably don’t. That’s the whole point of being the parent.

Advertisement

No. It’s also sort of the point of the portal, that no one can actually understand everything that lies within it.

Right. Right. You don’t get to the end of it. You reach your hand out, and you put it in the goo.

Reading the first half of the novel made my brain feel the exact same way that being on the internet feels. There’s lots of delight wrapped up in that and also lots of dread. What argument would you make to someone for reading the novel, as opposed to just looking at their phone for four hours?

Do I look like a person who makes arguments? Is this like high school debate club? I don’t do that.

Oh, I think the book makes a very specific argument!

Well, then I need to know what it is before I can answer. Or wait, no, that’s cheating. OK, you know what the book fetishists all talk about is that my book is going to smell better than a phone smells. It’s certainly going to smell better than Twitter smells.

And I don’t know if I agree. Maybe it’s because I was working on it so long, but it doesn’t feel exactly like the internet to me. I was attempting to reconstruct it, and I was attempting to make a slipstream or a timeline, but it’s also really composed of things that didn’t quite fit in the portal itself, that didn’t quite fit in the internet that I felt would take a more permanent place on the page.

Advertisement

Right. And that seems like the argument that the book is making. It’s not only that there are some things in real life that are so real that the portal can’t handle them. But the novel, as a form, offers something unique to house those kinds of experiences that the portal can’t. Because you chose to tell this story through a novel and not through a tweetstorm or whatever.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And maybe that quality is boundedness. Maybe it is the fact that it does have a beginning and an end, and so there is some form in which to hold this story, whereas if you just put a story into the portal, it does slide away from you. It’s no longer within your reach.

Advertisement

Authors of first novels sometimes seem to want to doggedly separate their own lives from the subjects of their books.

And I don’t give a shit about that, Dan.

So the acknowledgements seem to make clear. You’re clearly inviting readers to make that connection, up to and including posting a link to learn more about Proteus syndrome.

Yeah.

Was your experience with your niece the inciting event for wanting to find a way to put this experience someplace other than the portal? Was that the impetus for starting this novel? Or were you already well into the process of trying to write this?

Advertisement

Well into it. Yes. So you actually do see the break. You see the moment that real life enters. So in the first half, obviously, I would say the majority of that is fictionalized in some way. And it’s much less fictionalized when you come to the second half, because I wanted the reader to see that moment. She’s been holding hands with the rest of the world, and then suddenly she was on her own, and she was more with her family.

Advertisement

I was always going to talk about Lena in the acknowledgements because it feels correct to honor her there. It would feel, I think, like I was hiding someone, hiding something, hiding someone if I didn’t let her name stand right at the very end there in that pride of place that I think that it really deserves. And I also wanted to thank people who did play such an instrumental role in my life, in her life, nurses, organizations, the people who bring in the little dog. You want to thank those people. And my sense of my precious, precious art, I don’t think it rises above that desire to thank.

And the novel includes structures that allow you to do stuff like that. There’s a physical place in it for a dedication, which is not something that most other art forms have. And there’s a physical place in it for acknowledgements, which is something that most other art forms don’t have.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But that does make me wonder when the acknowledgements, as we currently understand them, came to be. I feel like it’s more recent. I don’t feel like acknowledgements were always like this.

That’s true. I think acknowledgements used to be one sentence long, and it’s only in the last 15 years that they have become more than one page long.

And maybe the internet actually had something to do with that. It seems like an entrance of real life into the form.

Are there novels that were useful to you as you were thinking about how to tell this story?

Not really.

Perfect answer.

“I’ve never read a novel before!” No, I grew up reading poetry that worked in fragments, and I grew up reading novels that worked in fragments. So we consider it a recent phenomenon, and it’s really not. And I have talked about people like David Markson being very important to me in sort of helping shape a consciousness of a novel that works just as much from the readers’ industry as it does from the writer’s.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I have a question that I’m embarrassed to ask.

Not at all.

I don’t know how to pronounce your cat’s name.

Miette! [Pronounced “me-ett.”]

Thank you.

I mean, that’s how I say it. It’s possible I am mispronouncing my own cat’s name.

Maybe I’ll follow up with her, but can you just talk for a minute about her feelings about the cat in this novel?

