The unnamed protagonist of Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel has a pet cat called Dr Butthole. She suspects this says something about her and her generation: ‘One hundred years ago, her cat might have been called Mittens.’ Irreverence is her stock in trade: she achieved online fame for her pithy posts on a Twitter-esque social media platform called ‘the portal’. But she is uneasy with her celebrity, concerned that the prevailing online register – a blend of performative cynicism, heavy irony and nth-degree inanity she terms ‘the new sense of humor’ – may be debasing the wider culture and stunting people’s capacity for compassion, empathy and earnest political engagement. No One is Talking About This poses a troubling question: what if the internet has spawned not just a new vernacular but a whole new morality?
The first half of the novel is largely plotless, comprising a series of fragmentary ruminations on Donald Trump’s America. These touch on populism, call-out culture, school shootings, health-care reform and abortion laws; there are meditations on incels (‘What were we to do with the boys?’) and climate change (‘The golden age of air travel had entered its twilight’). Lockwood is witty and acerbic, sending up her protagonist’s half-hearted radicalism (‘Every fiber in her being strained. She was trying to hate the police’) and the pious buzz phrases of online discourse: ‘The word toxic had been anointed, and now could not go back to being a regular word’; ‘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.’ Some of the political satire, however, is lazy and jejune: Trump is referred to throughout as ‘the dictator’; we learn that ‘sex ended in America on November 8, 2016’.
A story materialises in the latter section of the novel, when the protagonist’s baby niece falls seriously ill; the prospect of real-life human tragedy yanks her out of her digital immersion. It is movingly told, though one wonders whether her deep estrangement from the offline world is quite as universal as the novel seems to suggest. Anyone who spends too much time pissing about online will be familiar with the ennui it brings, but in these pages the worry takes on almost apocalyptic proportions: perusing the social media profile of a man best known for posting pictures of his balls online, Lockwood’s protagonist sees in it ‘the blazing endpoint of a civilization: ships on the Atlantic, the seasickness of ancestors over a churning green’.
No One is Talking About This is part of a long tradition of American fretfulness about cultural and spiritual decline. Despite its liberal political slant and sprinkling of contemporary internet slang (I had to look up ‘thot’), the novel’s sensibility is implicitly conservative, evoking nothing so much as a handwringing op-ed about smartphone-addled millennials. I’m not sure I buy it. Lockwood first made her name as a brilliant performer on Twitter’s nonstop banter bus, and there is something of the humblebrag about all this worthy solicitude. Perhaps, rather than having diagnosed a real societal malaise, she has merely projected onto an entire generation a neurosis that actually affects only a small number of people. Among them are contemporary novelists, who are unsure quite what to do about the internet.
The protagonist tells us she flourished on social media ‘because she wanted to be a creature of pure call and response: she wanted to delight and to be delighted’. The trouble is that what works on social media does not necessarily work in a novel: in the absence of any coherent narrative architecture to bind it all together, the assorted clutter of Lockwood’s whimsy forms less than the sum of its parts. In a revealing moment of self-doubt, Lockwood’s protagonist wonders: ‘If all she was was funny, and none of this was funny, where did that leave her?’ Well, a good deal of this novel is funny, but the question still stands.