This morning I watched a video of some ducks eating lettuce from an enamel bowl. The text of the newspaper lining their cage indicated the birds were in Japan. They devoured the lettuce ferociously, producing an eerie, rattling sound. The lettuce evaporated in a matter of seconds. Nothing about my description explains why the video is interesting, or why it was shared around the world and viewed millions of times. The more I try to describe why it was compelling the worse it sounds. You had to be there.
Patricia Lockwood is blunt about the difficulty of transposing the internet into literature: ‘All writing about the portal so far had a strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues.’ Explaining a meme confines it to a dusty museum. We peer at it through smeared bifocals. This does not dissuade her. Something is being experienced for the first time. Somebody needs to record that feeling. In No One Is Talking about This, her first novel, ‘the portal’ refers to the web and the prose is structured in short, epigrammatic paragraphs. Her portal is not so much the web where you order cat litter or check your bank balance but the one where billions of people upload multimedia fragments of their lives and opinions for discussion, distortion and derision.
The narrator is not named. She’s the daughter of a red-faced police officer with conservative politics and a mother who sends her the aubergine and squirting emojis without understanding their sexual connotations. She lives with her husband in an unspecified city in the southern US. The rest of her family is in Ohio. She has a younger sister who was born in 1987 and who, having come of age in the 2000s rather than the 1990s, is ‘leading a life that [is] 200 per cent less ironic than hers’. Her brother served abroad and brought back with him a readiness to prepare for the apocalypse. He reassures her that when they all become survivalists in the woods, she too will serve ‘in a sort of … shaman capacity’. She has a patient husband, devoted to his wife and to bodybuilding, and a cat named Dr Butthole, who answers to the call of his name with ‘the bright feathers of her dignity clinging to his lips’.
No one else in her family is held captive to the portal. They orbit around her, IRL; each morning she bids them farewell, passing through a wardrobe into ‘the blizzard of everything’. When the book begins, the narrator is already famous for a tweet that went viral: ‘Can a dog be twins?’ In the aftermath of this important contribution to humanity, she’s anointed an expert on the web and flown around the world to give lectures and appear on panels, where she discusses ‘the new communication’. She is propositioned for sex by randy Europeans and responds to the indignation of a woman who has read in the newspaper that one in eight young people has never seen a cow in real life.
The first part of the novel becomes a satire of white guilt as it’s performed and experienced online. ‘White people,’ she observes, ‘were suddenly feeling compelled to speak out about injustice.’ In the name of a politics of care, equality, humanism and reparations there are many things that she, a progressive white thirty-something, learns to despise: capitalism (‘even though it was how you got money’); the police (a particular challenge since her dad is a cop); the whited sepulchres of Europe (‘“colonialism!” she hissed at a beautiful column’). She learns about socialism and pronouns and the right sneer to affect when referring to the New York Times. ‘Something in the back of her head hurt. It was her new class consciousness.’ Like every white person of her generation she has skeletons in her closet: until the age of 22, she did not realise that the California Raisins were racist.
Every day the masses enter the portal and study, with ‘a single eye’, the latest controversy. Every day, the narrator observes, ‘their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate.’ Through scolding, mockery or earnest personal testimony, consensus coalesces within minutes; the portal is a taboo-producing machine that operates with the purest of intentions. ‘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 is the world she participates in creating:
It was a place where she knew what was going to happen, it was a place where she would always choose the right side, where the failure was in history and not herself, where she did not read the wrong writers, was not seized with the surges of enthusiasm for the wrong leaders, did not eat the wrong animals, cheer at bullfights, call little kids Pussy as a nickname, believe in fairies or mediums or spirit photography, blood purity or manifest destiny or night air, did not lobotomise her daughters or send her sons to war, where she was not subject to the swells and currents and storms of the mind of the time.
Her fellow travellers in the portal want to uproot all injustice before it has the chance to flourish. They are always on the lookout for baby Hitlers. How will we know him? When should we murder him? The narrator detects hubris: if Hitler were killed as a baby, she wonders, ‘where does all the free-floating red feeling go, the cloud among the people that floated him up to the balcony, where he first began to speak?’
