When American poet Patricia Lockwood’s poem Rape Joke went viral in 2013 as a response to a public debate about whether rape jokes could ever be funny, it established her as the unofficial poet laureate of Twitter. Her 2017 memoirPriestdaddy, about growing up as the daughter of a conservative minister, similarly made waves and cemented Lockwood as a voice of the zeitgeist. To say I was excited to read about the release of her debut novel is an understatement. I was also quite nervous. Priestdaddy had been named 1 of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by The New York Times Book Review. This debut novel had big shoes to fill. But Lockwood unequivocally delivered, giving us a hilarious and timely account of life as a social media personality, while also poignantly conveying one family’s intimate experience of love and loss.
No One Is Talking About This, is narrated by a woman in her mid-thirties who spends most of her time on social media, or ‘the portal’ as she calls it. After going viral for a post that says, ‘can a dog be twins?’, she gained worldwide recognition. Rising to prominence as a celebrity, she travels around the world, sitting on panels where they discuss communication and the ‘new slipstream of information’. On one panel in Australia, after a considerable discussion, the panel explains that it is ‘objectively funnier to spell it [the word sneezing] sneazing’. On another panel, a twenty-three-year-old influencer talks about what it means to be a public body, and the two influencers bond over being ‘exactly, and happily, and hopelessly, the same amount of online’. But when the protagonist encounters a tragedy in the family, she is forced out of her life of endless scrolls and tweets in the portal, to contend with a very real-life situation as it unfolds. The protagonist’s younger sister, we learn, is carrying a child with Proteus Syndrome, a rare condition that causes overgrowth of bone and skin and is unlikely to survive past birth.
Writing in electric, witty prose, Lockwood uses her skills as a poet to create a voice that reflects the surreal, and often profane collective reality of social media. The novel is constructed in two parts, with the first half focusing on the protagonist’s immersion in social media. In this world, Lockwood’s protagonist lays ‘every morning under an avalanche of details’ where people understand phrases like ‘grisly British witch pits’, a canned phrase from the 2014 headline: ‘Grisly British witch pits were used in rituals until 1970s archaeologists discover’, and ‘sex in the moon next summer’, coined in 2012 when X-rated Twitter spambots appeared sporting this headline. At the same time, there are instances where the protagonist’s submersions in the portal are interrupted by the offline world. In these situations, the profane language of the portal is left behind for bodily images of the real. When the protagonist is aboard a European train, for example, she sits in a compartment with a ‘Czech couple who were trying to climb into each other’s eyes, hands, mouths’.
Lockwood’s sharp and precise images of the real become more abundant in the second half of the novel, when the protagonist flies home to spend time with her sister in the wake of her tragic news. At home, the baby survives birth beyond all odds and continues to grow despite her condition. As the protagonist moves away from the world of the portal and is more fully submerged in the real life of her family, the language of the profane gives way almost entirely to a poetry of the body. In this new world she can ‘barely recall her previous life, the flights through blue rare space’ but instead, ‘The heart grew. It hurt, where it hit the limit of the individual’. For the protagonist, her baby niece comes to represent real life in all its flawed, and often, imperfect beauty. Her experience, so powerfully rendered by Lockwood, becomes a story about love in a world where it is increasingly easy to lose ourselves, to the communal void of social media. No One Is Talking About This is an emotional roller-coaster that had me laughing and crying at the same time, and contrary to its title, I will be talking about this book for a very long time.