Review by David Starkey
The first half of Patricia Lockwood’s new novel, No One Is Talking About This, feels something like reading an uber-contemporary update of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, and Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey. There’s something of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Weather in there as well, but these are only approximations because, really, reading No One Is Talking About This initially feels like reading the Book of the Internet, or as the narrator calls it, “the portal.”
However, this is not just any Internet writing, but the funniest, sharpest, hippest version of the beast. The novel is set in the time before and after the election of Trump (“the dictator,” as Lockwood styles him). Yet even in this era of great cultural and political upheaval, the portal manages to make everything seem equally ridiculous. In one of the hundreds of short passages that make up the book, the narrator writes: “The words Merry Christmas were now hurled like a challenge. They no longer meant newborn kings, or the dangling silver notes of a sleigh ride, or high childish hopes for snow. They meant ‘Do you accept Herr Santa as the all-powerful leader of the white ethnostate?’”
While the narrator, who uses a limited omniscient “she” almost like an “I,” has a deeply ironic relationship with the portal, and never tires of poking fun at its denizens, at times she is frank about how badly she needs it herself: “When she was away from it, it was not just like being away from a body, but a warm body that wanted her. The way, when she was gone from it, she thought so longingly of My information. Oh, my everything I never knew I needed to know.”
Because the writing is so clever and contemporary, and the observations about life online are so insightful, the reader almost doesn’t notice that nothing much seems to be happening in the novel. The narrator travels around the world talking about the Internet. She meets odd people with whom she has brief and comic interactions, then she returns home to her husband, who is a figure of semi-stability and who is also rendered ridiculous, though in a gentle sort of way. Frankly, though, I was having so much fun, I wanted it to go on and on.
Then suddenly there is Part Two, and snark smashes head-on into real life tragedy. Based on interviews Lockwood has given in Slate, The New York Times, and elsewhere, this section seems closer to memoir than fiction. While the style and form of the novel don’t change—as Lockwood notes in a New Yorker interview, the narrator “is still being served by her own private language, no matter how or where it was obtained”—the seriousness of what’s a stake, a child’s life, calls for a radical shift in tone.
Initially, the book’s title seems ironic because so many of the entries are what everyone is talking about online. But we’re not long into Part Two before we realize that the narrator’s niece suffers from an extremely rare condition that, indeed, hardly anyone is talking about. In fact, the entire second half of the book serves as something of a counterargument to the first, tacitly and explicitly unraveling claims about sentiment and sincerity made by the narrator’s younger, more flippant self. It’s an unexpected narrative turn, but one that makes No One Is Talking About This seem less like a collection of brilliant witticisms and more like—well, a novel.