talking about things on the internet

Review: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Women’s Prize progress: 7/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, an unnamed woman of viral tweet fame reflects on life as a minor internet celebrity- the highs and lows of being plugged in to social media sites all the time. This rumination is interrupted, however, when a real life family issue claims our protagonist’s attention. As she learns about the genetic disorder Proteus Syndrome and spends more time logged off to lend support, she realizes that there are some important aspects of human experience that are not encapsulated in the digital archive- at least, not inside the circle of popular trends she’s familiar with- and she’s forced to reevaluate the time she spends online.

“What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract? What had the politician promised us? The realtor, walking us through being’s beautiful house? Could we sue? We would sue! Could we blow it all open? We would blow it all open! Could we…could we post about it?”

No One is Talking About This is a short novel constructed with brief, fragmented paragraphs. They’re not all of individual tweet-length, and as far as I remember Twitter is never mentioned by name, but the comparison in style is obvious and suits the content. This is a book full of direct references to social media trends and usage habits; to some extent, it’s appeal is going to be proportional to the amount of time the reader spends online. Personally, I am not Online in the way that this protagonist is, so there were some references that I sensed probably had a deeper relevance that was going over my head, though I still understood and enjoyed most of the read- being online 24/7 is not necessarily a prerequisite here. To be honest, the reason I don’t spend more time on Twitter and other social media sites is because I know I have a hard time breaking out of the urge to keep scrolling indefinitely and it becomes a huge time suck; even from that perspective, there’s a lot to relate to in this book, as our protagonist knows perfectly well how ridiculous it all can be. Nevertheless, there’s that irresistible drive to feel more connected to the people of our time.

“When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”

But while I found a lot of individual statements about the internet spot-on, this wasn’t a novel that worked for me as a whole. No matter how directly some of the one-liners spoke to me, I never felt engaged in the underlying plot. Part of the reasoning for that may lie in the fact that our protagonist isn’t a very active agent throughout this story; she’s commenting on what has become for her a routine, daily existence, and next on something that is happening to a family member, something that she is witnessing but has no control over. It’s all observational. Another downfall is that this is a book in two parts: one about excessive internet (“portal”) engagement, one about Proteus Syndrome, and the connection between the two feels tenuous at best. Both are happening to the same person, essentially, and at that someone who is struggling to contain both experiences in her mind at the same time even while she is living them.

Furthermore, I felt the central message here- that being online is useless in the face of Proteus Syndrome- to be simplistic and somewhat unhelpful. To claim that no one is talking about Proteus is… probably not true. That it’s not a mainstream topic probably is true, but as an extremely rare disorder currently without a cure, I’m not convinced that more people worrying about it out loud on the internet (or elsewhere) would be particularly productive in the first place (which is not to say that no one should talk about it). Furthermore, though viral posts can indeed be shockingly arbitrary, the implication that there is no value to social media while “real things” are happening in the tangible world also feels like an unconsidered, extreme viewpoint. For this particular protagonist, yes, being online all the time and endeavoring to find fame through shitposts like “can dogs be twins” probably is unhealthy, but this is not necessarily the default experience. In fact, I would argue relatively few of us, even those who are Incredibly Online, are unhealthily ignoring real world problems in favor of crafting infamous tweets in the name of digital fame.

“‘I can do something for her,’ she tried to explain to her husband, when he asked why she kept flying back to Ohio on those rickety $98 flights that had recently been exposed as dangerous by Nightline. ‘A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has- I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.’ Then, almost angrily, ‘What was I doing with them before?'”

But aside from the fact that No One is Talking About This speaks about a very specific experience in a way that seems- perhaps a bit awkwardly- meant for the masses to find relatable, it is arguably an important story. Maybe more people should be talking about Proteus Syndrome, and about the myriad effects (both negative and positive) of modern social media use. Reading this book as an example of reality vs. internet conflict rather than the example allows room for some interesting consideration regarding modern life. If the reason you’re online is to feel yourself a part of the moment, why not read a new book that’s trending thanks to its Women’s Prize nomination and which focuses very intently on the state of our (digital) world at present? Though I felt I should’ve had more of an emotional reaction to the sad content here than I actually did, this read certainly sparked some thought for me about how I use my time online and how I balance internet and tangible-world time; it may do the same for you.

