What is even real anymore?

By Angelos Apallas 

“More and more I begin to feel that the whole world is conscious” (Lockwood 207). These are some of the concluding words of Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel No One Is Talking about This, an abysmal trip into the cyber-world, documenting the foundation of being as it surfaces through lifelike glimpses of social media posts. Searching for meaning in a newfound digital reality, a female protagonist is found trapped in the stream of her own consciousness, striving to stitch the pieces of her own narrative together until one natural phenomenon shatters the digital shackles and grounds her back to reality. 

The craftsmanship behind two of Lockwood’s poetry collections and the memoir “Priest Daddy” is employed in her newest book, a deconstructed narrative consisting of many unintelligible voices – puppets governed by higher technological powers. “Your work can flow into the shape that people make for you,” she told Slate in an interview in 2020, “or you can try to break that shape.” 

The narrative of No One Is Talking about This unwinds by foregrounding a married woman in her late 30s who has gained a sense of importance due to random posts on social media. The story resembles Patricia Lockwood’s life, as she has been an active user of Twitter since 2011, producing social commentary or random, raunchy jokes that often go viral. Lockwood employs Twitter as a critical tool to conceive the “portal”, a multi-dimensional reality the reader might find themselves trapped inside, grasping for another post, another exit to breathe. This medium of communication—which is supposed to bring people closer—is constructed like a maze, a trial of the cyberworld to determine who will come out sane and who will remain entangled in its vast pathways. “That’s what’s so attractive about the internet,” Lockwood said in an interview with the Guardian, “you can exist there as a spirit in the void.” 

Even the narrator seems perplexed at times, bowing down from their omniscience and handing over the reins to the new omnipotent interface. Part One of the novel roots the narrative and prepares the readers with intermixed narrators in a way that resembles the multiphase of voices on a social media platform, like a charming spell enchanting the readers to doze off and keep scrolling over the pages, looking for fulfillment. It’s a testament to the power of the author that she has managed to construct a narrative so diligent and seductive, the pages appearing like social media posts, always there to lure you inside. Since social media have become a tool in the hands of software developers, writers can now be perceived as puppeteers using stories as their arsenal to excavate or modify reality. Similarly, “novelists, in the portal, began to rise on a tide of peculiar energy. This was their moment. They were going to say goodbye to all of that!” (167). 

The narrative led me to think of the 2020 Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”, which analyzes the increased gravity of social media over the last decade. It also explains how a precisely constructed algorithm is utilized to captivate users’ attention by triggering the dopamine production of neural pathways in our brain. Astonishing! A platform claiming to be free markets its interface so that the user is exposed to a slew of advertisements before they have access to the rest of the content. This can include specially designed posts, images and memes you didn’t know you wanted to see, funny cat videos popping up just as you were about to get on with your life, or stimuli meticulously selected based on personal data analysis to keep you instigated, to keep you consuming. “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” is mentioned throughout the documentary, a quote that renders the viewer powerless over their subconscious, yet avaricious over the use of social media platforms.  

But what does this have to do with No One Is Talking about This? As aforementioned, the abuse of technology and social media are two of the novel’s main themes, adding a dystopian aspect to its layers, even though in reality this is a scenario that could unravel over the following decades. But that is where Lockwood has managed to exploit an algorithm that has turned all of us into modern technological slaves and apply that to her novel. Every page is like an explosion of dopamine in the neural pathways of the reader; you can’t stop flipping through the pages as you are devoured by a will to be exposed to another stimulus, to discover one more truth, to please your caffeine-induced, can’t-go-to-sleep-without-playing-a-sitcom-in-the-background, existential angst. 

The way Lockwood’s novel mirrors a social media platform is thus one of the reasons why Lockwood’s novel is so successfully written; you are unconsciously browsing through the pages just as you would unconsciously browse through posts. That is also why I think she drops some whimsical hints in the book, addressing the reader directly without compromising the stealthiness of her deviously constructed narrator, as if she’s using them to deceptively taunt the reader further into their reading frenzy. “Keep reading a little longer” the narrator urges, “not totally against your will” (198). 

Progressing towards Part Two of the book, the palpable question rising is that of how much power technology has over people and whether it has turned into an omnipotent being that has forced itself on humans.

There was a robot in her sister’s house that listened to them 24/7, filing their conversations away carefully in case they all murdered each other at some point. Those headlong months of words would be locked in a vault for eternity, sobbing on and on, ‘what will we do,’ ‘what are we to do’, underpinned everywhere with the baby’s breathing and the blips of her machines, occasionally brightened by her sister throwing out little interrogations of the quotidian like, ‘Alexa, how tall is Kevin Hart?’ (173) 

Technology has surpassed its basic function: it no longer simply provides assistance as it now methodically documents the degeneration of the human species; technology is the new master. Lockwood’s characters feel lost and oblivious due to the reversal of the power dynamics between humanity and technology in the digital era; they are victims of their own progress. Technology is monitoring the evolution of human behavior instead of people monitoring the advent of technology. 

