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No One is Talking About This

March 15, 2021

After a year in isolation, reading Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This felt like hearing a more clever and entertaining version of my inner monologue until it turned to its theme, which is the effect of the life and death of her niece, and then the theme turned into a focal point for all the absurd and profound grief that has accumulated, the grief of everyone left in the world.

Told in snippets, the story is about a person whose life revolves around “the portal,” a name (and slight distancing reference) for the internet. An early snippet about life in the U.S. under the 45th president struck me as particularly apt: “The problem was that the dictator was very funny, which had maybe always been true of all dictators. Absurdism, she thought. Suddenly all those Russian novels where a man turns into a teaspoonful of blackberry jam at a country house began to make sense.”

A few of the snippets made little sense to me, as I’m not conscious of frequenting the parts of the internet where people use words like “binch” and like things ironically (which is not to say that I don’t frequent them but maybe I don’t notice).

Other snippets, though—almost anyone who would read a new book by Patricia Lockwood will enjoy the one in which she describes herself abandoning newspapers “for the immediacy of the portal. For as long as she read the news, line by line and minute by minute, she had some say in what happened, didn’t she? She had to have some say in what happened, even if it was only WHAT?”

And most readers, surely, will recognize the part where “there was a new toy. Everyone was making fun of it, but then it was said to be designed for autistic people, and then no one made fun of it anymore, but made fun of the people who were making fun of it previously. Then someone else discovered a stone version from a million years ago in some museum, and this seemed to prove something. Then the origin of the toy was revealed to have something to do with Israel and Palestine, and so everyone made a pact never to speak of it again. And all of this happened in the space of like four days.”

There were parts that made me laugh out loud. This is one: “Don’t normalize it!!!!!” we shouted at each other. But all we were normalizing was the use of the word normalize, which sounded like the action of a ray gun wielded by a guy named Norm to make everyone around him Norm as well.”

There are parts that will make writers gasp in recognition: “When something of hers sparked and spread in the portal, it blazed away the morning and afternoon, it blazed like the new California, which we had come to accept as being always on fire. She ran back and forth in the flames, not eating or drinking, emitting a high-pitched sound most humans couldn’t hear. After a while her husband might burst through that wall of swimming red to rescue her, but she would twist away and kick him in the nuts, screaming ‘My whole life is in there!’ as the day she was standing on broke away and fell into the sea.”

Another one most book bloggers have felt: “the cursor blinked where her mind was. She put one true word after another and put the words in the portal. All at once they were not true, not as true as she could have made them. Where was the fiction? Distance, arrangement, emphasis, proportion? Did they only become untrue when they entered someone else’s life and butted, trivial, up against its bigness?”

The action of this 208-page book turns on page 120, when “the question that was the pure liquid element of the portal—who am I failing to protect?—had found its stopped-clock answer. 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. Oh, she though hazily, falling rainwise like Alice, finding tucked under her arm the bag of peas she once photoshopped into pictures of historical atrocities, oh, have I been wasting my time?”

From the snippets, readers piece together the story of her sister’s unborn baby, diagnosed with a condition called proteus syndrome (what the “elephant man” had).

The story acquires political relevance when we find out that the baby’s head is already bigger than that of most newborns and is continuing to grow, but that “it was a felony to induce a pregnant woman before thirty-seven weeks, no matter what had gone wrong, no matter how big her baby’s head was.” Her own reaction (being a writer and prone to irony) is “I’ll write an article! she thought wildly. I’ll blow the whole thing wide open! I’ll…I’ll…I’ll post about it!” And her father’s reaction is “’Surely there must be exceptions…the man who had spent his entire existence crusading against the exception. His white-hairy hand traveled to his belt, the way it always did when he was afraid. He did not want to live in the world he had made, but when it came right down to it, did any of us?”

Everyday life in the era of the “portal” is changed for the narrator when her sister survives the birth and the baby lives for six months: “it was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life….She wanted to stop people on the street and say ‘Do you know about this? You should know about this. No one is talking about this!”

At one point “she tried to reenter the portal completely, but inside it everyone was having an enormous argument about whether they had ever thought the n-word, with some people actually professing that their minds blanked it out when they encountered it in a book, and she backed out again without a sound.” Have you ever experienced that feeling—when something big has happened in your life and it makes what’s happening in the world and on the internet entirely irrelevant?

The genius of this book is that almost everyone has felt like this, about something, at some point. Most readers have had days like the ones the narrator describes when she would “walk home from school and think, After this I will be able to be nice to my mother, but she never ever was. After this I will be able to talk only about what matters, life and death and what comes after, but still she went on about the weather.”

I wept a little through the last few pages because it was sad and true and I was unhappy that the book was ending and that the world is like this. And it is like this; we’re each isolated in our grief. Reading No One is Talking About This can make you feel less alone.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    March 15, 2021 5:59 pm

    This is a wonderful write-up of this book. It is the first thing I’ve read about it that made me think I might actually want to read it, though I’m still wary because, while you are quite right that I absolutely recognize those moments, I am not sure I want to return to them or even think too hard about what they mean or were like when they actually happened! It sounds from your post, though, that she really does dig deep into the heart of things and not just perform ‘being clever about the internet.’

    • March 20, 2021 9:32 am

      I enjoyed the mix of cleverness with sentiment. It’s a difficult balancing act and I’m going to say that she did it well–that for me, at least, the cleverness showed the depths of her vulnerability when tragedy struck and the way her entire life changed showed that she could be more than just clever, but could see things that others miss.
      If that makes any sense.

  2. March 17, 2021 2:40 pm

    You’ve tempted me as well with this wonderful review but I’m still wary – but you’re good, Jeanne! I found some of those snippets very appealing/effective.

    • March 20, 2021 9:33 am

      I would not be wary! Because they are snippets, you can love some and hate others. The cumulative effect might be different for you, but from what I know about you as a reader, you may well react much as I did, which is to weep a little and end up loving it.

  3. March 20, 2021 9:57 am

    I dare to say that I think Patricia Lockwood a genius. Something about her writing truly awes me. Fabulous review.

    • March 20, 2021 10:17 am

      Thanks! And I agree. I don’t use the word “genius” lightly.

  4. March 22, 2021 9:05 pm

    This sounds really provocative AND engaging Jeanne. I’ve never heard of this author, so thanks for introducing me to her.

    • March 23, 2021 10:41 am

      My pleasure! I haven’t read much by her, either; I looked up some of her poems after reading this book.

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