CW: death of a child

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book certainly had its ups and downs for me, and it’s so current that if you’re going to read it I’d suggest doing it asap (already a few of the references feel dated), but it’s a book I’m glad I took a chance on. I related, I learned, I reconsidered. Though I don’t think this is presented well enough to be a literary masterpiece, it’s one of the most experimental and “of our time” books I’ve encountered so far on the Women’s Prize longlist, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it advance to the shortlist, and while I’m not especially rooting for that outcome I suppose I wouldn’t mind it.

The Literary Elephant

28 thoughts on “talking about things on the internet”

  1. Oh, no! This has made me very glad to have skipped this one, and I hope it doesn’t advance to the shortlist. I really hate novels that juxtapose the Bad Online with the Good Real World (apart from anything else, there are roughly 1 million of them, so I don’t see that there’s anything new to be said). I think I have literally read 1 interesting piece of fiction that deals with this theme, which was Jia Tolentino’s short story ‘I Would Be Doing This Anyway’ (funnily enough, as I thought Trick Mirror was quite simplistic on the topic). Sorry to randomly rant away in your comments!

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    1. Yes! (And no need to apologize for a comment rant, I always enjoy them!) What I thought might set this one apart from the moralizing Bad-Online-Good-Real-World stories is that the ‘real world’ portion here involves a crisis/tragedy, which I hoped would pave the way for a more nuanced discussion. Unfortunately even though the internet isn’t exactly framed as inherently bad here, the central argument does seem to be that it’s commonly used in unimportant ways, which isn’t much of an improvement.
      But I have been meaning to read Trick Mirror for ages so I’m very glad to hear that at least one of the essays in that set approaches modern internet usage in a more interesting way! Even if that’s not necessarily true for the collection as a whole.

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      1. Ah, I see now! Thanks for mentioning/linking the short story, I didn’t really have any of her work beyond the essay collection on my radar.

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  2. I don’t like didactic books about anything, including ones that are preoccupied with social media. Social media can be harmful but if one takes the time to curate it carefully, it’s a boon.

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    1. I fully agree! There are definitely benefits to social media and general internet use, though of course it’s possible to use almost anything badly/unhealthily. It’s hard to tell with this book exactly how widely the real-life-over-internet message is meant to apply, but some acknowledgment in the narration that this is *one* experience rather than the norm might have helped it!

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  3. Great review! This is another one that sounds like it has lots of promise in the setup, even if the execution is a little uneven. I’ve seen such polarised opinions on it, so I’m intrigued to see if it advances to the shortlist!

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    1. Thanks! It’s definitely a title where divided opinions make sense- I think how much the reader relates to the MC’s internet experience is going to play a big role in personal enjoyment. It’s an interesting read for sure even if a bit unbalanced; I’m also very curious to see where it’ll land with the WP judges!

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  4. There can be so much bad stuff on the internet, and I include influencers in that, that when I get stuck online I call it “doom scrolling.” I know there are similar terms; it’s just the one I’ve used. However, if I’m lost online for a long time and feel happy, I don’t consider that a waste of time. Certain subreddits are brilliant, full of amazing, talented, and mind-bedazzlingly funny people. I have Twitter and get on once in a while to get a pulse of what’s happening in the country, but I haven’t had a Facebook in years, and then I just have the blog.

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    1. I’ve definitely used ‘doom scrolling’ as a term myself! For me I usually apply that to times when I’m intentionally scrolling through stuff that’s upsetting or frustrating to me (so healthy), but I like your meaning too and can definitely relate to getting stuck in the scroll. I also agree that internet usage that makes you happy is not a waste of time! My social media use in recent years sounds pretty similar to yours as well. I’m on the blog regularly, and have a few other social accounts, but especially this year with the fatigue I haven’t been able to keep up with them all and just check in to lurk on other people’s posts on occasion to get a sense of what’s going on beyond my little bubble.

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  5. I have not read this, and I can’t say it is exactly appealing to me after your review, as it seems as though it doesn’t quite know what is trying to be or say. As a slight aside, what is it with all these novels with unnamed female narrators? I have come across quite a few of them in the last few years just through looking at Women’s Prize and Booker lists. It seems to be a trend, and while I have liked many of the books with this trope individually, I am becoming slightly tired of it over all. What is it trying to say?

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    1. I definitely think this one’s a bit too wrapped up in making small observations at the cost of a cohesive overall message, unfortunately.
      Unnamed narrators have really become a trend! Personally I don’t mind, since I tend to forget specific details from books (like names) pretty quickly anyway, but I agree that it can be frustrating when it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. The best instances of unnamed narrators imo are when they’re trying to show that the narrator’s experience is a common one by making her a sort of everywoman that the reader can relate to easily. I think that’s what Lockwood was going for in this book, but I just didn’t see the protagonist’s experience as enough of a default for it to work quite as well as it may have been intended.

