Only Two Questions at Three in the Morning: A Review of No One is Talking About This
Review by José Dorenbos
Last summer I bought Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This on a whim, while wandering through a bookstore on one of the hottest days of the year. I was wearing a dress and a Formula 1 Mercedes team cap, and the discordancy made me feel powerful.
I was overtaken by a strange sort of pleasure as I held this book, a feeling comparable to the one that arises whenever I get to blame social media for any harmful contemporary social phenomenon. I stay away from social media and figured the book, framed as a ‘social media novel,’ would constitute one of those voices saturating my offline echo chamber, confirming that, yes, social media is bad for you, your biological clock, sense of self, attention span and social toolbox.
Walking home, coffee in hand and quite pleased with myself, I nourished the hope that the book would provide me with another title to mention whenever someone asks me for my Instagram handle and I get so say, smugly as ever, that I don’t have one.
What I found instead was a novel that seemed prepared and eager to turns my biases around on me, inviting me to consider why I was laughing along with jokes that I knew must have found their source on a social media platform and that I, for that reason, could only half-understand. Why had I hated social media so much, again? Where exactly is the site of convergence between online hivemind and offline existence? And how far removed am I from there, anyway?
Lockwood is a North American author mostly known for her 2017 debut poetry collection Priestdaddy and her comedic Twitter presence. The latter of these makes No One is Talking About This a work of autofiction, recounting the story of an American social media user enjoying fame for her online posts. The character-slash-narrator travels the world to meet fans and, while keeping up her online presence, gets more and more enmeshed in the omnipresent online environment aptly named the Portal. The Portal is a hivemind of voices with which the main character interacts, and it soon takes precedence over the real-life company of her loved ones. The embeddedness sometimes takes an extreme when the narrator seems to get physically stuck in a scrolling spree and has to be nudged out by her husband showing her pictures of chicken dishes roasted to a perfect golden brown.
The main conflict of the story is that between the submersive online environment and the shock reminder of biological existence, the fleshy nitty gritty. The birth of a niece with an exceptionally rare genetic disease – ensuring a life cut short much too soon – forces the narrator out of digital complacency. Navigating the constant urge to joke about how big the baby’s head is, the narrator’s experience of witnessing the growth of the infant and helping to care for it reminds her of the strange fullness of sensory, bodily existence.
While at face value the book might seem to juxtapose in a strict binary the online world (bad) with the world out-there (good), Lockwood actually subverts this idea by radically overlapping the two through language and analogy. She challenges a notion of these worlds as two sites demarcated by a portal, one tangible and one virtual. The story doesn’t end with the narrator swearing off the online, or denouncing it in any way, but rather finding a balance and attending to the moments where the light diffracts and you suddenly see both.
Where is the Online?
The Portal presents a circulationist fever dream in the vein of Hito Steyerl, where dissemination of content takes precedence over content disseminated. It is gloriously empty and also everywhere. The main character knows just how to manipulate this state of things, enjoying fame for her posts such as one wondering, simply, “Can dogs be twins?”
The book is particularly interested in how hyper-specificity bends itself into emptiness, and how emptiness in turn enables a certain universality. The Google searches punctuating the narrative provide a great example of this, as the narrator recounts one night of “idly typing in searches: why am I tired all the time, why can I no longer memorize a seven minute monologue, why is my tongue less pink than it was when I was a child,” only to conclude, in between brackets, as if the thought is silent or unconscious or perhaps not entirely hers: “(There were only two questions at three in the morning, and they were Am I dying and Does anybody really love me.)” Ultra-specificity puts signification on the act of searching itself, rather than the question asked. What matters here is not the relative pinkness of the tongue but the evocation of a set of existential questions taking the form of varyingly trivial insecurities haunting a sleepless narrator at three in the morning.
Lockwood more generally does an excellent job of demonstrating how the two worlds, the in- and outside of the Portal, overlap and co-constitute each other, and manages to do so in a humorous way. Analogy provides the key to doing so. In one telling instance, she highlights how the United States conservative rhetoric of “Don’t Tread On Me” has been reframed on social media to NO STEP ON SNEK, and in doing so shows both to be equally poignant in their assertion of self-determination but also their silliness:
“What a cute little pair of panties,” her mother said as she emerged from the laundry room, holding up a pair of her brother’s military silkies, which were the bright trumpeting yellow of the DON’T TREAD ON ME flag and embroidered with the words NO STEP ON SNEK.
