If navigating the internet were an Olympic sport, Patricia Lockwood would sweep the medals. She is not a coder or a programmer (though surely she could be). She doesn’t live in the internet but upon it. She sails along on trends and tweets, a fisher of men, understanding, as she writes, that “everyday their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once.” As the tides shift, she is always one twist ahead of the internet’s dangers, such as overexposure and cancellation. We here at The Paris Review are often made aware of her one important question we have yet to answer:
Lockwood is not only the quiet queen of twitter, she is also a poet, memoirist, sublime critic, and her first novel is on sale this week. I spoke to Patricia Lockwood about her “internet novel” No One is Talking About This over direct message on Twitter, which was something like interviewing Scorsese on the set of Gangs of New York, or something like Scorsese interviewing Fran Lebowitz in front of the World’s Fair Panorama of New York. Unlike Lockwood, the internet overwhelms me. It always has. Lockwood caught COVID-19 in early 2020 and is still suffering from nerve-related difficulty with her hands. She had to ask me to slow my typing because my blank terror at awaiting a response on any messenger app, a form of communication detached from facial expression, intonation, and occasionally context, sends me into a frenzy.
I was embarrassed but not surprised to betray myself. Lockwood knows how to cast an astral projection on the Web, while most of us (read: this interviewer) are still tapping the bloated backside of a desktop PC trying to find our way “inside the computer.” Lockwood’s novel is about a woman who navigates the internet with such perfect ease that she becomes an Internet-ese celebrity expert asked to speak about the internet to audiences around the world, what it is and what it means. The protagonist of No One is Talking About This describes the feeling that the internet “was a place where she knew what was going to happen, it was a place where she would always choose the right side, where failure was in history and not herself, where she did not read the wrong writers, was not seized with surges of enthusiasm for the wrong leaders, did not eat the wrong animals, cheer at bullfights, call little kids Pussy as a nickname, believe in fairies or mediums or spirit photography, blood purity or manifest destiny or night air, did not lobotomize her daughters or send her sons to war, where she was not subject to the swells and currents and storms of the mind of the time—which could not be escaped except through genius, and even then you probably beat your wife, abandoned your children, pinched the rumps of your maids, had maids at all. She had seen the century spin to its conclusion and she knew how it all turned out.”
The first part of the novel is told from so deep within the internet that it is almost vertiginous, but Lockwood never loses control. Then, the protagonist steps out of her element and into the real-life concerns of her family. Lockwood’s novel is in two distinct parts: there is the era before her niece’s genetic condition becomes clear, and the after.
I slid into Lockwood’s DMs to ask her about the novel, her screen names of yore, the Zoom cat, and I snuck the conversation back, once or twice, to the terra firma of her astute literary criticism, which seems to be a third language in which Lockwood is fluent.
Hello, Patricia! Thank you for agreeing to an interview by DM. I felt it would add a note of authenticity to this interview if we scheduled it for 2 A.M., but quarantine is strange enough.
Hi Julia! Let’s do this little old thing
DM hogs, in the chat
Can I start by asking what the last DM you got was before this one? I’m interested in what it’s like to be very online and have open DMs.
Looks like it was a red heart on a koala picture I sent to John Darnielle.
Does one receive bundles of dick pics? Cornucopias of dick pics?
Yeah, I’m not sure why I left them open. I have always been more inclined to openness; I like to hear about things. Occasionally people will DM to say thank you for a poem I wrote, or that they named their cat after Miette—I would miss those things if I were locked down.
I don’t get all that many dicks, really. A few textual wangs, here and there. But Twitter also hides “suspicious content,” so I don’t click on pics if there’s a warning.
You met your husband online—is that right? Does that change your idea of “strangers on the internet” do you think?
Like maybe the masses are actually friends waiting to be made, husbands waiting to be wed, instead of just faceless analytics?
Maybe. Or maybe I met my husband online because of this quality, because my mind was ALREADY so open that anything could fall in. Including—my god—a Man.