The portal topples statues of Christopher Columbus and reveals the ickiness of Woody Allen’s films. It feeds paranoia about cancellable offences everyone might already be committing without realising it. Edward Said once wrote that Conrad was incapable of seeing beyond imperialism, since it monopolised the entire system of representation, but that he could express self-consciousness as an outsider. No degree of estrangement, however, was sufficient to save Conrad from interpreting the world according to the racist order of his time. Considering her own predicament, Lockwood’s narrator concludes that there is no way out: we will all be on the wrong side of history eventually. The mind of any particular time ‘could not be escaped except through genius, and even then you probably beat your wife, abandoned your children, pinched the rumps of your maids, had maids at all’. She doesn’t take the view that the portal’s performance of enlightenment is the nascent tyranny. The nascent tyranny that dominates the portal’s moods derives from the actual would-be tyrant. Lockwood doesn’t name Donald Trump. She refers only to ‘the dictator’.
The narrator limits her fears about call-out culture to the worry that, one day, she herself will be maligned. She doesn’t indulge in the grievance of the bloviates who refer to themselves unironically as the ‘free speech internet’, who fussily quote Chesterton’s warnings about modernism and assert their loyalty to what passed for the canon in the mid-century Ivy League. Jargon is deployed with knowingness and no little weariness:
Self-care, she thought, and sprinkled in her tub a large quantity of an essential oil that smelled like a Siberian forest. But when she lowered herself into the trembling water, what she would have referred to in the portal as her b’hole began to burn with such a white-hot medieval fire that she stood straight up in the bath and shouted the name of a big naked god she no longer believed in … she was unaware of anything except the specific address of her own body, which meant either that the hot bath had worked to restore her to herself, or else that she would have sold out her neighbours to the regime in an instant, one or the other.
‘The word toxic had been anointed,’ the narrator remarks, ‘and now could not go back to being a regular word.’ The language of the portal arouses suspicion: ‘“Don’t normalise it!!!!” we shouted at each other. But all we were normalising was the use of the word normalise.’ It’s not that this posturing is a threat to free speech, but that it’s a distraction, a pseudo-battle for justice that masks a real one taking place elsewhere.
What, she asks, has this real-time correction of history given us? Does all this discussion amount to a world of empathy and care? In the absence of the tyranny of husband over wife, she finds ‘weird ideas about supplements’. Without religious doctrine, the portal turns to cavemen for clues about the right way to live. A man who posts photographs of his balls online is ‘the blazing endpoint of civilisation … the seasickness of ancestors turning green’, and yet she isn’t necessarily being facetious. Maybe this is in fact a triumph of human harmony and a symptom of a peaceful and abundant society – better the impulse to post pictures of your balls than the impulse to evangelise or bomb. When Thomas Pynchon asked the same question in Gravity’s Rainbow (‘What’s it all been for, the murdering seas, the gangrene winters and starving springs, our bone pursuit of the unfaithful, midnights of wrestling with the Beast?’), his answer was much more sinister: ‘The little converts flowing out of eye’s field, so meek, so trusting – how shall any craw clench in fear, any recreant cry be offered in the presence of our blade, our necessary blade?’
The narrator begins to type a post about the fatbergs of London’s sewers and wonders what occupied the minds of previous generations – ‘folk rhymes about planting turnips’, she guesses. Interspersed with news of gun massacres and police shootings is a trove of amusing minutiae: photographs of super blood moons; a candida overgrowth message board; riffs on ‘This Is Just to Say’ by William Carlos Williams; the concept of a ‘nootropic’; a photograph of a Chihuahua standing on a man’s erection. In panel discussions, she tries and fails to explain why sneezing is funnier when it’s spelled ‘sneazing’.
The portal is infested with the privilege of those who have nothing to do all day but monitor one another’s speech on social media and locate the blind spots of news reporters. The suggestion soon emerges that the online populism of the left and the right share the same tendencies towards performance. Her narrator recalls a right-wing politician who proclaims, as evidence of his humble outlook, that ‘my favourite meat is hot dog.’ ‘Our politicians had never been so authentic, so linked arm and arm with the common people,’ she says. ‘We lived in diners, and we went to church at the gas station, and our mother was a dirty mattress in the front yard.’
If the first part of the novel is concerned with describing the portal’s pretences, the second goes to a place where the performance of empathy has no impact. Moments of crisis do arrive, IRL, and in the face of grief or domestic violence or illness or sexual harassment or racial discrimination, online outpourings of solidarity and goodness seem meaningless. What had sounded like a cacophony is reduced to the faint and tinny sound from another person’s AirPods. In its place: hospitals, laws, health insurance bills, human resources departments, the anxious search for a place to stay, the friends who don’t want to know, the brute force of the state, the defiance of the body.
The narrator and her husband have no children. The thought of having a baby occasionally crosses her mind. ‘Despite everything, the world had not ended yet,’ she thinks. Her brother tells her that it is a great time to raise a child: ‘Everything’s on fire, so you no longer have to worry about doing a good job.’ Then she thinks of an aunt, and an autistic cousin, and ‘a certain look’ that comes over the aunt’s face when she has to restrain him.
