Continuing series of book reviews for writers.
I have finished reading Patricia Lockwood’s ‘No One is Talking About This’. The book is a North Van City Library book club selection for January. If it wasn’t, I might not have finished it, but there is a commitment to the group to read and be able to discuss the book when we meet.
The book is divided into two parts, and I am struggling to see the bridge or link between them. First is an exploration of the Internet, with ‘The Portal’ being a stand-in for Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter or what will you. The short fragments of narrative match my experience, with short un-related bits of information coming at the reader, much as some social media does.
The author uses a device of not naming the protagonist or anyone else. Done well, as by McCarthy in ‘The Road’, it creates a dystopian distance between the reader and the main character. Done poorly, it comes across as an affectation at best, as obnoxiously gimmicky at worse. For reasons that I will add later, I lean towards the latter here.
The first ‘Portal’ section I thought rang true for much social media. It has no rhyme or reason, but pinballs between subjects for each tiny section of narrative, which grows tiresome. There is no thorough analysis here, but more a stone skipping the surface. Which is true of social media, so the effect works. But I found it shied away from the meanness and divisiveness that is so prevalent on social media. It ignored the ability of anonymous users to spout hate and kookiness. The divisive ‘us and then’ aspects of saying things that the speaker knows will offend the other side, and as the section wound down, I asked myself, ‘What is the Point?’
But not before a few distasteful episodes of sexual profanity. I had a memory of a toddler who had learned that saying ‘Fuck’ brought all kinds of attention. Shocking and funny at first, it gets old quick. Adolescent boys giggling over bathroom humor or the still adolescent men who wrote for my university’s engineering papers, shocking with their filth. Or the second tier comics working in Manhattan who thought laughs of shock were as good as laughs of insight or hilarity. They’re not. Is it an equality thing, showing that women can be as crass as men? Gold star then.
The second section is a sad story and I still can’t see what it has to do with the first section. Again, no names are used, and again it is all short sections of narrative that never go deep. But the larger issue with this book appears, in that there doesn’t seem to be any agency by the main character, or anyone else. They just go along for the ride, making no changes or taking any action. Too much time on social media, I think.
The title is ‘No One is Talking About This’, which is kind of ironic in that talk is really all they do.
There is some talk of ‘The Dictator’ but no attempt to cross or bridge the political divides.
I am working on a theory of the novel. (Although, I am not sure I would call this a novel.) My idea is that great novels are supported like a three-legged stool. There is head, heart, and groin. Physical passions, emotional engagement, and intellectual involvement. All three aspects need to be present and in something close to balance. Too many novels fail for having only two aspects and missing the third. This work is all intellectual. There is no emotion and little physicality. It is all in the head, which creates a distance between the reader and the material. An excellent novel is a chance for the reader to experience with the characters what they are going through. But being purely cerebral, this book becomes academic, almost a term paper that doesn’t engage in the other two aspects.
Even in the second half where something terrible happens, they held the reader at such a distance we become one of the doctors pronouncing on the case. ‘Oh, that is sad. Next.’
Novels are about humanity. And humanity is messy. ‘No one is Talking’ tries to make humanity clinical and so misses the mark as great fiction. It sounds like it may have gotten a ‘A’ as a term paper with a Booker nomination and a New York Times 10 Best Books award. That is success if that is what Lockwood was going for. But it is not why I read literature.
Overall, I am not sure what the point of the book is. It left me a little empty. Sad.
Review of ‘No One is talking About This’
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Jan 9, 2023