There are theories that online dating is changing the gene pool, because people can self-select more readily for partners, and that this is especially true for those who might have been too shy to meet folks irl—though perhaps your story with your husband disproves them. I just think about how the internet is changing the way we mate.
I don’t know about that—our case might actually support those theories. Because we never had kids! No chance to SMell EAch OTher beforehand.
Okay good point
Did you keep any of your early conversations?
Sorry, can you see my typing ellipses? I’m probably typing too slow but I’m having problems with my hands.
I didn’t actually—all those love letters lost like gorillas in the mist. They’re locked up somewhere in a Hotmail account, I think. If you want to keep something safe on this earth, put it in an old Hotmail account.
Sorry ‘bout your hands. I can see the ellipses! I’ll slow down. I learned my typing speed from trying to capture the heart of a 14 yo boy on the AIM and I’ve never recovered composure.
It’s not great now that I Slack my colleagues all the time.
Someone with the right skills and the right pleather can probably liberate those love letters for you at some point…
Spandex, probably. It’s a privilege, not a right.
Did you ever capture the boy on AIM?
Not at all
I must have put up the wrong away message after all
Can you remember one of your early screen names?
Oh yeah I’ve got a great one. fruitandcake.
Does this ring any bells?
THE FIG NEWTON TAGLINE. MY BRAND WAS INTACT FROM AN EARLY AGE.
That is truly impressive
The entire time I was reading the novel, I pictured you like the oracle of Delphi.
A CARYATID WITH WHITE EYES—sorry caps lock was still on
My toga pouring like a fountain
Oracles is also a very “online word,” though I don’t know how many remember that
The training program for oracles is the same as it is for vestal virgins, except they switch out the snatch and the eyes. In my opinion.
I had a friend who asked everyone he met for a year, “would you rather do ___ celebrity with a snatch in the middle of her stomach or with three eyes?”
This seems relevant
But okay a real-ish q
I’ve read that you revised the first section of the novel, in the first months of the pandemic, to add in things that had happened since you began writing. What didn’t make it into the novel that you wish had. The cat lawyer? The QAnon Shaman?
Can you even believe the cat lawyer?
AH, I actually tweeted this one. It’s the Perfect Dinosaur Butthole. That should have made it.
They changed something in the matrix
Exactly. You can smell some uncanny difference. Berenstain Bears.
I think that if we were meeting in person, I would have said 25 minutes ago that I cannot believe how brilliant the novel is, except that I can, because your work is fabulously, uncannily exquisite
Thank you! Yes, all these interviews would be so changed if we were able to do them in person. There’s been a sense of grief throughout the process, in fact, and I think that’s the reason.
Your recent review in LRB of Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults also basically wiped out my brain and replaced it—it was so newly correct. It also made want to think about your novel differently
About how both Twitter and (forgive me) autofiction make the writer the HERO. The manipulator.
Do you think that is true at all? Does Twitter change Lenu’s into Lila’s?
I loved doing that review—I felt limerent the whole time I was working on it. It’s been my constant companion ever since the election, up through the Georgia runoffs, up through the insurrection. The entire time I was doing my promotional push, it’s all I was thinking about. I was like, stop asking me all these questions! I’m considering the problem of Alfonso!
No, a Lenu can’t be changed into a Lila. It’s a leopard/spot situation.
But also Lila identified Lenu as *someone like her,* which is easy to forget. She takes her by the hand because there IS some likeness, some ruthlessness that she identified—the ruthlessness that will eventually write the story.
That’s why one critical approach to them considers them as parts of each other. This is not quite right, I think. Lila identifies something animal in Lenu, some scent that is like hers.
Even if what is animal in Lenu is only her desire to be like Lila
One temptation with a book like this, the book I wrote, is to make the protagonist both right and good. To position her on the correct side of every issue.
To go back and revise in the light of further information, to elevate her. Lenu talks in one of her bookstore Q&As about how we must not become “policemen of ourselves,” while at the same time tailoring everything she says to some standard of Nino’s. Nino, that little fuck! Twitter is certainly a place where this can happen—where we issue proscriptions while at the same time tailoring our speech to different audiences within the stream.