The shift between humankind worshipping technology and blaming its existence for their own doom is relentless. On the one hand, characters – the social media sensation protagonist being one of them – are so immersed in this new reality that “it spoke of something deep in human beings, [of] how hard she had to pinch herself when she started to think of it all as a metaphor” (158), whereas at times of uncertainty they also express their gratitude towards it, stating “God, can you believe, that we had the technology?” (202). 

The chilling ambivalence towards technology is on its own burdensome to deal with, but it also disorients the characters’ navigation among real-life experiences.  

The fizzing black void that she saw – was it anything like the portal? Possibly. Both were dimensions where only one thing happened: you revised your understanding of reality, all the while floating in a sea of your own tears and piss. (75)

What this quote expresses is what I was simultaneously troubled by while pacing through the book, pinpointing the concept of identity. We do not get characters with names, we just get their strife, their connections, their sublime struggles to alternate among realities and come to peace with that unsettling shift. I reckon one may not persevere through that perpetual alternation without their identity fading a tiny bit each time: “I’ve been this way so long, I don’t know how to be anymore” (122). 

Lockwood also omitted any names because she is not necessarily interested in who these characters are, but what they represent. Their voices and their experiences are sometimes tangled together exactly because of that omission, offering us an extra layer of graphic language to view the story from. Plus, this makes everything all the more universal. This isn’t something just these fictional characters suffer from — you and I could be next.  

The dark veil overshadowing the characters’ lives is starting to be lifted during Part Two of the novel – though still not completely effaced. It is already mentioned several times in Part One that the protagonist’s sister is pregnant, a detail surging in her stream of consciousness just like any other piece of information found in the portal. Little sparks of light blossom in the narrative, until the chaotic dormancy is disrupted, and things take a sharp turn. Her sister’s baby is diagnosed with Proteus syndrome, a rare genetic condition that entails an overgrowth of skin, bones, and other tissues, meaning that it won’t survive for long after it is born. 

The vastness of posts, voices, and experiences finally interfuse into a single dimension; the birth of the baby is a glimpse of light that pulls everyone back to reality. Regardless of the grim atmosphere and the ominous circumstances foreshadowing the baby’s death, it is actually the second part of the book that manages to reach sublimity. 

But how is it that the idea of death sparks a ray of hope and warmth in the novel? It’s simply because it reminds everyone that they have to live. It reminds everyone of the times they have wasted trifling over nonsense, over matters they never really had any control over. But most importantly because it is a natural phenomenon; it brings everyone back to reality; it untangles them from the initial anarchy of digital dissociation. 

Time moves differently now; it is fast and violent. Yet in all its violence, it has grounded characters into appreciating its hypostasis. As the protagonist says in a moment of frenzy, “A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has – I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.” Then, almost angrily, “What was I doing with them before?” (171). The baby’s imminent death inspires the woman’s meditation of remorse. She has remorse for the moments she has lost, for the moments she didn’t seize, for the moments she thought she was alive. In all its velocity, time offers the woman moments of stillness; that is how she reaches clarity.  

“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!’” (145). What is striking about this is locating the source of the protagonist’s exasperation. She seems frustrated that people are ignorant of such genetic disorders that afflict pregnant women and their newborns. But what if that’s just a glimpse of truth masking the foundation of her deepest qualms? As a linguistic item, “no one” both transcends as well as entails the “I.” What she’s more upset and remorseful about is that she herself was ignorant of such a phenomenon, that she did not use her platform to be vocal about it. She is guilty, just like everyone else. 

Furthermore, the revelation of the baby’s illness makes everyone aware of what it means to be alive. It reminds everyone of the identities they had before the portal, the significance of their forsaken individuality. “She only knows what it is to be herself” they keep repeating to each other in awe and admiration, as if the idea of idiosyncrasy is long lost in the portal (155). “The rest was about them and what they thought a brain and body ought to be able to do” (156). Shattering how an addiction can make you lose control over your own body, your own senses, the way you assess and filter the world. The baby’s confidence in the naturality of its own existence blesses the characters with the meditation of relying solely on one’s own identity and being able to view the world through that lens; removing the self from the contamination of the social spectrum, from the labels attached to us by society, by social media platforms that drain us of our individuality. 

What I can confidently say is that this book clenched me, haunted me, and turned me into a powerless observer of a grim, yet sublime story. I am particularly fascinated by books that knock me off my high horse of human vanity and remind me how feeble and vulnerable my nature is. When I read the book, it “did not feel like real life exactly, but nowadays what did” (206); it was a dark but expiatory voyage into the unconscious, desperate in its own attempt to find meaning, hold onto it, make it make sense. But life doesn’t always make sense, and Lockwood doesn’t let you forget that.

Angelos Apallas is a current student of the MA Literature Today at Utrecht University. During his bachelor’s studies, he cultivated an interest for creative writing and different genres of theatre, with a particular infatuation with the theatre of the absurd. He is currently writing his thesis on how we can read the plays of Chinese absurdist playwright Gao Xingjian as samples of literary existentialism.

Works Cited 

  • Lockwood, Patricia. No One Is Talking About This. Bloomsbury Circus, 2021. 

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