Patricia Lockwood, “No One Is Talking About This” (2021) (read aloud by Kristen Sieh) – Well… I listened to this at a time where a fair few things came together for me. Whatever other effects this confluence had, it has made me very, very impatient with this book. I am informed, by people whose taste I respect, that Patricia Lockwood is a very talented writer, largely on the strength of her memoirs “Priestdaddy,” which I perhaps will one day read. I could see glimpses of it in this work, a smooth prose style and bits of humor. I have also been told she is a “master of Twitter.” This is probably part of the problem. I did not enjoy, like, or respect this book.
A friend of mine — a friend I’ve known exclusively online, if that matters, one I’ve known for years and shared writing and other intimacies with — did something extraordinarily self-destructive recently. His stated motivation for so doing, the way he went about it, and the formats in which he informed his friends, all simultaneously critiqued and reflected the sort of internet zeitgeist that seems to be one of the main topics of contemporary literary attention. His critique, and what he did in response, struck home not just for his perspicacity, though he is quite perceptive, or the extremity of his action, though it was quite extreme. It also struck home because at bottom, he and I are in similar positions- failed writer/intellectuals. People flinch from that word, “failed,” “failure” (like a certain other “f” word that I freely self-apply, “fat”). They point to my accomplishments, and they — I — point to his. They’re real. But there’s also no getting around the fact that neither my friend nor I can make a living from writing, academia, or any of the other societally-approved venues to cash out wordy oddballs.
So much for the material! I usually play straight man to this friend. In our dynamic, based as it is on discussing ideas and aesthetics, I’m the stolid one, considering the implications, striving for consistency, trying to be “real,” he’s the zany one, throwing such mundane concerns to the wind, even to the point where he’d dispute this characterization. No pigeon hole for him! Maybe this is the way to put it: I make statements; he makes gestures. Another way to put it: we discussed depression, once, and he told me some facts about narcissistic depression, the depression of people capable of making flashy gesture and big deals out of themselves (as you can tell, my psychological vocabulary is… impoverished), whereas my depression, my family’s depression, was more the self-obviating kind.
This friend would try to destroy himself all over again, I bet, before he accepted any kind of descriptor that said he, and his attempted last performance, were part of any kind of zeitgeist. Well, he doesn’t have to accept it. The thing that made me most angry as I read through his lengthy manifesto was the unsaid thesis: that he is above the real, above the quotidian. I answer emails about 3D printer failures forty hours a week, and try to eke out time for what I care about — writing, reading, organizing, fun time with friends and family — when I can. I can live with my failure to be a professional writer, and try to convert it into success, and this dude…
Well. This is not a request for an explainer on the realities of depression and suicide. I get it, please believe me, intellectually at least, and you’re hardly going to get me to grok it emotionally more than the last week or so already has, so please, please don’t try. Among other things, and here it’s hard to see how much my friend “meant it” — he is a long-term practitioner of the “Schrodinger’s Joke” — but his manifesto included instructions for his posthumous acclaim.
He’s not a “get famous or die trying” guy, exactly (he has invested a lot of energy in being hard to pin down). That’s made explaining this difficult, when I’ve tried to talk about what’s going on to other friends. I think it would be fair to say he is a “live in extraordinary fashion or try to die in extraordinary fashion” guy, or was, anyway. Surviving the experience seems to have woken him up to the fact that people care about him, and that living like the rest of us relatively-normie scrubs might indeed be preferable to death and mutilation.
So, getting back to “No One Is Talking About This” (including me for the last thousand plus words, hey-o!), it’s not a fame thing, exactly. It’s not an internet thing, exactly, though most of my friend’s relationships seem to take place there, and a good portion of his friend network do appear to be internet-damaged millennials. It’s a hands-up-thrown refusal of concrete reality that can’t, even, really commit to its own lack of commitment. That’s what I see, both in internet discourse and in the discourse about the discourse. Half-digested nth-generation tropes from continental ding dong philosophers who barely even meant it themselves, circulated and recirculated like old coins until even the names wear off… glibly talking like nothing is real and nothing is worth speaking seriously about even as they milk everything from derogated social media platforms to climate catastrophe for cheap bathos… well, my friend wasn’t down with that, either. And in his attempted final act, he tried to put some chits on a commitment, of sorts. But a commitment to what, exactly?
“No One Is Talking About This” is about an unnamed female narrator who becomes moderately famous via “The Portal,” i.e., Twitter, but, like seemingly everyone else who is connected to said social media platform, is unsure whether she likes it or hates it. It certainly has a profound effect on how she processes reality and communicates with others! This is gotten across in the text through a first half dominated by little vignettes, tweet-length remarks, no real plot, less “nods” or “winks” at James Joyce and more just Lockwood pointing openly at Joyce and saying “yeah, I’m doing that, but more so, because our TIME is just more so, you know?”
We do get a pivot to something like the real, due to a family crisis. The narrator has a family, the family has a crisis. It’s not really a plot, but it’s something other than a social media scroll (self-conscious, because, you know, we’re all so self-conscious now!!). That’s the thing… they really can’t manage either, these “we live in discourse hell” writers, whether fiction writers like Patricia Lockwood and Lauren Oyler or the legion of nonfiction commentators that shade into the overly-online people on your feed. They can’t do the all-pretend world that some cyber-boosters of the eighties and nineties promised, but they can’t really do the real, either. And they’ll insist that their inability mirrors a human inability, or at least a contemporary inability… and they’re not wrong. It’s an old theme and it’s been done reasonably well. What’s real, how much do our feelings determine at least the subjective reality of experience versus what’s “actually” in front of us blah blah blah.
