Books

Lost in the Portal

Patricia Lockwood’s novel of a life lived online.

A woman sits in front of a laptop against a sunset sky.
“The plot! That was a laugh. The plot was that she sat motionless in her chair.” Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Depicting how the internet has changed our lives isn’t unusual in fiction and memoir anymore, but replicating on the page how the internet has changed the way we think is another matter. The splintered, multivocal, interactive flow of social media feels inimical to the single, sustained voice of the novelist, intoning for page after page, unretweetable and impervious to our DMs. As the nameless main character of Patricia Lockwood’s first novel, No One Is Talking About This, walks into Stephen’s Green in Dublin, she thinks, “the communal stream of consciousness began to flow toward the rigid bust of Joyce.” Joyce may have mastered the early 20th-century version of stream of consciousness, but, as she asks an audience during one of the many public appearances she makes in the novel, “what about the stream-of-a-consciousness that is not entirely your own? One that you participate in, but that also acts upon you?”

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She calls the internet “the portal,” and it’s the source of her own fame and the force that carries her from Dublin to Sydney to Berlin and many points between. The main character—which is what I’ll call this young Midwesterner for the sake of simplicity—went viral with a one-line post: “Can a dog be twins?” This has earned her a “certain airy prominence,” leading to constant invitations to “speak from what felt like a cloud bank, about the new communication, the new slipstream of information.” She is fully aware of how absurd her career as a public intellectual is, but she also loves it.

Lockwood herself went viral in 2013, with a considerably more substantial poem, “Rape Joke,” published on the late lamented website the Awl. That led to book contracts, a profile in the New York Times Magazine, and a review in the New Yorker, which is pretty impressive for any poet, and especially one who did not enjoy formal academic training or the connections that come with it. Every poem Lockwood had published before “Rape Joke”—as she mentions in her 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy—was fished out of a slush pile by some enterprising young editor. But the accelerator of her fame is Twitter. Lockwood is a member, a co-creator really, of a group that some people (although none of the people in it) call “weird Twitter”—a loose collective that swaps surreal and satirical aphorisms, wordplay, and jokes, often late at night. Among them, Lockwood specializes in trippy, bawdy tweets issuing from a persona who resembles the prankster literary love child of Salvador Dalí and the Wife of Bath:

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The narrative of No One Is Talking About This comes at the reader in disconnected fragments, stand-alone collections of two or three paragraphs that often carry a one-liner in their tail like the sting of a scorpion. “ ‘Don’t normalize it!!!!!’ we shouted at each other,” Lockwood writes of the response to an unspecified Trumpian outrage. “But all we were normalizing was the use of the word normalize, which sounded like the action of a ray gun wielded by a guy named Norm to make everyone around him Norm as well.”

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This flotsam and jetsam, much of it astute and studded with metaphors of jolting perfection (“Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate”), mimics the effect of “the portal” on the main character’s mind. On all our minds really. No one has better described the narcotic alertness, the context-free connectedness of this browsing state:

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.

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But what feels most original in No One Is Talking About This is Lockwood’s depiction of the shaping pressure of social media on the self. “Your behavior was subtly modified against humiliations, chastisements, censures you might receive,” she writes, imagining an individual’s acculturation to a niche-interest message board. “You anticipated arguments against you and played them out in the shower.” The way the online group mind shifts and writhes fascinates her, even when its intentions are aggressive. “Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole. It was not so much the hatred she was interested in as the swift attenuation, as if their collective blood had made a decision.” This sensation of commonality makes her feel more a part of the world—her heart pounding as she learns, while it happens, of Heather Heyer’s murder during the Charlottesville protests—but it also foments paranoia about one day becoming the target herself and cast from “the broad warm us,” into a primordial state of unbelonging. And is it really such a great thing, she wonders after saying something inappropriate to her father, that fewer and fewer thoughts are going unexpressed?

Presumably, No One Is Talking About This is an autobiographical novel, given that the main character, her experiences, her family, and the stuff she posts closely resemble Lockwood’s own. The author has made some strategic alterations. Lockwood’s father is a Catholic priest (long story short: He was a Lutheran minister who converted and received a dispensation to remain married to the mother of his children) with whom she clashes on such issues as abortion rights. The main character’s father is a former cop, which vexes her when her amorphous yet potent online community demands that she hate the police.

Throughout the first of the novel’s two parts, the book appears simply to be a depiction of how it feels to be both extremely online and very good at it. This flood of shards is not a narrative, let alone a plot, but maybe that’s the point—or at least that’s what I found myself thinking, skeptically. After all, Lockwood, too seems to see it that way: “The plot! That was a laugh. The plot was that she sat motionless in her chair.”

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The author Patricia Lockwood stands against a brick wall.
Patricia Lockwood. Grep Hoax

So does any novel reader. But No One Is Talking About This does turn out to have a story to tell. In the novel’s second part, the main character learns that, back in her Midwestern home town, her beloved sister’s pregnancy is in peril; the baby has a genetic defect similar to that of Joseph “Elephant Man” Merrick. It’s at first uncertain whether the baby will be born, or that her sister will survive the birth, and it’s this event that brings on a crisis in the main character’s relationship to the internet. “Oh, she thought hazily, falling rainwise like Alice, finding tucked under her arm the bag of peas she once photoshopped into pictures of historical atrocities, oh, have I been wasting my time?”

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Occasionally, Lockwood seems to have stacked the deck a bit against the portal. Every line the main character feeds into its eager maw (“garfield is a body-positivity icon,” “abraham lincoln is daddy,” “the eels in London are on cocaine”) looks inane compared with the frequently radiant prose of the novel itself, and is also less clever than Lockwood’s own tweets (“When I Am Dead… Please… Paint Abs on My Ghost”). Even before her sister’s pregnancy, the main character worries that the riches of the internet, which seems as free and easy as “God’s own flowers,” are “poisonous” and used by “enemies” to manipulate her generation: “Had they made us weak with intermittent fasting? Had they wasted our evenings with the detective show that no one could understand?” But she can’t figure out how to voice these reservations without sounding like a fogey. “All writing about the portal so far had a strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement,” she observes.

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The much-loved baby’s short and reverently attended-to life serves as a counterpart to the main character’s immersion in the portal. Her time with the baby is a stubbornly private, embodied experience: “She curled up in the hospital bed next to the baby. She held the little hand and waited for its wilted pink squeeze, like the handshake of a lily. She stroked the heaving back—how hard it was, to haul the body through even a single day.” It simply can’t be translated to the medium that had seemed to promise it could contain everything. Caring for her niece, a soul who can never know the language she revels in—the language her online self is made of—the main character doesn’t repudiate the internet, exactly. She travels beyond the edge of something she had once believed was infinite.

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While the “new book” falls short, the language form that can encompass the intimacy and focus of the main character’s days with the baby is the “old book,” the novel—for here we are, reading about them, and feeling them with her. Asked again, after her experience with her niece, to speak to an audience about the portal, the main character finds herself saying the words “communal mind” and thinking not about the hives of social media but instead picturing “the room her family had sat in, looking at that singular gray brain on an MRI.” She arrives where some of internet’s earliest, stick-in-the-mud critics began, championing the worth of the unbroken story of one unique mind as a treasure the collective stream of consciousness can’t replace. Time and sorrow may make fogies of us all.