Enter the Galaxy Brain

Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This

Bloomsbury, 208pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781526629760

reviewed by Becky Varley–Winter

At the opening of Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel, titled No One is Talking About This, we find her main character wrapped in the gossamer-like web of the internet, which she refers to as ‘the portal’. ‘She lay every morning under an avalanche of details, [. . .] the spiderweb of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk, and the day still not opening to her.’ The portal, which had promised to deliver her from isolation, into communion with the lives of others, has become strangely stifling. The main character seems intent on trying to say or do something that will break through the cocoon of online life, yet this environment muffles all sense of consequence:

It was hard to know which forms of protest against the current regime were actually useful. The day after the election her husband had woken up with a strong urge to get a face tattoo. “Either I want a teardrop under my right eye or I want them to make my whole skull visible.” He settled finally on getting the words STOP IT in very small letters right near his hairline, where they could hardly be seen.

No One Is Talking About This is a novel of its time, and a protest novel, but Lockwood protests by showing, rather than telling, in a series of short bursts. Facing the turbulent politics of the last four years, her characters find themselves pressed against the limits of public conversation. The book’s underlying hum of dread reminds me of surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning’s description, in her memoir Between Lives, of the beginning of the Second World War. On a train ride through Germany, Tanning realises that vast conflict is now in motion, and that her thoughts have lost all effect: ‘I had rubbed elbows with enough collective madness to know it would never matter what I might think of what was happening. [. . .] Never again would I confuse heckling with heroics.’

Like Tanning, Lockwood is attuned to surreal and animal life. She is also a tragicomedian at heart. Her writing is intrinsically funny, but her laughter often flails against painful truths of heartbreak and rage. Her main character is no longer sure if comedy can fully describe or respond to the world around her: ‘If all she was was funny, and none of this was funny, where did that leave her?’ She tries to articulate the human consequences of politics, and does so, ultimately, through a narrative of pregnancy and birth.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Lockwood explains that her novel’s structure mirrors what she sees as the prevalent literary style: ‘I thought the novel ought to be written in the mode of the time, and the fragmentary and the autofictional are the modes of the time.’ The internet is often described as a fragmentary medium, but its fragmentary affect emerges because everything, no matter how large or small, trivial or traumatic, appears unbroken, in a stream without purchase, through endless opening windows, making everything public. If fragmentation emerges from our own lack of perspective, the internet poses instant and disorientating problems of scope. Within the novel, Lockwood’s ‘portal’ becomes a vast, incubating body, with a deceptively smooth surface. Her protagonist is an internet baby, a person nurtured on this ether. In the first part of the novel, she lives, like a foetus, inside the internet, which acts like a gigantic maternal network surrounding her, through which all world events are filtered. In the second part, she is pulled out of this womblike existence by an urgent family tragedy.

This leads to an emotionally divided reading experience. The first half of the novel reads like a refracted essay, in part replicating a monologue on the internet that Lockwood wrote for the London Review of Books. It moves in concentrated loops, like a scrolling eye, searching for the real. Lockwood’s humour is strongest when it’s subjected to the gravitational pull of deep feeling, and she returns repeatedly to her protagonist’s sensation that she is living shallowly. Life in the portal is exhilarating, yet she observes that she is missing something, and failing to represent the truth of her experience. ‘She put one true word after another and put the words in the portal. All at once they were not true, not as true as she could have made them. Where was the fiction? Distance, arrangement, emphasis, proportion?’ The medium she is living in, and writing through, has an automatically distancing affect. In one vignette, she laughs aloud at footage of people being flung from a moving rollercoaster, then gasps as she realises that she is cackling at their deaths. The outside world, influenced by Trump (who Lockwood calls ‘the Dictator’) is also becoming increasingly like a distorted simulation, influenced by the online publicity from which it draws. Lockwood’s idiosyncratic, offhand observations try to pinpoint a joke that might wield power against this: ‘Like all fascists, he was secretly submissive’, she writes. Yet the portal, which turns everything that enters it into entertainment, feels not only ineffective, but actively disempowering.