Look- I’m not some “I fucking love science” dork or an objectivist. I’m a reader, trying to read something interesting. And “discourse hell” isn’t cutting it anymore, to the extent it ever did, and pivoting to noticing how hard it is to take a family tragedy totally seriously because you spend too much time online- that’s not gonna get you over, not with me, anyway. Maybe I should be able to do it. Maybe this really is “the human condition,” with an earned definite article and everything. Maybe every rejoinder I could make to that is a cliche about how we should read about Bangladeshi factory workers instead (it isn’t, but the internet smallfolk can make you feel that way, when they’re all saying the same shit- we are social apes, after all), maybe I’m the stupid, blockheaded socialist realist next to the beautiful thoughtful modernists in the thirties tableau (the latter already on their way to neoconservatism but later for that).
But I don’t think that’s how it is.
I said there was a confluence of factors that, perhaps unfairly to Lockwood, rendered me incapable of enjoying or respecting this book. One was my friend’s situation. Another, longer-term one, is that I am, sort of, recovering from depression. I’ve felt better the last few years than I have in a long time. Life is far from perfect, but I experience more feelings (and I’ll say it- whatever set me up for success in terms of family and friend support and talk therapy, antidepressants landed the most important blows). One of those is anger. I’ve gotten used to suppressing it, got used to thinking of it as a self-indulgent gesture of my adolescent self (which, when I was an adolescent, it often enough was). But let’s put it this way: I experience anger as impatience. And I can still be very, very patient, when the thing I am being asked to contribute is just time, or honest effort.
My patience for dishonesty, though, is gone. My patience for glibness is gone. Worn through. My patience for bullshit is mostly gone, the only thing keeping it from being entirely effaced is an appreciation for funny bullshit. You can do what you want. You can be as glib as you want, act as though it’s all just performance and I’m just doing a dishonest (hypocritical!) glibness myself. You can “cringe” (there, using it as a verb, not an adjective, like we’re supposed to). You can fuck off, or not. But I’m not doing it anymore. Not with Lockwood, who is intermittently funny but not funny enough, not here, and not with you.
Because on top of whatever else it is — genuine cris de coeur over authenticity! Artistic expression of your experience! Funny memes! — the glibness of the “we live in the hell of discourse” thing is intensely disrespectful. It does not live in peace, as I would live in peace with the internet people. It oversteps, by nature. It disrespects life, disrespects effort, personally disrespects everyone who tries to live something better than a shitty day on any given “hell site.” And they generally haven’t even got the integrity to admit that they are spitting in your face. A number of internet strangers recently, and at least one or two IRL acquaintances, have behaved disrespectfully to me, impugned my intelligence and my integrity, and, my patience gone, I asked or told them to stop, and I got earfuls about my “defensiveness.” “U mad, bro?!” gone to therapy. Fuck off. I see you, and I’m not playing. Not now, not anymore.
Ironically, my self-destructive friend discussed a fair amount of what I’m saying now in an essay of his on… well, notionally on David Foster Wallace, but really on the whole literary scene circa 2010, around when it was written. His major thesis is that because hipster writers (this is back when hipster discourse was a thing) live such cushy lives that they have no real suffering to write about, and so write about a fake suffering, the feeling of inauthenticity. I have a number of friendly critiques of that article but I think, if anything, the situation has degenerated since then, even if we’ve made the relative advance of ditching hipster discourse. Now, books like this one, and “Fake Accounts” and I tend to imagine many others, somehow manage to be “about” ever less, and to be corrosively hateful to even the possibility of being about anything at all, and somehow, somehow! managing to dump themselves into the same old same old of familial sentimentality or careerist pseudo-heroism in the end.
I can agree with the internet scribblers about this much- it is a discouraging picture. But I have a better solution than they have- turning the fucking page. The exigencies of my reading scheduling, a fun little game for me, has led to my next audiobook being about the Armenian militants who hunted down and shot the Turkish pashas who led the genocide against their people. A perfect palate-cleanser!
I turned definitively against this book after Lockwood, culminating a series of little jokes about how being political is stupid — I get the impression she is meant to be a somewhat serious leftist, who knows, I don’t care — belittled people’s reactions to the killing of Heather Heyer at Unite the Right in Charlottesville. A good friend of mine was a medic on the scene. She split a vuvuzela in half to manufacture a splint for someone’s broken leg. Why are we telling the story of some dumb internet person’s inability to be honest about their, or any, situation, again? Why are we telling it over and over again? I don’t care what a commie you think you are, this whole fucking business is fash nonsense.
What did we do when the altright manifested itself out of the discourse? We — the actually committed, the ones who know we’re imperfect and fucked up and still drag our asses out into the productive real, no matter how “cringe” it makes us — dragged it into reality and we kicked the shit out of it and now, no one, not even Richard Spencer, will admit to being altright. There’s still fascists, and we’re working on them, but that bridge burned, because we burned it. That’s the reality I’m interested in. That’s the reality I live in, and I’m not going to take disrespect for living in it, even — especially — if it’s sly, sneaky disrespect that acts like I’m just being “defensive.” Lockwood gets an extra half star over her rival, Oyler, for being funny, sometimes. But I’m done. Quite done. **