By Paula Werdnik
She opened the portal. ‘Are we all just going to keep doing this till we die?’ people were asking each other, as other days they asked each other, ‘Are we in hell?’
Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This is unique, unconventional, witty, and cynical; it captures the zeitgeist of our time.
The novel reads like a collage of thoughts. A Dadaist bricolage of quotes, queries, and questions about universal themes. Lockwood’s novel explores themes such as the evasive meaning of life, the mundaneness of the everyday, the coping with loss and grief, and the questions we ask ourselves about our society and norms. More specifically, this novel delves into the questions we ask ourselves about the changing nature of life in the digital age: our overconsumption of information, our obsession with technology and self-branding on social media, and our attempts to connect, while being more isolated than ever.
These themes feel especially topical since the corona crisis turned much of our daily lives into a digital simulacrum. Zoom meetings, Skype calls with families, and drinks with friends over Whatsapp video call. The digital world began to replace the “real” world; at times it still feels that way, now more than ever. Our laptops, phones, tablets and TVs have become the ways we connect to the world, and each other. As the protagonist screams, “My whole life is in there!” we feel a sense of grim relatability.
The collage-like quality of the novel is reflected in the use of interesting typography; it is peppered with text messages, captions of social media posts, and italicized private inner thoughts. Straying from a conventional linear plot structure, the novel progresses in a fragmented but captivating way. This fragmentation of the structure and content seems to reflect the mind of the protagonist, as well as the society the protagonist lives in. Lockwood’s novel is self-reflexive; she writes, “Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made…or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote” (74). The novel itself seems to mimic the format of social media posts and text messages, the sections divided into short paragraphs and short chapters; some are just a fleeting thought.
The reader learns that the protagonist is a “portal” (a term used in the novel to refer to the internet or a type of social media) influencer. She flies to conventions, gives speeches, and hosts interviews about the portal. Indeed, at the start of the novel, it seems her whole life revolves around the portal. Absurdly, the reader later finds out that all her fame on the portal was the aftermath of a single post she created, “Can a dog be twins?”
Throughout the novel, however, the protagonist grows out of this identity. She is pulled out of her irony, her cynicism, and her obsession with the portal when her sister’s baby, a baby who is diagnosed with an illness called Proteus syndrome, is born. Proteus syndrome causes some parts of the baby to grow faster than others, and it is clear the baby will not have long to live. After the birth, the protagonist spends most of her time with her family, she falls in love with the baby, and realises that there is beauty and meaning to life. She realises that she has been wasting her time on the portal. She spends less and less time on the portal, and by being connected to real life, and being affected by the hope and the tragedy that the baby represents, she is confronted with real, deep and overwhelming feelings of love, grief, regret and hope.
The protagonist is, ultimately, relatable. She refers to memes, to topical societal issues, to thoughts we seem to collectively share through our “communal mind” (Lockwood, 225) she calls it. The novel reflects a specific “American-ness”, yet the themes are universal.
For example, it points out our global obsession with trendiness, our attempts to be new and funny, our disconnectedness from reality, and the addictive nature of the Internet. The novel points out the escapism we seek by constant stimulation, and the dangers of this.
Yet, the novel also highlights the beauty of technology, of the immortality of the portal and how even the dead could live on in pictures via “memories” stored on phones and the portal, “the place where images dwelled and dwelled” (Lockwood, 222). After the baby dies, the family is still able to cherish photos and videos of her, and share these via messaging apps. In a sense, thanks to technology, the baby is able to live on in the digital world. It reflects a thought that we have all had at one moment or another during the corona crisis lockdown, “thank God, can you believe, that we had the technology” (Lockwood, 222).
This novel is important as it holds a message of hope. The protagonist finds greater meaning and hope in life after meeting her sister’s baby, a baby that had too little time on this earth. In the ‘Acknowledgements’ of the novel, the author raises awareness about this important issue, Proteus Syndrome, and shares links to help with donations.
Only at the end did I understand the title, “No One is Talking About This”; no one is talking about the tragedy of Proteus Syndrome. I didn’t know about the illness either before reading the novel. The novel spreads awareness about the importance of living life to the fullest, of being conscious consumers of technology, and also about an issue very close to the author’s heart – Proteus Syndrome. Love it or hate it, one thing is clear – this novel is something we should all be talking about.
Paula Werdnik is a postgraduate student in literature at Utrecht University. She has completed a B.A. degree in Arts & Culture Studies at Radboud University, with a minor in Literature in Society. She has written for NUKS magazine and Raffia Gender & Diversity magazine.
- Lockwood, Patricia. No One Is Talking About This. Riverhead Books, 2021.