I have a mildly confessional face, which means that strangers often feel compelled to tell me things. My natural mode of small talk is inquisitive, like the good cop in an interrogation, and I attract oddballs (although not as many as I used to). These factors together mean the occasional reception of terrible secrets. Once, a man I asked for directions confessed to an unprosecuted murder (in fact, a double murder); in a bar, a woman blurted out a cancer diagnosis nobody else knew about. A confessional face can be useful for a writer, although its consequences are sometimes unwelcome.
I mention this only because it means I can recognize a related quality, a much rarer one, which is the ability not just to encounter this strangeness and revelation, but to manifest it. It’s the difference between being a weirdo magnet and being Weirdo Magneto. So it is not blurb-speak to call Patricia Lockwood a writer of “rare power”: she has a confessional face, and also a self-confessional face, and emanates a humorous and apparently limitless energy that blends and blurs the reality around her. She attracts eccentrics the way hunting deities are depicted attracting beasts, and her chosen habitat of Savannah, Georgia, is teeming with them.
She moved to Savannah almost on sight, because it is so beautiful and so strange, and a reader encountering her work for the first time could trip over this influence, mistaking her poetry as Southern gothic played for laughs, everything made supernaturally lush and fervent by marsh air. But she was born in the Midwest—living in “all the worst cities of the Midwest,” places such as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana—and they honed her style like whetstones. She is also part of that first generation of writers to be shaped by the internet, from a time when it was still called the “information superhighway.” I suppose it’s odd, to think about Weird Twitter and Something Awful being influential the way that Encounter or The Criterion once were. But without that lineage—first coders, then jokers, then journalists who picked up what she calls the “crisp new style,” recognizable immediately—the elements in her work that might be termed “insanely online” will be missed.
On the way to Savannah, driving from the mystery of Saint Helena Island in South Carolina, I listened to Lockwood read the audio version of her most recent book. It is an autobiographical work (although it is really not so readily classifiable as this) called Priestdaddy. As the semiofficial poet laureate of Twitter, she is best known for both poetry and brevity, so it was interesting to hear her for a longer spell, keeping me company in the distance between Cracker Barrel family restaurants. Length can seep the wit out of comic memoir, like a dinner guest who tells one anecdote too many, but Priestdaddy sustains it. The imagery is so crowded, so populated with what Lockwood calls her “private zoo of description,” that together, it becomes a hyperanalogy for her life, and everyone else’s.
She also records the early advent of being online, lovingly, like a relative with a camcorder at the internet’s birth, before it grew into a brute. It helped in return to birth her voice, intense and lewd and personal, the sound of someone ripping off the tastefulness that afflicts American letters, performing the literary equivalent of that tablecloth magic trick. Though we had never met, listening to the book created the uncanny sensation I had already spoken to Lockwood for ten hours and sixteen minutes, so it felt perfectly natural when she did not offer much in the way of hellos. It just … began.
Her chosen meeting place was Lafayette Square, just near the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and at first I thought the holy ground had decided the location. Much of Priestdaddy is about Catholicism—Lockwood’s father found God while watching The Exorcist on a nuclear submarine, the USS Flying Fish. He viewed it seventy-two times that patrol, and by the end, he had a calling: first a dalliance with Lutheranism, and next stop Rome, with his family in tow. For Lockwood, this is an unordinary enough lineage to feel like destiny. Like being the seventh son of a seventh son, “daughter of a Catholic priest” (especially a possibly psychopathic, guitar-shredding Catholic priest who often wears nothing but underpants) is itself a claim to uniqueness, poet or not. (“ ‘What exactly do Catholics believe?’ First of all, blood. BLOOD,” she writes.) But that is not why we were there at all.
“We are here … on the off-chance of seeing a large tortoise called Robert,” she said, “and he is often in this park.” That explained the diffident eye contact—it wasn’t shyness. She was scanning the lawns for this creature. Robert, Lockwood explained, would perambulate here, eating leaves, being petted, having his photo taken. She had a photo of him already, on her phone, and showed me. The reptile looked very large, but he was still a juvenile, and would outlive his owner by decades. When anyone asked about this, the man would only say darkly that “arrangements had been made.” “Sometimes, Robert is at the bar with his owner,” said Lockwood, her tone implying that we would be going to that bar soon. First, though, we would wait in the park, surrounded by oaks old enough to shade it, until we got bored or hungry. Already, two minutes in, we were not having an interview anymore. We were on a tortoise stakeout.