Despite this, the portal still contains the potential for real connection. Lockwood has vividly described, in her memoir Priestdaddy (2017), meeting her husband online, and finding success as an author uniquely attuned to the rhythms of the internet. The portal has co-written the course of her life, and some of the most affecting passages of her novel’s first section convey the constant stream of life-writing that the internet immerses us in. ‘Someone was dead, she had never met him,’ she writes, ‘yet she had zoomed in on the texture of his injuries a dozen times.’ People forge friendships and relationships, and watch over each other from a distance:

Once she had gone walking through Washington Square Park with a woman she knew from the portal, with long crisp gingerish hair that fell backward from a Flemish forehead. The woman pointed out an old man playing chess; she said she always looked for him as she walked to work, but he had gone missing for a few weeks recently, and it was such a relief to see him again, sliding his sure white knights on the L, bringing a dry rustling autumn to the leaf of his daily newspaper. “Maybe there are people in this life that we’re assigned to watch over,” they mused, and were comforted, but months later, she heard that the woman from the portal had disappeared, and no one would tell her how, where, why—or which green real park she could have walked through, to watch over her day by day.

Elsewhere, Lockwood makes much of the collective surveillance of the portal (‘what began as the most elastic and snappable verbal play soon emerged in jargon, and then in dogma, and then in doctrine’), and the pressure it exerts to make its subjects write in a shared chorus of outrage. This collective paranoid watching feels very distinct from the intimate online friendships that she describes so tenderly. Yet even this caring observation doesn’t prevent her online friend from slipping quietly away, into a territory that the portal cannot reach.

At the mid-point of the novel, mid-scroll, the protagonist receives an emergency text from her mother, and is pulled from – or falls out of – her life inside the portal, into this territory of private distress. Her sister is pregnant, and it becomes clear that the foetus is not growing at a normal pace. The baby is – like John Merrick, the so-called ‘Elephant Man’ – a genetic anomaly, or miracle, growing out of proportion. She cannot be carried to term, requiring either an abortion or an early birth to save her mother’s life. This forces a reckoning with material realities: with money, with women’s healthcare rights, with misogyny, and with the tactile fabric of life itself, which many of these external forces completely oppose (the medical bills alone are catastrophic). Lockwood writes with numinous, protective tenderness about familial love and grief:

Looking at the baby, she sometimes believed that nothing was wrong or could ever go wrong, that they were on a planet together where this is simply what a baby was. Then she traveled back to earth with the baby in her arms, and she gripped her stomach in pain, because suddenly the sweet small body was a jagged heap of jigsaw pieces in the bottom of her belly that she must put together, put together, keep putting together at every moment, wave after wave of that pain in the stomach, solve into a picture of the sea.

This section of the novel carries us back into contact with birth, its emotions still unsolved. Look, Lockwood seems to say, this is what matters. She takes her readers carefully towards the uniquely responsive body of the baby, whose unlikely life acts as a real-world version of the Galaxy Brain meme, breaking consciousness apart, opening the dividing seam between self and world. The comparatively insulated, glib environment of the novel’s opening section falls away, suggesting that it is only through imaginative contact with living bodies that the consequences of politics are truly felt or known.

This contact is represented not only through a moving depiction of the baby’s life, but through the lives of animals, the nonhuman, and the prehistoric. It’s an elegy of unbearable beauty and pain. The loss Lockwood describes, while it might be filtered through the medium of the internet, cannot be addressed in that medium. The protagonist can’t post about it. She requires not only a more private language, but formless noise:

There began a period where she cried uncontrollably in cafés, taxis, grocery stores, bars; at commercials, at documentaries, at Ryan Reynolds movies; in public bathrooms, with her head on her knees, making animal noises that could not belong to her

No One Is Talking About This has been spoken and written about as a novel of the ‘Extremely Online’, making it seem as though the internet is its core subject. However, as Lockwood traces grief, and celebrates the baby’s life, the internet begins to seem an elaborate decoy within her novel’s themes of creation and devotion. The portal as she describes it is an imperfect and distorting medium through which to make and unmake the world. It enchants and disenchants. The story she tells is against abstraction and simplification. The protagonist observes, of her Republican father, that he does not understand the nature of the world that he has tried to create, and that he has contemplated it only in the abstract. His belief system has left no space for certain truths to coexist; truths that his daughters have always had to bear at their own risk. ‘“Do you understand that your daughter’s life is in danger?” she screamed quietly’. The divided structure of Lockwood’s novel – pre- and post-birth, pre- and post-grief – suggests that we need to understand ahead of time, imaginatively, structurally, unavoidably, the limits of our own control, and the consequences of insulating ourselves from the complex living realities which her protagonist, stunned, articulates.

Becky Varley–Winter is the author of Reading Fragments and Fragmentation in Modernist Literature, and a poetry collection, Heroines: On the Blue Peninsula. A collection of her short stories, BLOOM, is forthcoming.