Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: No One Is Talking About This

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Patricia Lockwood’s uber-contemporary No One Is Talking About This has been described as a novel of two halves. In the first half, our unnamed protagonist is completely absorbed by what she calls ‘the portal’ and what we would call Twitter: ‘Why did the portal feel so private,’ she reflects, ‘when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?’ In the second half, she is consumed by something else: the short life of her baby niece, who is born with the rare condition Proteus Syndrome. Again, it’s technology – the babycam at the hospital – that allows her to fully enter her obsession: ‘There was a channel that played the baby in fuzzy black and white… and this is what she used to think the angels did, watch the channel that played her.’ I’ve read a number of reviews of this novel that suggest that Lockwood is intending to juxtapose the unreality of the protagonist’s existence of Twitter to the hard reality of her niece’s illness. However, while I think that is one of the things Lockwood is trying to do – and that the title of the novel indicates this – I didn’t find that No One Is Talking About This split that neatly into two halves.

I am very weary of fiction that tells us that the Internet is Bad and is Wrecking Our Minds, and I did feel that Lockwood fell into that trap, although she writes with greater subtlety than many others who have tackled the topic. When I think of popular Twitter memes, like feral hogs, Bernie at the inauguration, or the distracted boyfriend, they honestly make me feel more positive about humanity, not less. I like seeing people have fun, be clever, and be inventive, especially in the face of a lot of difficult things. The kind of ‘humorous’ Twitter that our protagonist is steeped in isn’t a kind that I recognise; it’s not funny and not cheering. I’m sure this was a deliberate choice on Lockwood’s part, but I don’t have much time for this one-sided view of technology. And while Lockwood sometimes hits on a clever turn of phrase, I found much of this novel grimly unreadable.

Where I think things get more interesting with No One Is Talking About This is how the sub-plot with the protagonist’s niece relates to the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I couldn’t help seeing thematic links between the baby’s condition and the protagonist’s existence as part of the collective consciousness of the portal. Because of the baby’s illness, her head grows out of proportion to the rest of her body, but her caregivers perceive her as having great abilities that she cannot exercise, defying her prognosis: ‘As the baby struggled to breathe, as it became clear that her airway was collapsing, as her head grew too heavy to even turn from side to side, it slowly dawned on them that she was experiencing an enlightenment, a golden age… Against all wisdom… she was learning, she could learn.’ There’s a sense that being part of the ‘Twitter hive mind’ has as much promise as the baby but is also weighing humans down in the same way as the baby struggles with her head, because we weren’t meant to be connected to so much as once; we too have an overgrowth of neural connections. If you buy into this reading, what the book is saying about the internet is much more thoughtful and equivocal. However, I guess I wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t just seeing things that weren’t there.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number eight. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures and Detransition, Baby.

18 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: No One Is Talking About This

  1. Aw, too bad you didn’t like this one more. It’s been the most divisive title on the shortlist/longlist (apart from Detransition, Baby, for other reasons), I think. It’s an odd one: wholly autobiographical, with only the veneer of third-person narration turning it into fiction. Autofiction to the extreme! I saw Lockwood speak at the Hay Festival; I’ve got a write-up of that plus some other events coming up tomorrow. I wouldn’t characterize her depiction of the Internet as completely negative; mostly it seems that she is critical of the performative aspects of it, the way it might entice people to be glib and superficial.

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    • Perhaps ‘internet’ isn’t fair as she is really only concerned with Twitter, but I found her depiction of the protagonist’s experience on it to be incredibly grim – it wasn’t so much what she says about it for me as the emotions the book provoked. And I wish she had included even one bit of genuine Twitter humour!

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  2. I’ve not fancied this one and your review confirms that – but reads very fair to me. It doesn’t feel very nuanced and just sounds too grim for me, esp at the moment. Thank you for reading it for us!

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  3. There was such a glut of reviews talking about the split nature of this novel, this is only the second review I’ve read that takes it on as a whole. and looks at it as one thing. Great job, since I get the feeling you didn’t much care for it 🙂 I’m currently reading Fake Accounts, which I think has the same vibe, downside-of-the-internet wise and I’m… not sure about it yet.

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