Sorry that was all a mouthful. God knows I took approximately One Thousand Pages of notes on all these themes.
I think one interesting thing about your protagonist is that she is aware of how useful it is to be nimble, to move more quickly than the morality of the internet. She exists above all the morass of offending and being offended. There is also her canny sense of how to bring her internet skills to the real world. When she sees a geneticist who is conspicuously excited by how rare the baby’s condition is, instead of being pained, she thinks, “Messy bench who loves drama.” It’s a quick phrase that puts the doctor in a place where she can do no real harm. In some ways she is absolutely without moral standing, maybe because she stands so centered in the slipstream.
Yes, her soul is not a moral soul, it is an attentive one, a white beam of observation. But nimbleness within the portal is also ruthlessness. It is what keeps you ahead, what keeps you out of other people’s teeth. Yet in the second half of the book the protagonist is surely thinking, to what end? What did I believe was chasing me before?
Why was I practicing this agility, what was I adapting to? Has it given me the muscles for what I’m now experiencing? Has it given me the language, the ability to listen, the cry? Does it allow me now to lift and carry a human life? To some extent she finds that it did, that whatever lives we lead they do prepare us for these moments.
In that way, the novel really sadly/eerily presages the pandemic: a stark medical reality has pulled a lot of people out from their less conscious routines. Did you see people around you asking themselves those questions this year? Recognize it?
I did. I think that’s true, though I also think the internet been a crucial way for people to connect this year. At times we’re all biting each other like the Donner Party, but it still has been crucial.
But for me, I got COVID in March, and that threw me out of the portal in another way—I had a lot of neurological symptoms, and I developed Howard Hughes–level nerve pain in my hands. So first I couldn’t really read and understand what was happening online, from spring all the way through fall. And then I couldn’t use my trusty finger, my little ET pointer, to scroll in the same way.
I sincerely hope you are feeling better. My partner hid the fact that you had COVID from me until we started to feel better from our own. He knew I would have been very worried for that ET pointer.
We had like a nothing case
We just ate ramen and groaned at each other
But for a minute there I was sure it was the end
Yeah, did your body Prepare to Die? Everyone I’ve talked to, even people who had mild cases, experienced a moment where their Bodies Prepared to Die.
I prepared to defend my sanity.
My gentleman was like:
But are you sure its COVID? (I’m a rampant hypochondriac.)
And it was an ENORMOUS moment of intellectual crisis, because I was like, can I really be crazy enough to be making this up?
And then he got it too and I had only enough energy to say “see” and then moan like we were the Ingallses in the part of Little House on the Prairie where they all get diphtheria
My husband and I both experienced that too and we really were on death’s door, down on all fours and crawling from room to room. I think it’s because at that point you just couldn’t get tested, and doctors really did treat you as if it was an INCREDIBLY REMOTE POSSIBILITY that you might have it. Which is insane—at that point thousands of people a day were dying in NYC!
We were in NYC
And my doctor was saying don’t get tested, the ER is a battlefield from which you will never return
Right. Like we really didn’t feel we could go to the hospital.
I guess I did prepare to die
Now that you mention it
I had blocked it out
Perhaps because the body was encountering something absolutely new, for the first time in a long time. I found it interesting later.
I’m finding it interesting now. It is the total surrender everyone is always talking about. While you were sick, did you have religious feelings you thought you had lost track of?
(I was going to have my final question be about something else. But COVID just fills the brain.)
No, nothing of the kind actually. But I felt returned to my childhood in the most visceral possible way. My dreams were hyperreal and populated with my oldest friends and most ancient episodes. I actually recovered memories, as if some path in the brain had been set on fire.
In a way it was DOPE AS HELL.
I know what you mean. I don’t want to keep you past an hour. Please carry on promoting this masterpiece and lighting my brain on fire from the spires of the LRB.
And… I’m sorry that we at The Paris Review have kept you waiting on that review of Paris.
NO, I never want to know!
Julia Berick is a writer who lives in New York. She works at The Paris Review.
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