In the meantime, Lafayette Square transformed into a menagerie of other animals. It was the kind of clumsy real-life analogy—an actual private zoo of descriptions—that sounds like bullshit when written down, but I have the photos. There was a pig in bumblebee wings, then a chihuahua in a little fire-chief costume, and his owner, dressed as a dalmatian. It was the end of Wag-o-ween, and Lockwood cooed and asked questions of the animals and their owners, as though she were there in an official capacity, the Wag-o-ween Queen, or its patron saint. She asked their names and breeds, petting and cosseting, offering judicious compliments, taking more photos. “Oh, I love Wag-o-ween,” she said. These sorts of events happened all the time in Savannah. There is a Pirate Day, and something called The Blessing of the Animals, which sounds sacrilegious but is just Franciscan. There was no Robert, though—we were not being blessed.
So instead we talked, somewhat reluctantly, about writing. Many bad descriptions of Lockwood’s physical appearance have been composed, partly because this is a legal requirement of bad profile journalism, partly because lesser talents are trying to ape her style, and partly because sometimes she writes about sex, so descriptions take on a gross and horny component through interviewer transference. Curiously, none of these sketches ever mentions her voice, perhaps because it is tricky to capture, but it is central to being Patricia Lockwood. She can hit emphases as well as any stand-up comic. She can mimic or declaim. There is a video of her in a Miami bookstore, reading that section from The Corrections where Franzen goes on and on about mixed grills, and she performs it in an accent she invented, which sounds something like Tallulah Bankhead presenting The Twilight Zone. The woman filming it is laughing so hard, the camera shakes. It’s mockery, obviously, but it is not just mockery, and it’s not a parody, either. So what is it? That’s the trouble with trying to pin down Lockwood’s work with comparisons, because her work is not like anything else, and so people keep trying to stick precedents to her, and instead miss the point.
They especially miss the point because of the jokes, which are sometimes lewd. Lockwood thinks of herself more as a British ironist than an American one, rescuing all those forbidden adverbs and exclamation points, and I can see why. “I think that I was a very early Anglophile and Canadia-phile. Commonwealth literature, pretty much. A lot of times, that is where the locus of humor is—just in the dialogue tag, plus adverb. And then you have Stephen King criticizing J. K. Rowling or whatever for using too many adverbs. But that’s the British humorist tradition.”
There is something of that tradition in her obsession with animals, too. This kind of thing is not always welcome in America, or anywhere—the Private Eye satirist Craig Brown once said that Peter Cook would have been considered the equal of Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett, had he been less funny. But so far Lockwood is proving the adage that the opposite of funny is not serious; the opposite of funny is not funny.
Someone pointed out that in his fiction, Martin Amis often takes the worst possible premises (“What if poets and screenwriters swapped?”) and then makes the best possible stories out of them. That’s what Lockwood does, but for whole genres. I defy you to think of a genre with worse potential than “comedy erotica.” It is uncalled for, has no obvious audience, invites critical disdain, is inches away from the dirty joke and is also—and this is criminally underrecognized—a nightmare to write from a technical point of view.
Good writers wind up as finalists for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award every year, but Lockwood is a better writer, who can somehow seize this nonsense and control it, on Twitter, to both literary and popular audiences, on purpose. “You would think at some point that people would get the idea that these aren’t actually sexy, but they never, never do,” she once told Hazlitt, referring to her “sext” tweets—those people keep creating a tension between this form and her upbringing and the rest of her style, and it is a tension that doesn’t exist.
It helps that she is, occasionally and quietly (those are two tribute adverbs), such a good literary critic herself. She learned a lot of technique from critical essays, because when she was poor she could read them for free on the internet (this, she says, “is an interesting thing about me”). Sometimes, she would read essays about a book before she read the book, developing a taste or interest that is very impressionistic. “I really feel my way through it, because people write with their bodies. They write the people that they are, and I think there’s a gap in criticism, which has been dominated by, you know, old white dudes for so long.” A gap through which a less reactive reading can enter.
