Extremely Online and Wildly Out of Control
The Atlantic|March 2021
Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel explores the mind, and heart, of an internet-addled protagonist.
By Jordan Kisner

On an Instagram account that I like, an illustrator publishes little four-panel drawings of smooth-headed aliens doing normal human things. Two aliens with bodies like slim light bulbs encounter each other against a bubblegum-pink background. One is sitting in a chair, reading a book; the other is just poking its head in, as if to say hello: “What are you doing?” The reading alien looks up from its book. “Forming emotional bonds,” it replies.

“If I am successful I will be despondent upon completion.”

“Well I hope you are devastated,” the friend says, warmly.

“Thank you—lowering my defenses,” the reading alien says with a jaunty hand gesture.

In another drawing, an alien gives an earbud to a friend. “Put this in your head,” it says. “I want you to hear vibrations that affect my emotions.” “So that mine are also affected?” the alien’s friend asks. “If all goes as planned,” the first replies.

What I like about this particular cartoon series, called Strange Planet, drawn by the artist Nathan W. Pyle, is that it presents the most mundane human actions—reading a novel, wanting a friend to hear and appreciate your sad music— out of context and in unfamiliar language. We’re so weird, I find myself saying, while snort-laughing, looking at my own behaviors in this frame. Why are we like this?

This is the experience—snort-laughter mixed with bewilderment at the absolute strangeness of the world in which I participate—that I tend to have when reading Patricia Lockwood, the poet turned memoirist and London Review of Books essayist who has now published her first novel, No One Is Talking About This. The novel follows a protagonist who is “extremely online,” a genius of the “portal,” as the internet is called here, and naturally adept at the cleverness and absurdity of social-media exchange. She has become famous for it. Recently, she has gained worldwide recognition for a post that says, in its entirety, “Can a dog be twins?” Her cat’s name is Dr. Butthole. She travels the world, invited to speak about the portal—both as an interpreter of its patterns and as a performer of its bizarre and hilarious argot.

“Stream-of-consciousness!” she shouts to an audience in Jamaica. “Stream-of-consciousness was long ago conquered by a man who wanted his wife to fart all over him. But what about the stream-of-a- consciousness that is not entirely your own? One that you participate in, but that also acts upon you?”

These are the driving questions of No One Is Talking About This. What happens to a mind that has enthusiastically joined a worldwide Mind, yet can still occasionally see—if only in flashes—the perversity of the exercise? “Modern womanhood was more about rubbing snail mucus on your face than she had thought it would be. But it had always been something, hadn’t it?” Lockwood’s narrator notes. Elsewhere: “She had a crystal egg up her vagina. Having a crystal egg up her vagina made it difficult to walk, which made her thoughtful, which counted as meditation.”

Where do these thoughts come from? Who made them? How did it come to be that we now have crystal eggs up our vaginas? Already it was becoming impossible to explain things she had done even the year before, why she had spent hypnotized hours of her life, say, photoshopping bags of frozen peas into pictures of historical atrocities, posting OH YES HUNNY in response to old images of Stalin, why whenever she liked anything especially, she said she was going to “chug it with her ass.” Already it was impossible to explain these things.

I first encountered Lockwood, as many people did, on Twitter, where she has a large and devoted fandom, and where her current profile bio identifies her as a “hardcore berenstain bare-it-all.” One of the early Twitter projects that won her readers, circa 2011, was a series of “sexts” riffing on what was at the time an ascendant phenomenon of interpersonal communication, and turning it into a poetic mode.

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