Booker Prize 2021: No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

reading time: 5 minutes

Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.

No One Is Talking About This, claim the countless social media posts that float through the internet and attempt to draw attention to various global issues, from natural calamities to man-made police brutality. Sometimes it’s a deserved reprimand to mainstream journalism, sometimes just an indication that this particular blogger doesn’t watch the news much, but it’s always followed by a call to “spread awareness” and, through it, finally bring about some change. It’s also the title chosen by Patricia Lockwood for her debut novel about, you guessed it, social media.

An American poet and Internet personality, Lockwood earned her first publishing deal thanks to her poem about sexual assault, The Rape Joke, going viral. If you’re well-versed in online memes, you might also know her as the owner of Miette or the reason we had all those funny tweets starting with “sext” in 2013. In her Booker-shortlisted debut, she draws from her intimate knowledge of the workings of online popularity to paint a bleak yet compassionate picture of our internet-riddled lifestyle.

The novel opens with the unnamed, terminally online protagonist “entering the portal”, Lockwood’s fictionalization of what is essentially Twitter. What we know about her we learn slowly, through seemingly unconnected snapshots of a life where digital and real, material and abstract blend seamlessly: a neurotic web celebrity hailing from an almost archetypical conservative Midwestern family, our prtoagonist earns her living touring the world to hold lectures about “the new way of communicating”. This disjointed narrative echoes the nature of the social media feeds that fill the narrator’s life as well as our own, with their algorithms as likely to present us with funny cat memes as with videos of brutal executions in the Middle East. The novel’s focal point, up until two-thirds in, is less on plot than it is on the ambivalent relationship the narrator has with the portal and her ensuing philosophical musings on life.

Close-ups of nail art, a pebble from outer space, a tarantula’s compound eyes, a storm like canned peaches on the surface of Jupiter, Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, a chihuahua perched on a man’s erection, a garage door spray-painted with the words STOP! DON’T EMAIL MY WIFE!

Why did the portal feel so private, when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?

Her claim to fame (inventing a meme about dogs) is less dignified than Lockwood’s poignant poem about rape culture, but the novel looks more like a barely fictionalized autobiography the more one knows about the author. If Lockwood’s first long-form publication, Priestdaddy (2017), was a memoir about her Lutheran minister father’s conversion to Catholicism, the narrator’s father in No One Is Talking About This is a religious zealot embodying the patriarchal American man. Lockwood and the narrator share husband, job and siblings, and even the family tragedy that makes the slice of life of No One Is Talking About This finally coalesce into a more linear plot in the final act is implied in the acknowledgments to be autobiographical. In losing its freeform structure, maybe, the book also loses some of its freshness, but it’s when it comes to family drama that Lockwood produces some of the more poignant and emotional writing in the novel.

In under 120 pages, the novel touches upon all facets of contemporary American life without ever feeling like it’s just ticking off boxes: school shootings, climate change, cancel culture, pro-lifers, internet activism, performative white guilt, inaccessible healthcare, and the election of Donald Trump (here referred to simply as “the dictator”). This is just how the world works now, squashing us under an inescapable deluge of information about everything and everyone else that nonetheless only grants us a superficial understanding of what’s around us. As the narrator calls it, “my everything I never knew I needed to know”.

Ultimately, however, the novel’s chief concern is language. Twitter is, in a way, perfect for poets, the type of humour that thrives on it resting on unconventional analogies and language play (when Lockwood left her imprint on the website’s writing style, it still had a punishing 140-character limit). The author brings this skill to her novel writing, cleverly parodying and building on “the way we all talk now”, through memes and surreal jokes and the imperative of always being ironic.

The matter of language often morphs into one of cognition, the novel asking over and over again: how is the portal rewiring our brains? It attempts to answer by faithfully portraying the stream of consciousness of a digital addict in a hyper-connected world. James Joyce is even name-dropped in the first third of the book, along with the fact that he was sexually aroused by farts, a fact gross and unsettling enough that it seems designed for viral success.

All things considered, Lockwood’s stylistic pursuits are more interesting than the point the story itself seems to make, which coincides with the narrator’s predictable realization that, once you start having real problems and getting out more, all that Twitter drama starts to look really, really silly.

Once, she had visited a little island with shocking white beaches and had worked her bare toes into its famous sand, which was used to make the glass for all our screens. There the sky was so crystal, and the sun so hot, and the air on her skin so unmediated, and the trees so full of koala bears, that she felt either like she had gotten inside the phone completely or else had gotten out.

Why it could win

This pastiche of memoir and twitterature, black humour and family drama, executes a relatively straightforward premise in a funny, emotional, and insightful way. No One Is Talking About This may leave readers confused or annoyed by its quirks, but its earnestness will strike an emotional chord in all of them. It did with me, after filling me with existential dread over the fact that I understood all the references.

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