Here is Lockwood writing about Joan Didion for the London Review of Books: “ ‘I have figured out her rhythm,’ I once told a friend in a diner in Iowa City, though I will not tell you what I ate, or what I was wearing. (A hamburger? Some sort of shirt?) ‘Her sentences are smooth, are smooth, are smooth, and then three-quarters of the way through the landing gear drops down.’ ”
This is a triple parody of Didion. The scene is Didion-like, while also leaving out the Didion detail of the outfit, in an essay about Didion leaving things out. Both the “are smooth, are smooth, are smooth” sentence and the whole little paragraph are themselves written in the “landing gear” style. It has the fractal sophistication common only to the finest writing, where the part mimics the whole at every ratio of scale. It also retrieves and presents the fundamental essence of Joan Didion’s writing, and is funny at the same time. It does all this in three sentences.
It’s a natural next step to aim this incision at online culture. “Literary criticism, but for the internet” will be a dominant mode of essay eventually, and Lockwood’s British Museum lecture “The Communal Mind,” published in the London Review of Books, is already one of its touchstones. This account of a lifelong trip into the “portal,” as she calls it, re-creates the psychic environment of having all the tabs open, a place where it is “tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.”
Here, and everywhere, her metaphors play the same role as DNA does in the film Annihilation. Her mind jumps, her thoughts are flitting, she is always observing, commentating, diverting, but then she presents something whole, no matter how surreal. She can also do it live—it was not until afterward, reading my transcripts, that I clocked the effect in this exchange:
RC: There’s obviously some religious element to your poetry, and I was wondering if it was liturgical or sacramental, if that makes sense?
PL: It does make sense—but it’s obviously both. If you are gunning for a revelation at the end you have to go through the liturgy first, right? You have to engage in the ritual and that’s when the ecstatic experience or the revelation comes. That’s when the clouds open—that’s the idea—so you have to have one in order to have the other.
RC: That’s very Catholic.
PL: I know, right?
RC: That’s the hocus pocus.
PL: We love the hocus pocus. I’m so hungry.
RC: Let’s eat.
PL: I really need to eat, yeah.
The line taken from liturgy to sacrament to comestibles—is it a diversion at all, from someone who grew up eating unconsecrated wafers like crackers?
All of a sudden we were inside Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home. It was right by Lafayette Square, and before we knew it, we were on a tour, being led through antique furniture by a bright-faced volunteer with a mid-Atlantic accent. The sign out the front advertised the former O’Connor residence in iron letters: “She grew up in this house, and in later years, referred to it simply as ‘the house I was raised in.’ ” Fair enough.
The parlor, built before air-conditioning, had the look of a room always in the shade, with small old furniture, all subclinically depressed and evoking childhood mortality. There was also a sponsored library named after Jerry Bruckheimer, the Hollywood director and producer who made Con Air and Bad Boys, and all the tour-goers were surprised he was a Flannery fan. Inside, there was a magnet for sale featuring an O’Connor quote—“There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher”—and an old children’s book called The Fairy Babies, in which a young O’Connor had written “Not a very good book” in pencil.
Tin implements were laid out on the kitchen table, as though ready for surgery rather than cooking. The light had a tint to it. “You can see there the stained glass with a peacock,” the guide said. “Flannery loved peacocks—they were something of a symbol for her—although she believed that the word peacock was vulgar, and called them peafowls instead.” “Peafowls,” Lockwood said, with so much pleasure she went agog.
Upstairs: Flannery’s childhood bedroom, full of sanctified bric-a-brac, and her parents’ room, with a negligee hanging on the wall (it may have belonged to Flannery’s mother). Lockwood rolled this object over her mind, calling it a “neglijayyyyy.” Under the windowsill was a white wooden frame on wheels, about the size of a chest of drawers, with mesh along the top and sides. Calling it a crib would be a euphemism; it was a patented product called a Kiddie-Koop, really a baby cage. The room was almost too perfect as a Freudian diorama for O’Connor: trapped in the baby cage, staring at the negligee. Someone had printed out an old catalogue ad for the Koop, and Lockwood read it aloud in an old-timey voice: “An over-handled baby is sickly. An indoors baby is pale and listless. And fretful is the tot whose mother unnecessarily worries.” She was practically ecstatic.