Context collapse! That sounded pretty bad, didn’t it? And also like that thing that was happening to the honeybees?” It’s difficult to decide which is my favorite example: “Something in the back of her head hurt. It was her new class consciousness.
Lockwood pays specific attention to those moments when the overlap is jarring and uncomfortable, and you cannot help but let out an edged laugh like a punctuation mark. (A recurring motif concerns characters shouting “Ahahaha!” rather than laughing, as it is “the new and funnier way to laugh”). But when it works, you suddenly find yourself enriched with a new term for a thing in tangible reality, and with that a new way of approaching, responding to, and living with it. Language actively constructs, after all, and any project of rephrasing is simultaneously one of remaking your surroundings.
The idea of the online stretching out to reach across the divide also finds expression in the notion of a tangible hivemind. The image of a stream-of-consciousness is a recurring one, figured not as contained neatly within an individual, but rather like a current or a moving crowd, acting upon any participant. The narrator finds herself in one such tangible hivemind again near the end of the story, in a place perhaps more timeless than Twitter: a crowded, noisy nightclub. This place “was one crush. One body,” the narrator observes. Tellingly, this night ends with her having her phone stolen in the throng and the music. She exits the Portal and loses the means of accessing seemingly without issue or involvement of roast chicken pictures. Lockwood thus concludes that it is not the immersion in the Portal that is the problem, but rather its exclusivity at the expense of other immersions.
Seen in line with No One is Talking About This, it is clear that Lockwood is a sharp writer who is never normative about how one must deal with traumatic, disruptive events, but still continuously looks for the restorative capability of a well-placed, well-thought joke.
Lockwood’s book is not just funny; it is ridiculous in all the best ways, absurd and endearing. It also manages to be self-aware at the same time, and maintain a critical eye to both the Portal on the one hand, and easy dismissals of social media on the other. This is the exact approach that allowed Lockwood to infuse her famous poem “Rape Joke” with the perfect charge of anger and empowering humor, causing it to go viral and speaking closely to survivors of sexual violence almost immediately after it was published in 2013. Seen in line with No One is Talking About This, it is clear that Lockwood is a sharp writer who is never normative about how one must deal with traumatic, disruptive events, but still continuously looks for the restorative capability of a well-placed, well-thought joke.
While the book is equally funny and poignant throughout, its pacing and formatting raises questions. The short, snappy paragraphs and dispersed page-layout make for a quick and entertaining read but disallow the reader the time and space to reflect on the unfolding narrative and its consequences. This is quite logical too, in the sense that Lockwood’s successful emulation of a Twitter-format has also reproduced in the book an experience of being overwhelmed by a constant flow of content. As a consequence, nothing really sticks unless you eternalize the resonant passages for yourself or, against the grain of the fast pacing, take more time than the book invites you to.
I wonder how the reading experience of this story is influenced by the medium in which it is consumed. The experience of flipping the pages of my tangible paperback copy must feel different to the experience of scrolling or swiping on an e-reader, especially given the content of this story. Alternatively, a more social media-fluent reader might have an entirely different experience of the book’s structure.
Perhaps the story requires multiple readings, across multiple platforms, to fully bring across the point it seems to want to make about the confrontation of online and offline worlds. None of this takes away from the fact that Lockwood’s project in No One is Talking About This is an ambitious and largely successful one, that will have me picking it up and reading the jokes out loud for a while longer.
José Dorenbos is a postgraduate student of Comparative Literature at Utrecht University. She is a writer and researcher with experience in the fields of journalism, documentary and academia, with current projects revolving around generational trauma and ecocritical theory and literature.
- Lockwood, Patricia. No One is Talking About This. Bloomsbury, 2021.
- Lund, Jacob. The Changing Constitution of the Present: Essays on the Work of Art in Times of Contemporaneity. Sternberg Press, 2022.
- “No Step on Snek.” Urban Dictionary, 21 September 2020, urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=No%20step%20on%20snek.
- Steyerl, Hito. “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” e-flux journal, no. 49, 2013, pages-in-space.teaching-documents.org/wcontent/uploads/2015/08/ hito_is-the-internet-dead.pdf.