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In 'No One Is Talking About This,' Patricia Lockwood Enters An Internet Portal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two years ago, the London Review of Books made an offer that Patricia Lockwood couldn't refuse. She's a poet and an author. And the invitation was to give a lecture at the British Museum.

PATRICIA LOCKWOOD: You say yes to that when they ask you. And I was like, of course I do. I would love to give a lecture at the British Museum 'cause they close the museum. And you're in there alone with the Rosetta Stone, and you finally get to crack it and find out what it means. You're the one.

SHAPIRO: She didn't have the bandwidth to write a lecture from scratch. She was struggling to help care for her baby niece, who'd been born with a rare congenital disorder. So Lockwood took part of the novel she was working on, wrote a new introduction and made a presentation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOCKWOOD: Oh, and we have a PowerPoint, believe me.

SHAPIRO: She started reading.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOCKWOOD: (Reading) She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway. Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.

SHAPIRO: Well, Tricia Lockwood's (ph) novel is out now. It's called "No One Is Talking About This." And the first half captures that feeling of doomscrolling through the Internet or the portal, as the book's protagonist calls it.

LOCKWOOD: I was trying to create a sort of experience, a slipstream, the way it felt to read the Internet, except make it slightly more like literature. And I wanted to make the reader feel like you were just sliding and sliding and sliding downward and you didn't know where the bottom was. And you were sort of just looking at things as you passed by - so an "Alice In Wonderland" feeling. So I wanted to construct and reconstruct, really, this experience that we all have every single day when we pick up our phones and we log on and we do something that's like reading for a couple hours, although that might not actually be what it is. And I wanted to see if I could put that in a book.

SHAPIRO: You are an accomplished poet, and you're really good at poetry. And you're also kind of famous for being really good at Twitter. And I feel like those two things should not coexist in one person.

LOCKWOOD: Oh. Now, OK, yeah. I love the idea of someone being really good at poetry. And thank you for saying that.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LOCKWOOD: But I think that they're very, very closely aligned. I think that being good at Twitter is about being good at a bite-sized piece of language that you just hand to someone, like a mini-Snickers. It's the same thing. I mean, a poem might be like a little bit more of a fancy bonbon, but you're doing the same thing. That's how I look at it. And that's why I think that I was good at Twitter from the very beginning. And at that point, it was really just language-based. You couldn't have a funny photo. You had to do it all with text. You had to do it all with your mind.

SHAPIRO: Does a book like this that's about living on the Internet only work if you have the pivot that comes about halfway through this book, which is to something in the real world that forces the protagonist to turn away from the screen and focus on what's happening in life?

LOCKWOOD: Right. I think when you're giving readers an experience where they're sliding down and sliding down and sliding down and not knowing where the bottom is, eventually, you have to bump them up against something. You have to give them a real experience. You have to hit a corner in some way. And I wanted it in the novel to be very abrupt, just as it feels in real life when you're just slipping away your life day by day, not exactly knowing what you're doing. And then you come up against something that is irrefutable, that can't be denied.

SHAPIRO: And yet, even when faced with this irrefutable life-and-death kind of situation that requires her attention, the Internet experience isn't sort of, like, dismissed or shrugged off. It still remains a part of the way the protagonist is living her life.

LOCKWOOD: No, I think it's serious. I think it's very serious what we're doing online. I think we are creating a worldwide community. I think we're creating a language, too. And I wanted to show in the second half of the book that we can use that language to also deal with real-world events, the most serious life-and-death events, that we can use the language that we've come up with together as a generation, as a community, and we can deal with those events with that language.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of what that looks like?

LOCKWOOD: There's the experience, I think, when the protagonist is sitting with the baby and she's in the hospital. And she's doing something that you can only do online, which is, you know, looking at Jason Momoa photographs. You sort of just pick up your phone, and you're like, oh, a slideshow of young Jason Momoa. And you just flip through it and you flip through it and you flip through it. And she thinks to herself, you know, oh, my God, if something serious even happens here to this child I love while I'm looking at Jason Momoa pics - and that's something - that's Internet language. That's something you can only think if you've been online and had that experience. And it brings you up against something very real.

SHAPIRO: This book had maybe more lines per page that I wanted to underline or read aloud than any recent book I can think of.

LOCKWOOD: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: And so I don't typically do this with an author, but could I just run through some of these lines and phrases with you that just grabbed me and you can tell me something about them or reflect on them?

LOCKWOOD: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: You describe someone engrossed in social media as having their arms all full of the sapphires of the instant.

LOCKWOOD: Yes. And that's also in a paragraph where I consider the male nipple as well, and I do think that those two things are related. But yeah, I'm a very tactile person. And it does feel that way sometimes where you're just going along and you're picking up these little gems or you're plucking flowers. There's something just kind of wonderful about it, where you're wandering in a garden and there are grapes and there are oranges and there are apples. There are rubies. There are roses. And you're gathering all of these things in your hands.

SHAPIRO: There are also cow pies.

LOCKWOOD: There are cow pies. There's crap there as well (laughter).

SHAPIRO: There's also this line about the experience of being away from the feed, the portal. You write, (reading) she thought so longingly of my information, oh, my answers, oh, my everything I never knew I needed to know.

LOCKWOOD: And I think she speaks of it actually as a warm body pressed up against her. It's like when you're traveling and you're in a hotel by yourself and you can't sleep because that warm body is not there. And it's the proximity, the fact that you can reach out and, at the next second, know whatever it is that you need to know. It didn't used to be that way. Most of us remember growing up, and there were things that we just wondered about for years. And we had no idea about them. And nobody picked up their phone and looked it up at dinner and was able to settle the question once and for all.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LOCKWOOD: We just wondered about things. And now when that's gone, it does feel like that beating heart is removed from you, that it's farther away from you. And that's not a comfortable feeling anymore.

SHAPIRO: So ultimately, I can't tell whether this book is a love letter to social media and the experience of being online or more like a Francis Bacon painting that reveals the underlying truth by rendering it in a grotesque way.

LOCKWOOD: Can it be both, Ari?

(LAUGHTER)

LOCKWOOD: I actually visited Francis Bacon's studio when I went to Ireland. And it looked exactly the way you would expect. It was just a filth hole. And there was paints piled everywhere. And it felt like the inside of my own mind. It felt like the mind that I have when I go on the Internet.

But I think that there couldn't be an easy answer about it. I don't think it's a book that's going to condemn the Internet or that is going to say, no, we should all be living there in exactly the same way as we've been doing for the past five, 10 years. I think that there can be both. I don't think that you can write it off. I mean, I think that it is a place where we live now. And I think the question is, can we live our real lives there?

SHAPIRO: Patricia Lockwood is the author of "No One Is Talking About This."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

LOCKWOOD: Thank you so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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