There is some long, indistinct line between Flannery O’Connor and Patricia Lockwood. They’re both Savannah writers. They both dwell on blackly comic description in a way that is atypically American, and somehow Catholic instead. When O’Connor writes, in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” about a woman “whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears,” that innocent cabbage is Lockwoodian. Their works share the sensation that timed surprises can create. O’Connor did not, though, repeatedly say the word peacock on purpose once finding out it was vulgar, nor was her “thing” “chugging a Red Bull” before a reading. Lockwood had developed an allergy to caffeine—it caused heart palpitations—so this signature move was canceled, and when we got a coffee, she was forced to order something boring. “It’s the tragedy,” she says. “The tragedy of my life.”
The other tragedy of her life was the politics. She has less sympathy for her father’s views since Priestdaddy was published; she is more dispirited. He used to listen to Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh simultaneously, a duet in malice, and since the election of Trump, Lockwood Senior has headed “further down the spectrum in that extremity of view.” (It is the shared experience of female friends: their fathers saying things that they did not used to.) “We assume that the arc of the moral universe always bends towards justice, but does it?” she asked. “What we’re experiencing is information sickness. It is warfare against us. We cannot keep up with all these things.” She could not move from bed during the Kavanaugh hearings, and because of the things she has written about, had a constant stream of contact from “people in similar circumstances.” “They would say, I need help. I need help from someone who understands.” It made it seem worth it. “Poets are against presidents. You have to be, you have to be against world powers.”
There were news stories about someone placing plastic googly eyes on a Savannah historical monument (“Who did this?!” the city asked on Facebook). It was not one of the many statues celebrating the confederacy, but we planned to look at it anyway, until the plan ran into the bar. The bar was called Pinkie Master’s, a rehabilitated dive, meaning they had removed a massive Confederate flag from the wall, and upped the prices, and kept everything else the same. There was still a corner of the flag in a glass case, maybe as a warning. In the seventies, a boozed Jimmy Carter climbed on a table here to launch his successful presidential run, and in the 2010s, Robert would sit outside with his owner.
The barman seemed pleased to see us, until we asked about the tortoise, and then the smile disappeared. “The owner is not welcome here anymore,” he said. “He overstepped.” What had happened? Was it a lifetime ban? “He won’t be back.” The crime was nameless. The profile was now so secondary to the sleuthing it felt like a cover story. But the barman wouldn’t talk. We ordered a couple of awful drinks with tequila.
Lockwood warmed up by interrogating me. Her style is unique—clownish, manipulative, effective. Somehow the topic turned to her hanging out with the Pakistani British novelist Kamila Shamsie. Lockwood had been pouring scorn on cricket, and Shamsie had, not surprisingly, turned out to be a big cricket fan, and something in my face must have changed.
“Oh … You’re a cricket fan as well.”
“Well … ”
“Exactly why do you like it? Tell me.”
I was about to be made fun of, but the expectancy in her face made me comply. And so I talked about cricket’s duration, how it was opera, not soap opera, the difference in national styles of play, how it was one of the few sports where players (tail-end batters) were forced to do something they weren’t good at, the starring role of the ball, how it was tended to … She asked question after question, and luxuriated in how absurd and boring it all was, and how stupid I was for liking it.
Reeling people in on a line of gentle bullying is also a Lockwood signature. After a while, her old schoolmate Kate, a librarian, showed up, and got a similar treatment, a series of outrageous questions, provocations, and trash talk that she dealt with deftly. This was part of the reason Kate is so close. “She once told us,” Kate said, “that after we were all dead, she would be remembered for her writing, and if we were remembered at all, it would be as characters in her life,” and this gets another burst of laughter on the retelling. Perhaps it’s only because I was primed, but watching Lockwood and Kate reminded me of cricket: a spell by a wily spinner, full of disguise and drift and deception, working the umpire, making exaggerated appeals, while a batter played watchful defense with soft hands and a dead bat, and tried not to swing at the wrong one.
“Why don’t we all play cricket,” said Lockwood. “You can show me.” The tone was an insult-comic inviting an audience member on stage.
We stopped by her apartment to pick up the “equipment” (tennis balls, a closed, rainbow-colored umbrella, and a furry hat she insisted on wearing), but I suspected we were there mainly so she could force me to try a brand of drink called Hint, water with a hint of pineapple.
