In 2015, Patricia Lockwood released an “artist’s statement” of sorts on Twitter: “Thinking of the wild gasp I released when a friend told me that Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings were of ‘Giant Vaginas’ and how that is the ONLY reaction I ever want from a reader.” After all, as she told the Awl, “The part of us that reads poetry is a reflex part. … [Readers] put themselves in your trust, they put their bodies in your hands, you tap the right place and the leg kicks. Or the pupils dilate. Or the hackles rise.” The “wild gasp” is another such embodied response, primal. For Lockwood, poetry happens in the place where the intellect touches sensation, where the thinking brain meets the feeling body: the poetry of the brain stem, ars medulla oblongata.
That Lockwood views reading as an intensely physical, almost sexual surrender won’t come as a surprise to those who have encountered her work, especially her second poetry collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. In the final poem of that volume, “The Hypno-Domme Speaks, and Speaks and Speaks,” Lockwood presents a model of reading that involves not just submission but also conditioning, a way of developing a bodily response to language: “When a gunshot / rings out you’ll lie down like you’re dead. When you / hear, ‘He is breathing,’ you’ll stand up again.” The notion that reading promotes empathy or pleasurable feeling is neither radical nor new; it is well-rehearsed in defenses of literature. Lockwood, however, isn’t interested in crafting a character whose job is to be relatable despite her difference. Instead, Lockwood foregrounds the reader’s relationship to the poet’s language, a relationship that the poet forges through the power of her charisma, which is both sexual and magical.
In Lockwood’s two books of poetry, her memoir and her growing corpus of literary criticism, bodies—sexy, absurd, washed in dish soap or similes—are front and center. In her most recent poem, published in 2017, an Ode gets to wear motorcycle boots, eat a cigarette and whoop, but the speaker herself transforms into a “ridiculous pantsuit” worn by the world as it falls away. Still, the poem ends with the reunification of word and flesh: “you stood in me like a spine,” the speaker tells Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “put poppies behind my eyes, / just the fact of you.” Only in No One Is Talking About This, which became Lockwood’s first novel when it was published in February, does the body seem inimical to language, a stumbling block on the protagonist’s way to total immersion in the internet, or “portal.” At least this is how things look for a while. Then a heartbreaking event thrusts our hero back into her person, unleashing the novel’s full lyrical force in the process. From there, No One Is Talking About This glides along the knife’s edge of sentimentality, so sharp and so close that you feel it could draw real blood.
The first time I read Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, I found myself thinking about Samuel Johnson’s criticism of the metaphysical poets, the seventeenth-century wits like John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell, whose elaborate, shifting metaphors, sometimes called conceits, perplexed and irritated their poetic successors. “The most heterogenous ideas,” Johnson complained, “are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions.” When I think of Lockwood growing up in Indiana, Ohio and Missouri, I imagine this as her childhood pastime, a Midwestern poet’s equivalent of cow-tipping.
T. S. Eliot, who defended the metaphysicals from Johnson, was also from Missouri. Like Lockwood, he would become a notorious toppler of metaphorical heifers, developing a palate for the dissonant, the obscure and the obscene. “The poet must become more and more comprehensive,” he urged, “more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.” Johnson thought the metaphysical poets more clever than feeling; Eliot insisted that to “‘look into our hearts and write’ … is not looking deep enough.” With a heartfelt excessiveness I often associate with Lockwood, he counseled the would-be poet to “look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts.” You tap the right place and the leg kicks. Or the pupils dilate. Or the hackles rise.
In the first few years of her notoriety, Lockwood offered the metaphysicals as a touchstone for her readers. “My eras are the 17th century and the apocalypse,” she said in an interview in 2012. “Everyone is having sex, but so are their fleas?” There it is, Lockwood’s trifecta: the sensuous (sex), the silly (fleas) and the sublime (the apocalypse). The body, interposed between the comically gross world and transcendent rapture, all of them linked by conceit.
As Lockwood well understands, the elaborate, ranging metaphor that comprises the metaphysical conceit charms the reader in its capacity to be simultaneously ridiculous and meaningful, absurd and arousing, even gross and tender: a flea’s body becomes a sacred cloister with “living walls of jet”; a lady doesn’t have bug guts on her finger, but rather, her nail is “purpled … in blood of innocence.” Like the bug itself, the conceit is a joke that anyone can get inside of, as long as they’re willing to be vulnerable to its unpredictability, its chaotic logic of transformation. Wild things happen when, as Lockwood describes it, “the hugely unlike lie down together.”