She’s very angry about it, Dan, and I don’t see her getting over it anytime soon. What you need to understand is that Dr. Butthole, the cat in the novel, is largely based on a cat named Fenriz, who is a boy cat. And Miette and he were raised from infancy together, and they were very, very much in love until tragedy struck. About two years ago, Miette needed to have a toe removed. And when she returned to the apartment, Fenriz no longer recognized her. And for a long time after that, he would try to fuck her every day with his ghost penis and his ghost balls, and she didn’t like that very much. So now they are estranged, and there is perhaps a sense of competition between them that did not exist previously. So that is where… That’s some of the background that comes into that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Having Fenriz immortalized in a published work seems challenging for Miette.

I mean, here’s the thing. Miette is too fucking famous to be in this book. She would take us out of it completely. It’d be like using Trump’s name. I trust that answers your question.

In full, yeah, I would say. So just based on your Twitter output, you seem significantly less online than you were once upon a time.

Isn’t everyone? Is anyone as online, except for like, I don’t know, Chris Hayes?

I think I’m online exactly as much as I always was.

How does that feel to you?

Bad! But to the extent that you are online, what role does the portal play in your emotional life now? Like what good does it do you?

Advertisement

There’s sort of just like a ghost presence. Your phone, at some point, became attached to your hand, right? And even if it’s no longer giving you anything, you keep lifting that hand, and you keep applying the phone to your face. This is maybe the sleeping pills starting to kick in, I’m starting to see images.

But there’s always been something about me, too. I talk a fucking lot, but it’s also easy for me to be quiet at times. I’m a loudmouth and a lurker. It’s very easy for me to fade into the shadows when I don’t feel that I have anything to say. Other people are more inclined to post through it than I am.

Advertisement

But it’s also true that over the past four years, there has just been a lot of tragedy in my life and in the lives of my family members. And when that’s happening, I mean, the phone may still be attached to your hand, but you’re using it to take pictures. You’re using it to text urgently. You’re not necessarily lifting it to your face and opening up the portal to dip your face in.

Advertisement
Advertisement

All right, last question, and then I’ll let you take a nap. I was very struck by the gag in the book about you and your high school classmates doing the Ken Burns Civil War voice while talking to each other.

Advertisement

I think that that was cut, ultimately.

Oh! It’s in the galley.

It’s in the galley, so you should put it in anyway.

Can I just run it in the interview?

You absolutely have my permission. What a juicy tidbit for you!

In high school, their class had spent three weeks watching Ken Burns’ documentary about the Civil War, which mainly consisted of slow zooms on the eyes of black-and-white photographs while boring letters were read aloud; this technique was referred to as an attempt to wake the dead. Afterward, she and her friends went through a phase: After relating some highly mundane detail of the day, some little patch of color that might be set down in a diary, they would drop their voices low and say, “Mary Chestnut”—dissolving into laughter every time, to the point where their one friend who sometimes peed her pants would jump up and run toward the bathroom, because what could be more hilarious than the thought of anyone living through history?

Advertisement
Advertisement

We also did that in high school. We also had a history teacher who just covered the Civil War by showing us the Ken Burns Civil War, except for—

Wait, how old are you?

I’m 46. The documentary was brand new when my high school history teacher did it. He was considered cutting-edge at the time.

Yeah!

So we did the exact same thing except for we always said, [low voice] “Sullivan Ballou.” But I feel like the last couple of years have taken some of the shine off of feeling like we’re living through history.

I think that might’ve actually been why I cut it.

It does not seem hilarious anymore.

On January 6th, everyone was like, “Well, I am tired now of living through history.” It wasn’t even just like a stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off feeling. It was like, “No, this metaphor has completely ripened, and in fact, it’s turning black in my hand. I no longer want to be living through history.” And yeah, at a certain point, things like that are just too sad to think about. Something begins as a pithy observation and turns into like a real glimpse of tragedy, I think.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

At a moment in your book when you maybe do not want that glimpse of tragedy.

Yeah. Maybe not yet. In that first half I was trying to create a very, very smooth texture, because you do want that feeling that everything is just covered in lube, and you’re just sliding down this luge hole. I might be mixing the metaphors a little bit now. Basically, it’s Cool Runnings, and we’re all coated in lube.

It’s the goo to which you previously referred.

It’s the goo, and we’re about to break the fucking sound barrier.