“It’s amazing,” she said, “Hint! They have a special method for making it. They somehow force the pineapple into the water.” It tasted like water left in a cupboard with a pineapple. It should have been called Taint. But I didn’t want to be rude, guessing that this commitment to a mediocre product was because of the caffeine issue. As I drank the damn Hint, an orange-and-brown cat entered the room. “That’s Fenriz,” Lockwood said.
“Like the mythological wolf?”
“Like the drummer from Darkthrone.”
I know this could sail very close to a hipster affectation in someone else, the way people get into theremin-playing and obscure British football clubs, and so compose a pick-and-mix personality. But it was real and deep. It came from endless roiling curiosities and compulsions. No dilettante would watch the Scandinavian black-metal documentary Until the Light Takes Us twenty-five times in a row during a period of depression. (You will notice that this event echoes the paternal conversion story—repeat viewing of satanic cinematic material during a period of artificial exclusion, trapped away from the outside world.)
So the cat was responsible for a conversation about extremity in the arts, whether the occult was a good means for understanding the current American government (it is), the hidden element of “blood magic” in identity politics, whether or not Catholicism was the most metal denomination (this may be exactly why her guitar-playing father left the Lutherans), and which Darkthrone album was the best (agreement on A Blaze in the Northern Sky; she owns a copy on vinyl).
(This also explained why, in her audiobook, she imitates the “ooo ah ah ah ah” sound from the Disturbed song “Down with the Sickness,” something I thought I must be imagining when I heard it driving across the Georgia state line. “That is a little Easter egg,” she said. Deadspin even wrote an article called “No One Can Do The ‘OOH WAH AH AH AH’ Part From That Disturbed Song,” a grudging celebration of the vocal feat that begins the “chode-rock anthem.” This is incorrect—Patricia Lockwood can do it.)
She also wanted to show me a clip from a reality show called Southern Charm Savannah, because one of the stars lived locally. The clip showed an ill-fated marriage proposal and the scene of a sunburnt douchebag on a boat, sobbing, off-camera, into a radio mic, was so perfectly awful, and struck such an atonal chord of different emotions, that for a moment this cultural brain-rot fermented into something beautiful and poetic. It was just the kind of pop-culture manure that enriches Lockwood’s work, and grows unexpected things.
A tree in the park does for stumps. Her bowling action was the slinky style Americans have because they have never seen anyone doing it before. I bowled a leg break, and she hit it out of the meat of the umbrella. We tried some sledging—after all, she should have been a natural at the trash talk—but it only felt mean here in Georgia, away from an oval. She was panting, not with exertion but with relish, and whenever a bemused onlooker asked if we were playing cricket, she was quick to say yes.
Drinks were taken at Pinkie Master’s, where a Yorkshireman struck up a conversation, having seen the game. He began to tell his life story to Lockwood (there’s that confessional face)—the merchant navy, homelessness—while I got more drinks. The barman was back to bonhomie, and talked about his time in Australia: the sun, the slang. I offered to trade my most obnoxious epithet for a story—what what happened to Robert?
He sighed. “The guy was out the front all the time, you know, drinking way too much, and there were questions about how he was getting home, and getting the tortoise home.” So he was driving drunk? “Not just that. I mean, there were questions about where all those drinks were going. I mean, he was ordering a lot.”
Wait—you mean Robert may have been drunk? “I dunno, man. But also, it was there in a black plastic container or whatever. Like a fucking coffin. The whole thing was just a fucking travesty, man. It shouldn’t be there! It’s a wild animal! It just shouldn’t be outside a bar in a bin!”
I thanked him. (The slang is unrepeatable).
Meanwhile, Lockwood already had the Yorkshireman’s full life story, and his admiration. He paid a compliment to her specialness so effusive that she smirked at me from under her hat, and I wrote it down in my phone. But that night I drove back to the island with the static of “In the Shadow of the Horns” blazing the whole way, and in the morning, when I checked my phone, the note was gone.
Richard Cooke is The Monthly’s U.S. correspondent and contributing editor. His work appears in the New York Times, The Best of Longform, Best Australian Essays, the Saturday Paper, the Guardian, and Australian Foreign Affairs. He is the current Mumbrella Publish Columnist of the Year and was a finalist in the 2018 Walkley–Pascall Prize for Arts Criticism.
This essay appears as “Robert Doesn’t Live Here Any More” in Tired of Winning, by Richard Cooke, published this week by Black Inc.