Wild things, but not necessarily arousing ones. When I think of Donne at his most seductive, I remember the hairs lifting off the back of my neck the first time I read “Licence my roving hands, and let them go, / Before, behind, between, above, below.” (I was in a library!) Lockwood’s notoriously sexual poetry veers away from this kind of titillation, rejecting arousal in favor of comic estrangement, another kind of bodily awakening: In “Is Your Country a He or She in Your Mouth,” for example, excitement (or perhaps masturbation) is when “the people in my / valley are scooping hawk like crazy.” While Donne bounces between silliness and sensuousness, Lockwood mixes gravity with guffaws, or at least “lols.” A poem that makes you laugh, like a poem that turns you on, is a poem whose words act on your body. Although Lockwood first came to our awareness online, her work itself points to the body, to an unfulfilled longing to be at home with or in it, or perhaps to make for it a real home in the virtual spaces of language.
No One Is Talking About This is Lockwood’s second book-length prose work; the first was her memoir, Priestdaddy. The memoir begins when Lockwood and her husband find themselves moving back in with her parents, forced into this unusual arrangement by a nearly bank-breaking medical emergency. (In No One, too, the demands of the body will necessitate a homecoming.) Although funds raised by Lockwood’s Twitter followers pay for her husband’s eye surgery, he still needs time to recover, so they return to her father’s (and mother’s) house. As the book’s title hints, Lockwood’s father is, by special dispensation of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a married Catholic priest.
As it moves back and forth between her childhood and her present day, the memoir presents Lockwood’s aliveness to the absurd generously and lovingly refracted through a series of family portraits, each more preposterous than the last. It is a sweeping picture of a part of America that blends the frightening and the funny, a loving portrait of people who probably don’t resemble the book’s most likely readers. They, as much as the book’s speaker, generate the extravagant style that gives the reader so much relish.
In No One Is Talking About This, that style seems instead generated by “the portal” (the novel’s term for the internet) and by the writers who speak the portal’s language back to it. Lockwood’s nameless autofictional avatar is a writer who has been “raised … to a certain airy prominence” for birthing the meme, “Can a dog be twins?” She spends the first part of the two-part story half at home and half abroad, traveling the world to speak as an expert on the internet, with the occasional sexcapade thrown in for good measure (and described, of course, with metaphysical panache). Living life under the shadow of “the dictator” (elected 11/8/2016), she grapples with the expected problems: she is trying to be woke (incidentally, another word Lockwood conjures without writing), but finds it challenging to hate the police when her own father—an unlikable red-faced man who utters all of four sentences—is a cop in Ohio. Unable to figure out what to make of a world that is changing either too quickly or too slowly, she watches whole days dissolve into the portal, with the mixed feelings you would expect of someone whose passion has become both a livelihood and an addiction. When her sister announces that she is pregnant, our hero “hoped, as an afterthought … that English would still be intact when it came time for the baby to learn it,” even though she herself favors an extra-grammatical style.
Alongside many of the major political events of the last four years—the Parkland shooting, the Black Lives Matter protests, the increasing urgency of climate change—a series of soon-to-be-forgotten social media moments are evoked: caucasianblink.gif, “Cat Person,” Antoni Porowski’s guacamole gaffe. (I feel certain that there are references I missed.) Names—of movements, of characters, of celebrities—are more often withheld than not. These and other such calculated elisions could seem like autofictional evasions, euphemisms, even, meant to free the novelist from the potentially endless demands of realism, or to save the novel from readers who are only interested in picking the roman-à-clef’s lock. On the other hand, playing a perpetual game of “guess the referent” is often what it’s like to be online. Moreover, Lockwood’s elisions are not omissions so much as abstractions: not only does the novel not mention Twitter, Facebook or Instagram by name, but it also never uses the phrase “social media.” (The exception that proves the rule: a short elegy for Myspace, touching as only Lockwood could make it.) Lockwood understands that controlling language means controlling thought, narrative, even feeling. After all, Trump is “the dictator” because he wielded his nearly autocratic power through dictation—through the words he posted on Twitter, where he established the terms of his reality, shared by some seventy million people. We all have our own reality that comes to mind when we see the word “internet”—just like we all have a particular MIDI song we hear when we see the word “Myspace”—but the “portal” belongs to Lockwood.
Each half of the divided novel strings together lyrical fragments, composed, Lockwood has said, on the Notes app of her phone. The method mimics her own character’s way of writing, which is also “the way the portal writes.” She chooses to describe the internet as somewhere that isn’t a place, a perpetual point of entry that is never cleared—a doorway, rather than a dwelling. “Why did the portal feel so private,” she asks on the first page, “when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?” In the first half of the book especially, the slivers of plot are disordered and diffuse; reiterative but unregulated; connected but not whole. It is not always clear whether someone—the reader, the protagonist—is inside or outside of a particular room, whether she is everywhere or nowhere at all.
