Book review

Every day, I open up social media and turn to complain to my boyfriend. Everyone is manifesting, here for it, having an existential crisis, deceased, or at the very least, shooketh. They are trying not to normalize something toxic, yet, invariably, they STAN and love to see it.

In her new novel, “No One is Talking About This,” Patricia Lockwood (author of “Priestdaddy”) writes that the internet was once “the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually it had become the place where we sounded like each other.”

Composed of short, fragmentary paragraphs, bite-sized cultural observations, and jokes cloaked in multiple layers of irony, “No One is Talking About This” is a novel about social media that replicates its chaotic form, granting readers access to the inner mind of someone who is very online. After going viral for a tweet simply reading, “Can a dog be twins?,” the unnamed protagonist finds herself traveling the world on speaking engagements, contending with the breathless fandom of teenagers, and weighing the implications of her new title — “internet expert.”

It is clear early in the novel that the boundaries between the physical and virtual world had long ago collapsed for this character. The narrative perspective is mediated through a sort of internet-induced brain damage, so the object of the narrator’s focus changes at a whiplash pace. While her attention span is scattered, she presents her opinions with the unflinching conviction native to those whose social interactions primarily occur online. Because of her severe “internet poisoning,” one of her guiding principles offline is to make decisions based on what is “funny.” As a joke, she started laughing like a witch years ago and now can’t stop. As a joke, she smokes a cigarette. To be funny, she named her cat Dr. Butthole.

Her new viral status grants her access to internet celebrities and fellow experts, including someone she lauds as “one of the secret architects of the new shared sense of humor.” Even her private thoughts resemble tweetable nonsense: “Another thing that pointed to her being a possible Good German was that she could never decide which part of a Crosby, Stills, and Nash song to sing.”

In a cultural moment that almost defies satire in its own self-evident absurdity, “No One is Talking About This” doesn’t present as parody. Written in the suffocating, disjointed prose of social media, Lockwood’s novel evokes the sensation of scrolling as it reads: moving from inane observation to obnoxious joke to occasional gem of social commentary. “A person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth,” the protagonist observes.

Advertising

Some of the most disarming parts of the novel occur when Lockwood discusses or evokes the idea of a shared consciousness or a “communal mind.” Without naming the specific moments, Lockwood will provide details that conjure images frozen in our collective memories: a policeman’s elbow, a neck, and the sky jerking upward, or a car plowing into protesters, broadcast live. The way that these moments contrast with the pervading tone of irony sheds light on its utility in her life: it is a tool to dull the torrent of detail, opinion, performance, plea for attention, political crisis, and daily violence. In the second half of the novel, the limitations of this mode of living are made clear.

With a narrative perspective shift akin to “The Sound and the Fury,” the latter half of the novel has little in common with the first. In the first half, where the internet-inflected vernacular and system of logic dominate, the protagonist’s sister’s pregnancy is ambient noise, a near-minor life event on par with the latest viral GIF. When the baby is diagnosed with the probably lethal Proteus syndrome, it occurs to the protagonist that she actually may have been “wasting her time.” The once-distractible narrator becomes hyperfocused on each labored breath, each instance of eye contact, each hard-won smile. Her grief is such a personal experience that it doesn’t have anywhere to hide.

“No One is Talking About This” does not end the way the trajectory of the first half of the novel might suggest. There is no real meditation on the emotional or interpersonal effects of the social media environment she helped to create. Instead, the contrast of the novel is meant to speak for itself by presenting two alternate styles of living, neither of them comfortable, but one infinitely more human than the other.

Patricia Lockwood, Riverhead Books, 224 pp., $25

More