In 2018, the American writer Patricia Lockwood published an essay entitled “How Do We Write Now?”. The piece was an attempt to reckon with the damage done to a creative mind by years of excessive exposure to the internet. Of her efforts to reclaim some mental space from the endless swirling absurdity of online life, she wrote: “If I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day […] If I open up Twitter and the first thing I see is the president’s weird bunched ass above a sand dune as he swings a golf club I am doomed. The ass will take up residence in my mind. It will install a gold toilet there.”
Lockwood’s debut novel, No One Is Talking About This, is in some ways a more substantial attempt to answer the question posed by the essay. Its nameless protagonist is, recognisably, a sparsely fictionalised embodiment of the same voice, with the same basic problems. Like Lockwood, she is a writer who came to be celebrated for her good tweets; she is invited to cities all over the world to speak about “the new communication, the new slipstream of information”. When we meet her, the tweet in question, “Can a dog be twins?”, has “recently reached the stage of penetration where teenagers posted the cry-face emoji at her”. (Though she initially came to prominence on Twitter, Lockwood’s renown is a lot more deserved than her fictional avatar’s: in 2013, her extraordinarily powerful poem “The Rape Joke” went viral, and in 2017 she published an acclaimed comic memoir, Priestdaddy.)
The protagonist is living with the effects of irony poisoning. Her mind is a sprawling memory palace of ass, in each of whose chambers has been installed a gold toilet. The internet, which she coyly refers to as “the portal”, is, for her, life itself: a place where she is perpetually suspended between amusement and horror. In the opening pages, we find her absolutely losing it at a video of people being flung from a malfunctioning carnival ride. (“‘Ahahaha!’ she yelled, the new and funnier way to laugh.”)
Lockwood’s observations of the affective reality of the portal, the skittering triviality of its denizens, is both ardent and appalled. Her evocations of this collective consciousness often achieve a nice balance of poetic intensity and analytical force. “Every day their attention must turn,” she writes, “like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. 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.”
The novel is neatly divided into two parts, each made up of tightly composed fragments. The first half is a study of a peculiarly static existence, a life spent gazing into the roiling abyss of the portal. We are in the company, here, of a person with full-blown brain worms – Twitter’s preferred term for the morally and cognitively degenerative condition caused by spending too much time posting, and reading the posts of others (most of whom themselves have brain worms).
After an event in Toronto, she meets a man she knows from the internet, a Weird Twitter personage who has himself acquired a certain standing for posting photos of his balls online. Their conversation turns to the question of how this “new shared sense of humour” which “had spread like a regional fire across the globe” might be written about, and she remarks that everyone who has tried has been getting it all wrong. He agrees, “exhaling gently through his nostrils to be funny, in a tone that meant she was getting it wrong too”.
If Lockwood is invested in anything here, she is invested in not getting it wrong – in accurately representing a consciousness marinated in the shallow irony (and terrible levity) of the portal. The fragmentary form, with its pointillist narrative technique, will be familiar enough to readers of lately canonised 1970s novels such as Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and the more recent work of Jenny Offill. In Lockwood’s hands, the approach is intended to be commensurate to the dimensions of Twitter itself – its punchiness imperative, its hunger for the absurd and the awful. “Why were we all writing like this now?” Because, she suggests, “it was the way the portal wrote”. The form, in other words, is an attempt to both reflect and transcend the reshaping of the protagonist’s mind. These fragments she has shored against her brain worms.
Lockwood is an incontrovertibly gifted writer. Her sentences are routinely surprising, her voice a startling agglomeration of poetic clarity and hectic comedy. But weirdly enough, given the comic gifts on display in Priestdaddy, it’s that hectic quality that causes problems. It wouldn’t be quite fair to call No One Is Talking About This a comic novel, but it does seem, particularly in its first half, too fixated on getting jokes over the line, and too pleased with itself for having done so. There is an airlessness that reminded me of being in the presence of a Known Wit, intent on living up to their reputation by keeping the jests coming at all costs. Before being interviewed at the BBC, for instance, the protagonist asks her interviewer whether he would consider himself English, and his conflicted reaction provokes a characteristic riff: “Had she committed a Brexit? It was so easy, these days, to accidentally commit a Brexit.” At such moments, the fragmentary lyricism is overpowered by an anxiously comedic super-ego, as though the Family Guy writers room had done a script punch-up on Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. The book also has a related problem: far too much of it, to put it bluntly, amounts to lyrical descriptions of memes.
My own impatience with this perhaps stems less from alienation, as it might for readers less familiar with Twitter, than from overfamiliarity. I am myself, at this stage of the game, more brain worm than man; if this book has an ideal reader, it might as well be me. As the novel progressed, it struck me that its problem was paradoxical in form: it seemed incapable of being serious, and it was precisely that unseriousness that prevented it from being properly funny. About halfway through, the protagonist’s sister becomes pregnant, and the child is born with very severe birth defects. And yet she remains committed, helplessly, to the new sense of humour. “Call me old fashioned,” she argues to herself in the shower, “but I happen to believe that a BABY! should get to have an ASS! no matter WHAT!”
But as the dimensions of this human tragedy become clearer, things get more complex, and more sophisticated: the novel itself becomes seriously concerned with the problem of unseriousness – which is, you could argue, among the more serious problems of our time. The language of the portal is, suddenly, inadequate to the intimate sadness of the protagonist’s new reality. “If all she was was funny,” she asks, “and none of this was funny, where did that leave her?” That central question hovers incessantly over much of the book, but not in the way that seems intended. Maybe it’s my own brain worms, my own irony poisoning, but if you’re laughing with her as rarely as I was, that premise feels flawed.
Eventually, the anxious comedy gives way to a richer and more complex amalgamation of grief and beauty. Although Lockwood’s protagonist never fully transcends her ironic self-enclosure, and therefore only fleetingly allows us a clear view of the baby’s parents – the people to whom this awful thing is actually happening – there are nonetheless moments of real poignancy, as she describes her niece’s little life, and the heartbreak of her condition. Here, at last, profound connections are made: between a thwarted consciousness and the world, between Lockwood’s talent and her subject, and between the novel and its readers – this one, at any rate.
There’s a moment near the end of the book when the protagonists’s brother, himself a victim of severe irony poisoning, introduces himself to a stranger as “the baby’s husband”. It’s not a portal reference, or a glib intentional absurdity; it’s a bizarre error borne of confusion and grief. “Their laughter approached hysteria,” the protagonist tells us, “tears streaked down their faces, they gripped each other’s arms and could not stop.” This moment, coming after pages of wrenching sadness, feels real, and raw, and authentically absurd. I was with these people, in their pain and hilarity. I was, for the first time, and in the old and funniest way, laughing out loud. Ahahaha.
• Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse is published by Granta. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.