As a novel about the internet, No One is obligated to show us some things we already know—the way that the internet has changed our thinking, our perception, our way of being in the off- and online world. Yes, the novel admits, the portal has shattered our attention to pieces; yes, its style is infectious and homogenizing; and yes, it tends to render our politics shallow and fragile. The novel transcribes these truths, universally acknowledged, with great perspicacity; it organizes them into poetry: “Each day to turn to a single eye that scanned a single piece of writing. The hot reading did not just pour from her but flowed all around her; her concreteness almost impeded it, as if she were a mote in the communal sight.” The prose itself imitates “the communal mind,” merging, splintering and reassembling disparate images in its tenuous web.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen modern life, depicted through a fragmented consciousness, represented with a nearly liturgical level of lyricism. At one point, the novel even nods at its modernist lineage when Lockwood’s heroine, beholding a bust of James Joyce, calls the portal “the new book, the communal stream-of-consciousness.” What does it mean for Lockwood to align her work, even indirectly, with modernist literature and to do so by appealing to Joyce, another lapsed Catholic? In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s autofictional avatar Stephen Dedalus claims to be “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” Later, in Ulysses, Stephen complains that “the symbol of Irish art” is “the cracked lookingglass of a servant.” Both are apt figures for Lockwood’s novel: it is the work of a transcendent imagination, a prismatic glass (a conceit also suggested by the novel’s cover) ripping color from the mundane air. It is also a broken mirror held up to the reader, a series of radiant shards reflecting and assembling the breadth and variety of online thought. Like Joyce’s novels, No One alternates between the epiphanic and the bathetic, the profane and the profound. It even combines them, as when Lockwood’s protagonist settles into an aromatic bath—hints of Leopold Bloom’s lemon soap in the literary air—and experiences a baptism by fire and water: “when she lowered herself into the trembling water, what she would have referred to in the portal as her b’hole began to burn with such a white-hot medieval fire that she stood straight up in the bath and shouted the name of a big naked god she no longer believed in, and … she was unaware of anything except the specific address of her own body.”
At the end of Portrait, Stephen pledges to “go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” But what can “reality” mean to a woman who feels “most alive” in the portal? What is “conscience” to a person so in thrall to the way that the portal thinks, the way it writes from its shifting, collective perspective?
If the first half of No One Is Talking About This meanders along, dipping in and out of the kiddie pool of nihilism, flirting scatologically with James Joyce, adding new beads of experience to its string—the second half pulls the winding plot taut. A complication is discovered with the protagonist’s sister’s pregnancy. Because her sister is well into her second trimester, she would need to travel out of state for an abortion. Even though keeping her pregnancy requires her to risk her life, the family is opposed, especially our hero’s father. When the baby miraculously survives her birth—a child whose brain is singularly shaped, and so compartmentalized that she might forget to breathe—the vexed concepts of “real life” and of “mind” become even more vexed.
Here Lockwood’s morsels of prose approach the kind of concentrated radiance, the perfect roundedness, that one most often associates with lyric poetry. Part of it has to do with a contraction of her subjects: the “we” of the first part—generalized, vast, vague and uncomfortable (as all first-person pronouns are, I think, to a reader)—contracts, around the protagonist’s family, into a specific, concrete “they.” The “everyone” of the portal—the absorbing, observable, limitless mass—gives way to the minutiae of “the baby,” her noises, her movements, her suffering, her life:
And something about the rawness of life with the baby was like the rawness of travel, the way it laid you open to the clear blue nerves. You were the five senses pouring down an unknown street; you were the slap of your shoes and hot paper of your palms, streaming past statues of regional Madonnas. … she was open, flung open, anything could rush in.
The baby is diagnosed with Proteus syndrome, a real genetic disorder characterized by overgrowth that can affect bones, skin and other tissues, including organ tissue. This particular child, we are told, will live in her senses, and think, insofar as she can think, in the way that an octopus does, through her body. In the portal, the protagonist feels “her arms all full of the sapphires of the instant”; with the baby, those jewels give way to “clear blue nerves.” The story, whose heartbreaking end is a foregone conclusion, comes close to smearing into the sentimental. But the metaphors are too sharp, the sense of irony—not irony itself, but the sense that it would be comfortable in the room—too developed, so that every seeming trespass over the bounds of good sense is, in the dismal parlance of the creative writing workshop, “earned.”
The baby’s case is the first to be diagnosed in utero; she is an infant so unique that photographers are present to document her birth for science. She brings a new form into the world—a form, hindered by its overgrowth, that can only do a few specific things for a very short time, but nonetheless a new form. Here, now, reading the baby becomes tricky. As babies so often are for artists, this one is—she has to be—a metaphor: for the internet, or for the forms (perhaps hindered, perhaps abnormal) of art that are possible through it, perhaps even for the novel itself. That is what happens in fiction, although the protagonist rejects such extrapolation: “It spoke of something deep in human beings, how hard she had to pinch herself when she started thinking of it all as a metaphor.”
