“Arch and snarky” – No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood #bookerprize #bookerprizeshortlist

“…these disconnections were what kept the pages turning, that these blank spaces were what moved the plot forward. The plot! That was a laugh.”

IMG_20Dec2021at002512Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel, No One is Talking About This, concerns a young writer of no small global repute (repute that sees her travelling hither and yon across the globe, talking at conferences, meeting with other like-minded souls) doing her best to deal with the day to day onslaught of online activity.

“Increasingly, we were worried about the new sense of humor. Unlike the old sense of humor, which had mostly been about the difference between the way black people and white people drove cars, wasn’t the new sense of humor just a little bit of random? The funniest thing now, it seemed, was a fake ad for a product that couldn’t exist, and how were we supposed to laugh at that, when the thought of a product that couldn’t exist made us so unhappy?”

At times, in a weird way, No One is Talking About This feels like a novel by Bob Monkhouse. Now, depending on your age, you might be saying either who the hell is Bob Monkhouse or what the hell does Bob Monkhouse have to do with Patricia Lockwood’s novel, No One is Talking About This? Explanation: Bob Monkhouse was a stand up comedian (a sort of 1950s Jimmy Carr) who eventually became a TV presenter. Bob was a comedian very much of the joke-joke-joke variety. He didn’t tell stories. He didn’t have a carefully orchestrated show. He told jokes. Joke-joke-joke. Lockwood’s book runs in a similar way for a fairly long time. There are jokes here. Riffs on memes etc. There are also riffs on memes elevated to beauty by snappy, fizzy language.

“On a slow news day, we hung suspended from meathooks, dangling over the abyss. On a fast news day, it was like we had swallowed all of NASCAR and were about to crash into the wall. Either way, it felt like something a dude named Randy was in charge of.”

The narrator lives her life very much in call and response to ‘the portal’, which is what she calls the internet, basically.

“Why had she entered the portal in the first place? Because she wanted to be a creature of pure call and response: she wanted to delight and to be delighted.”

There is quiet unacknowledged privilege undercutting a lot of the non-action (because our narrator lives a life of here, there and everywhere), she is a creature of the modern world (obvs), and she is interacting with a lot of the stuff that contemporary novels and novelists have been dealing with for the last four years (not least the President who is no longer a President who is here referred to as The Dictator). A fair bit has been made of comparisons with Lauren Oyler’s book, Fake Accounts (you wait for a book about the contemporary online experience and then you get two at once – although Oyler’s book is less engaged with that online world than Lockwood’s), but we read it thinking, actually, everyone is talking about this. All the time.

Like Oyler’s book, No One is Talking About This feels arch and snarky in a good way. There is language here that stops you brightly in your tracks and you think, that is good (eg “her rib cage trembling inside her like a cracked bone butterfly”). Eventually a sort of story coalesces around the narrator’s sister who has a baby that has things wrong with it (its head growing out of all proportion to its body) – and we sort of feel like a point is being made about real life and virtual life but – to come back to the quote that opened this review – there really isn’t a sense of plot. This is a novel of ideas and the ideas are good and interesting but also (curiously) not quite enough.

Lockwood says things that feel like aphorisms that have you thinking here is a great mind, aphorisms you could carve on stone or quote out of context in a way that would make you admire what is being said:

“The future of intelligence must be about search, while the future of ignorance must be about the inability to evaluate information.”

Readers of a certain age might think about the way Douglas Coupland used to engage with the ways that people and technology reacted with one another (there are definitely similarities). But there is also something trivial about it. We know, don’t we, that the effect of the internet on us is not trivial but it is awash in triviality. The internet is awash in triviality. It is the district of triviality. But the punchline of the joke is – it has made us trivial too:

“What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract? What had the politician promised us? The realtor, walking us through being’s beautiful house? Could we sue? We would sue! Could we blow it all open? We would blow it all open! Could we… could we post about it?”

Any Cop?: Undoubtedly, it’s a good and promising debut and we kind of sort of think that there will be a great many people who love this book. For us the attraction is in the language, in the jazz of the book, the riffing on memes – it’s funny. But (sorry) we wanted the accumulation of thoughts to gel, to come together into a narrative that held our attention. Instead it got so we were exhausted a little by the relentlessly bite-sized interrogations. Whilst we wouldn’t quite say it’s not for us, it’s not not for us either.

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