Patricia Lockwood's first novel comprises panicked fragments — dispatches from the "portal" to which an unnamed female character is obsessively drawn. On the portal, fame can be instant and arbitrary; trends emerge and collapse within minutes. Random images and gestures are scrutinized and deconstructed, vilified or deified. The character benefits from this new economy: "She had become famous for a post that said simply, Can a dog be twins?"
Lockwood's narrator both mocks the portal and mirrors it, leaping from one subject to another, often in service of a punch line. The novel sustains this tone for so long that the reader must scramble to adjust when the lacquer of inanity cracks and all-consuming sorrow pours forth.
The main character's pregnant sister, a cheerful participant in a world of vulgar, amusement-driven prattle, discovers that something is wrong with her child in utero: "Proteus syndrome," the chances of which were "one in a billion."
Lockwood's prose becomes crisp and matter-of-fact: "The tech could see everything — the head that was measuring ten weeks ahead of the rest of the body, the asymmetry in arms and legs, the eyes that would not close — but she wasn't allowed to say anything about it."
Lockwood allows the word "tech" to resonate — technology, and its ramifications, are omnipresent here, both in the nonsensical sphere of the portal and the humorless space of diagnosis. "If all she was was funny, and none of this was funny, where did that leave her?" she writes.
The novel does not abandon its often-cruel humor — "snow stayed long after it was wanted, like wives" — but it grounds itself in a real place (Ohio) with a landscape far from the realm of digital entertainments, a place where "lunch-bag-colored-leaves wadded in the gutters in autumn," a place where "the Ethics Committee signed off finally on a thirty-five-week delivery" and "the doctor actually wept."
The portal, having launched her to fame, is rendered useless: "I'll write an article! she thought wildly. I'll blow the whole thing wide open! I'll … I'll … I'll post about it!"
Lockwood manages to illuminate the futility of the portal without necessarily condemning its adherents. The appeal of "can a dog be twins?," deliberate misspellings, arcane slang — the lifeblood of the portal — suddenly makes sense.
Lockwood's intelligence is ablaze on the page, and there are moments of brilliant lyricism, even as they are glazed with sadness: "Her sister's neck from the side had the smooth poured texture of a birdbath, rising and rising. The winged thing, pink blink, blurred cardinal, lit on her surface and drank." A story that cannot reach any bearable resolution resorts, instead, to beauty and distraction.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
No One Is Talking About This
By: Patricia Lockwood.
Publisher: Riverhead, 212 pages, $25.