And indeed Lockwood’s acknowledgments suggest that this baby was also a real baby, in the way that an autofictional protagonist is also the author—which is to say, it’s complicated. There’s a scene, halfway through part one, where Lockwood slyly raises the question of the reality of autofiction:
On the Isle of Skye, she and her husband ate langoustines at a restaurant overlooking a long gray ridge of rock with a lighthouse at the tip of it, and laughed at the herds of tourists who insisted on visiting lighthouses wherever they went. “Some things!” her husband whispered. “Are the same! No matter where you go!” But later, taking an afternoon out of the portal to read Virginia Woolf, she realized that that must have been it, the lighthouse the family sails to on the final page. Was that the final page? Or did the book end with herself and her husband, cracking the red backs of little sweet creatures, cutouts of each other and all the same, and laughing, at the people who moved in one wave, the family who went to the Lighthouse?
Lockwood’s protagonist is not the sharp reader that we know Lockwood to be: she’s off about both the final page of To the Lighthouse and maybe also the location of the lighthouse. I write “maybe” because there are at least two lighthouses that could qualify as the novel’s, and which lighthouse you choose depends on whether you give the novel the final word, or trace it back to the life experience from which it undoubtedly sprang. If you choose an autobiographical reading, then the titular lighthouse must be the one Woolf encountered in her childhood, the one that presumably inspired the story. That would be Godrevy Lighthouse, which is off the coast of Cornwall, on the opposite end of the United Kingdom. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a lighthouse where the novel is set—on the far end of Scotland, a place Woolf hadn’t visited until at least a decade after the novel was published—then Lockwood’s character has identified the right one.
Similarly, two events transpire on the last page of Woolf’s novel, and the family’s arrival at the lighthouse is only the second to last. The book ends not with Mr. Ramsay springing out of a boat onto the rock, but with a silent poet, Augustus Carmichael, and an artist, Lily Briscoe, watching the empty horizon into which the boat has receded, knowing that the journey has been completed. Lily consummates the novel by transforming what she has witnessed into an abstraction on her canvas; in a moment of inspiration, she paints a line “in the center”—a symbol, perhaps, of connection, or maybe severance, or maybe just the lighthouse. She turns “real life” into form. Lockwood’s characters, by contrast, find themselves imprisoned in the portal’s endless reformulations, cracking the backs of langoustines as if to break Lily’s last line. In their world, nothing can be deformed, because there is only transformation: one place is a good as another. The real and the virtual tangled together like a Möbius strip.
In Lockwood’s poetry, the poem happens inside of you, redirecting the circuits of your brain. In No One, Lockwood sacrifices intimacy for scope: if the poem is you, maybe the novel is us. Not us reading it, but us being absorbed into its making, our “communal stream-of-consciousness” assembled into its fragmented brain. That’s the trick of Lockwood’s title: the phrase “No one is talking about this” usually means that everyone is. “No one” is the internet, personified; “No one” is our interlocutor whenever we speak online (cf. that meme—you know, the one that goes “No one: … / Absolutely no one: … / Me: [insert quirky non sequitur here]”). When you are reading that meme, you are the “no one.” Another Odysseus, who tells a malevolent Cyclops that his name is “Outis” (“Nobody” or “No one”) so that he won’t be held responsible for his actions.
Was Homer joking about the poet’s disembodiment when he gave his storyteller this tongue-in-cheek nickname? Or rather, were they joking, the countless bards whose songs made up that founding epic, whose bodies dissolved into the furrows of the boustrophedon? Lockwood’s avatar thinks of the kids who copy her memes: “There was no use in saying That’s mine to a teenager who had carefully cropped the face, name, and fingerprint out of your sentence—she loved it, the unitless free language inside her head had said it a hundred times, it was hers.” I had to read that last sentence twice: who is she? The teenager, or our protagonist? Both, maybe: they are bound together by the “unitless free language” that lives in their heads, deeper than she, you, I—deeper, even, than we.
As for me, I chuckled while I read this book. I smiled. And I also wept, although I won’t say how much, or for how long. When I wept, I wondered what it was for: Did it matter, I asked myself, closing the book, that this was autofiction—did it make a difference to glean, from Lockwood’s dedication and her acknowledgements, that embedded in this novel—not told straight, of course, but there, as a kernel, a grain of real sand in the imaginary eye—was the story of a real baby, the grief of a real family? Or was I weeping because it had come to mean something to me, in the way that the line down the center means something to Lily Briscoe, in the way that Woolf’s lighthouse—though no one has ever really seen it, wherever it is—has meant something to nearly everyone who imagined it?
I suppose I wept because I felt it—all of it—in my body, in the tissue below and behind my eyes.
Art credits: Julie Curtiss, “Selfie 1,” oil, acrylic and vinyl on canvas, 30 × 40 in., 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York. © Julie Curtiss