The narrator is in Vienna when her phone buzzes with a text from her mother telling her to come home: ‘The question that was the pure liquid element of the portal – who am I failing to protect? – had found its stopped-clock answer.’ She flies back to Ohio and learns that there is a problem with her sister’s pregnancy. Tests reveal a rare chromosomal abnormality that results in a condition called Proteus Syndrome, where the body doesn’t stop growing. In utero, the overgrowth of the foetus will put her sister’s life at risk. Once born, the baby is not expected to live. From the bright aurora of the galaxy brain the narrator returns to earth. Confronted with Ohio’s anti-abortion laws and her father’s politics, pure hatred finally floods her veins. ‘Eat the police,’ she posts in the portal, then deletes it. She thinks about writing an article, but what would this accomplish, when protest had accomplished so little already?
A carefully euphemistic ethics committee at a hospital signs off on an early caesarean delivery. The baby survives, and her fragile health, the attention and care she commands, lifts the narrator ‘out of the stream of regular life’. She finds the thing that no one is talking about. ‘She was a gleaming sterilised instrument, flashing out at the precise moment of emergency.’ When she does revisit the portal it has never seemed more pointless. ‘Through the membrane of a white hospital wall she could feel the thump of the life that went on without her, the hugeness of the arguments about whether you could say the word retard on a podcast.’ One day she ventures back in and encounters a discussion in which some people claim never even to have thought of the n-word. She signs back out.
For the six months of the baby’s life, the narrator finds her purpose. She travels with her niece to Disney World. She reads her Marlon Brando’s Wikipedia entry. Then the child departs. ‘Night after night … with her fingernails glowing in the dark, she dreamed that the baby was still doing a kind of tiny breathing that they had somehow overlooked.’ America asserts its inhumanity in the form of a $61,000 hospital bill, but nothing is the same. ‘The doors of bland suburban houses now looked possible, outlined, pulsing – for behind any one of them could be hidden a bright and private glory.’
In her memoir, Priestdaddy (2017), Lockwood described her childhood as the daughter of a conservative, Hillary Clinton-hating Catholic priest. She emerged, Lisa Simpson-like, from an upbringing in ‘all the worst cities in the Midwest’, with their bleak glacier-scraped landscapes, where the word ‘toxic’ referred mostly to the abundance of Superfund pollution sites. In the novel, the narrator concludes that she would probably have developed an opioid addiction had she not found the escape route of the portal.
Lockwood doesn’t parade folksiness, but she knows that hers is a project of translation, of presenting her home to the woke but boneheaded online left. She avoids the rote caricatures of Middle American conservatism that Jonathan Franzen used in Freedom. She rejects the easy idea that responsibility for Trump lies with Facebook or social justice warriors. She reminds us of the destructive socioeconomic path the country has followed since Reagan. Her narrator wonders if the baby is American, and decides that the country’s refusal to care for her offers sufficient proof of citizenship.
Lockwood is a generous writer. She seems incapable of resentment and has a Rabelaisian appreciation for the bawdy. She can describe America’s corporate restaurant chains and their blooming onions without a quantum of snobbishness. The twinkle in her eye contains the flash of an AR-15 and the gold leaf of Mar-a-Lago and the rays of a monstrance and the rhinestone of a Juicy Couture sweatsuit. Reading this novel, I thought (warily? unfortunately?) of David Foster Wallace, also white, also Midwestern, though the child of college professors. The portal has censured Wallace for his mawkish depictions of trans people, for stalking Mary Karr and for being the patron saint of pedantic male suitors since 1996. But they share a keen ear for the language of American commercial dross (‘LOOSE, HOT SLOTS’, a sign in Ohio reads), and what Lockwood’s narrator finds in the hospital is a little of what Infinite Jest’s Don Gately finds in his Twelve-Step Programme. Wallace was writing against postmodern cynicism; Lockwood targets a surfeit of self-righteousness.
Despite our best intentions, she suggests, the future will turn against us. Writers have the misfortune of committing all of their ignorance to the record. As the narrator says in a speech at the end of the novel, given at the monument to imperialism that is the British Museum:
Her face was the fresh imprint of her age. She spoke the words that were there for her to speak; she wore the only kind of shirt available at that time. It was not possible to see where she would go wrong. She said garfield is a body-positivity icon. She said abraham lincoln is daddy. She said the eels in London are on cocaine.