About a quarter into Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This , a character declares “[y]our attention is holy.” This is true, but it doesn’t seem like it in the portal – Ms. Lockwood’s term for the internet. That’s because everyday your “attention must turn, 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.” This is among the most apt and poetic descriptions of the internet. And the first half of this thoughtful and engaging story examines the internet’s weird vagaries and addictive adrenaline. And at times you will think you are reading poetry.
The main character, who is never named, is a woman who became famous in the portal (a “communal stream-of-consciousness”) for a single five-word post. After it went Corona-viral, people from all over the world invite her to lecture about the “new communication.” Frequently, her comments are inane, but so is the portal – so it works. She travels everywhere, shares bizarre opinions about everything, and because the world is connected, her name (whatever it is – perhaps it doesn’t matter) is now recognized everywhere. Still, oddly, she feels disconnected. “This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?” It brings her to that universal question asked by anyone who has been on social media for more than one hour straight. Have I been wasting my time? Probably, but let’s see what Twitter has to say about that.
Reality (in the form of a text from her mother – because reality these days always arrives as a text from your mother) soon intrudes on virtual reality. Her mother writes “[s]omething has gone wrong . . . How soon can you get here?” Suddenly, our nameless expert on everything is jolted out of the portal. “She fell heavily out of the broad warm us, out of the story that had seemed, up till the very last minute, to require her perpetual co-writing.”
Indeed, something has gone dreadfully wrong. Her pregnant sister learns that her baby has a rare disease and will probably die in the womb – which also puts her sister’s life in danger. Against all odds, the baby and mother survive the birth, but everyday thereafter the baby’s survival is at risk. So what’s more real than the portal/internet? A baby with a congenital disease. And no one in the real or virtual world (is there a difference?) is talking about it.
The baby now has the nameless aunt’s whole (and holy) attention. “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. She laid her hand against the white wall and the heart beat, strong and striding, even healthy. But she was no longer in that body.” Eventually, the issue of whether the baby will survive is resolved. Then, gradually, the connected world calls our nameless friend back. But how connected is she to it now?
The internet says Patricia Lockwood is a poet, and the internet gets that one right. Her metaphors throughout are incisive and wondrous. Her style is a choppy stream-of-consciousness that would give James Joyce a happy little boner. The style suits an examination of social media’s impact on society. This is a poetic novella filled with humor and sadness. It is a smudge-free mirror reflecting what passes for real life these days.
Thank you for reading. Your attention is holy.
Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans