Like a joke or a sonata, a successful tweet has a formula. It must be fresh enough to seize attention in a crowded, competitive environment. It must be droll or surreal enough to engage with the platform’s governing sense of humour. It should contain latent profundity that gives it life beyond social media’s fast-scrolling attention-economy.
Patricia Lockwood came to fame as a Twitter ninja, a Roger Federer of the (then) 140-character apercu, all breathtaking line shots and unlikely winning volleys. “So is Paris any good or not,” she once tweeted at the venerable literary magazine Paris Review. It responded by commissioning a review of the city.
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It has been clear from her tweets, then her poetry, then her acclaimed memoir Priestdaddy, that Lockwood is a bit special. Her debut novel, No One is Talking About This, only confirms a restless and rare talent.
The author has slipped the bonds of social media, if only just. No One is constructed brick by brick, a Twitterish feed of single paragraphs, fragmented scenes and observations that slowly corral into a narrative whole. Tricksy, supple and dead smart, Lockwood owes something to the experimentation of Jenny Offill.
The novel comes in two parts. In the first, the nameless main character is a social media celebrity – a single tweet, “can a dog be twins”, made her reputation – who travels the globe supplying audiences with insight into the culture of the Portal, as she calls the internet. It is a superficial existence to match the ostensible superficiality and capricious tyranny of online life. This truth gnaws at her like a toothache. “Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, towards a new person to hate,” she writes. Also, “a person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth”.
Then, the real world strikes, and hard. Her pregnant sister learns that the baby she is carrying has an unusual and life-limiting condition. The woman returns home to her shattered family, and the book shirts from the digital space to the physical. When the child is born, pure and beautiful and fighting a losing battle for the right simply to exist, there is an inevitable reckoning to be had.
There is no humour, no drollery, to be found in the concrete, unbearable fact of a dying child. The woman falls “heavily out of the broad warm us, out of the story that had seemed, up till the very last minute, to require her perpetual co-writing. Oh, she thought hazily… finding tucked under her arm the bag of peas she once photoshopped into pictures of historical atrocities, oh, have I been wasting my time?” This is a slight, often very funny and affecting book that, like the best tweets, is heavily freighted with truth.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood is out on February 16 (Bloomsbury, £14.99)