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  6. I really enjoyed reading your review, but I’m still not convinced, I have to read this. However, it does seem to discuss a highly relevant and current theme and I wouldn’t be too surprised, if it ends up on the shortlist.

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    1. Thank you! That’s my feeling as well, it might end up on the shortlist for the ideas covered and the interesting way they’re presented, but the story itself is a harder sell, unfortunately.

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      1. Spot on guesswork! 🙂 And that’s very fair, this is definitely a book with a wide range of reactions and thus won’t be for everyone. It is quite firmly bottom-ranked among my shortlist reads so far, and I think if the premise doesn’t call to you, you may have better luck looking elsewhere on the shortlist for a great read!

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  7. Very insightful review – you seem to have captured all the potential and pitfalls of this book really well. I can’t say it’s going to be one for me, and especially as you say some of the references feel a bit dated I can see myself giving it a miss altogether. However, it sounds interesting and of the moment, as you say, which makes me feel it’s perhaps more important to try than some of the others on the Women’s Prize list I’ve been wavering over. Having a great premise but slightly flawed execution seems to be a bit of a thing this year!

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    1. Thanks! I think this is going to be a book with a very specific fan-base of avid, self-aware social media users; not for everyone, but it might work *really* well for the right reader. It did feel very current though (despite a few of the trends seeming old already by internet standards) which made it feel worthwhile to me, even if an imbalanced read. And it’s so short, which perhaps gives it a slight leg up on others from the list that might be more appealing for their premises. (I think you’re right in observing that there are several!) In any case, though it has its merits its a tricky book to recommend; I’ll be very curious to see whether the judges have liked it enough to advance it to the shortlist!

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  8. I’ve noticed in books like this, where there is a Message about the online world vs the real world, sometimes the actual plot and characterization seems to get bogged down by the author trying to really get their message across. I tend to think that your experience on-line is what you make of it and I think I’d probably agree with you – somewhere, someone on the internet is talking about any subject you can think of!

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    1. That’s something that can bother me with any topic, the author getting bogged down in making statements and neglecting world and character in the process. But I think you’re right- I haven’t read a lot about modern use of the internet, but it does seem a subject particularly prone to moralizing. And there are so many different ways to use the internet! Everyone has their own niche(s), which makes it hard to imagine anything as the “standard” online experience.

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      1. That’s true – anytime the author clearly seems to have a message to share it can distract from the story they are trying to tell, regardless of what that message is. It just seems like internet usage is something people really get up in arms about when, as you say, there really isn’t a standard experience.

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      2. I wonder if that will change, the longer the internet serves as a common meeting ground. Not that the people writing about it now are *old,* but I think the youngest generations right now that are growing up with the internet already established have a bit less of a doom and gloom outlook about the shift to digital lives than those who remember life before it all. I wonder if we’ll see the commentary shifting soon.

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      3. I think it definitely will change/is changing. I was curious so I looked up Lockwood’s age and she is just a few years older than me. When I was a teenager and the internet was new, we were constantly being told how dangerous it was, how everyone on there was a pedophile, it was only for nerds. Now the internet is a normal part of our lives and meeting people from the internet isn’t an extreme thing to do. And as we see younger generations who have grown up with social media, I think we’ll see attitudes and habits around that change too.

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      4. I agree! My first forays onto the internet happened during the rise of Facebook, so by the time I got there the internet was somewhat more established and pretty well-populated. I definitely still got the pedophile warnings, but social media was already cool by then, with a bit less stigma. And even my easy introduction seems comically cautious now that I watch my 15 year old brother spending half his time online like it’s second nature. He sees life pre-internet as like, dinosaur days, unfit for human habitation, lol. It may have taken people some time to adapt (and adults seem less trusting of big changes in general imo) but views are certainly are changing and very quickly a lifetime of internet use will probably be the norm. Not perfect, but familiar, at least. It will be interesting to see what sort of critiques/commentary about life online will arise from those who haven’t really known life without it.

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      5. Social media really changed anonymity on the internet. Before that, it was far more unusual for people to use their real names so the danger of criminals and pedophiles felt far more real. I often wonder what internet usage will look like by the time my kids are teens and adults. I kind of just assume that there will be entirely new aspects to the internet and social media by then that don’t exist now!

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