Booker 2021: Social media and the sublime in Patricia Lockwood's debut

Patricia Lockwood meditates in her debut novel, No One Is Talking About This, on social media addiction.
Patricia Lockwood meditates in her debut novel, No One Is Talking About This, on social media addiction.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF BLOOMSBURY

No One Is Talking About This

By Patricia Lockwood
Bloomsbury/Paperback/210 pages/$26.95/Available here
4 out of 5

A woman known for her viral social media posts opens what she calls "the portal", where people ask one another: "Are we all just going to keep doing this till we die? Are we in hell?"

Patricia Lockwood, the American author of the acclaimed memoir Priestdaddy (2017), meditates in her debut novel on social media addiction.

This book is likely to polarise. Its fragmentary form mimics "the infinite scroll" of a social media feed and may leave some readers frustrated a few pages in.

The unnamed narrator, who became famous for posts like "Can a dog be twins?", travels the world giving talks about her celebrity, which is intrinsic to her fans and inexplicable to everyone else.

Lockwood, who is herself something of a Twitter luminary, captures with a wry poetry the absurd chaos of online existence, especially against the backdrop of a real world on the verge of collapse.

"Couldn't he see her arms all full of the sapphires of the instant?" thinks the narrator. "Didn't he realise that a male feminist had posted a picture of his nipple that day?"

It is all quite funny and a little too familiar, but even the most social media-savvy reader will begin, after a while, to question what the point of all this is.

Then comes the volta in the middle of the novel, when the narrator receives sudden, terrible news about her sister's pregnancy gone wrong. The baby is born with Proteus syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that she is unlikely to survive.

What Lockwood achieves here is an astonishing, prismatic shift of perspective, as the baby causes the narrator to re-evaluate her entire worldview.

This is no mere litany of suffering, though the novel never shrinks from the tragedy of the situation. It throbs with an immense, unbearable love for the child.

"I would have done it for a million years," says the narrator's sister. "I would have gotten up every morning and given her 13 medicines. There is no relief. I would have done it for all time."

The way this novel transforms its substance from superficial to subliminal is stunning. Don't scroll past this one.

If you like this, read: The Living Sea Of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus, 2021, $27.95, available here). In a world on the brink of ecological collapse, parts of people's bodies begin to vanish as they seek refuge in virtual realms.

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