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Photography Greg Hoax

Patricia Lockwood Has a Terrible Case of Internet Poisoning

The poet and author discusses Covid, capitalism, and her incisive new novel, No One Is Talking About This

Lead ImagePhotography Greg Hoax

For most of us, the last 12 months have been spent almost entirely online. It’s been a strange, amorphous existence, defined by doomscrolling, glitchy Zoom meetings, and pastel-coloured Instagram infographics. Locked down and with nothing else to do, we can’t look away – and as our screen times spiral, the lines between our real and online lives are blurring. “Are we in hell?” you may ask yourself, possibly several times a day. “Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die?”

These are two of the questions being posed by Patricia Lockwood in her new novel, No One Is Talking About This. The book tells the story of a young woman who is famous on Twitter and obsessed by the internet (or, as she calls it, the “portal”). Her mind drifts aimlessly through unhinged listicles and social media dramas, in a barely conscious state. That is, until a tragic event pulls her suddenly – and urgently – back into the real world.

The novel is an incisive study of our collective headspace; frenetic, fragmented, and scattered with absurdist humour and deep cut meme references. And really, there’s no one more suited to the role of narrator than Lockwood. The US poet and author first made a name for herself on social media, where her razor-sharp, idiosyncratic observations earned her the lauded title of Twitter’s “poet laureate”. She was then launched into the literary mainstream in 2017 when she released her acclaimed (and hilarious) memoir Priestdaddy, earning her impassioned praise from the likes of Sally Rooney and Jia Tolentino.

No One Is Talking About This is Lockwood’s first novel, though it is based partly on her own experiences both online, and with her own family. When I call her to discuss the book, we are both FaceTiming from our homes. Lockwood, gamine and upbeat, is lying on her bed alongside her internet-famous cat, Miette; while I, hair greasy and skin grey, am at my kitchen table wrapped in a frayed blanket and hot water bottle (I wasn’t expecting it to be a video call). “We’re acting like this is normal,” jokes Lockwood, when she sees me. “But it’s not fucking normal. What are we doing?”

Dominique Sisley: So how are you feeling? This is horrible, isn’t it.

Patricia Lockwood: Yeah, I actually don’t feel great. [Laughs.]. Honestly, let’s be real about this, I am feeling not so good. I was doing OK for a while, post-election, and enjoying this little window of Donald Trump not being president anymore. But then it got weird. In January, we had our coup, and now all of that has calmed down but I think our bodies are still so pumped with adrenaline that we don’t know what to do. So now Redditors are trying to bankrupt hedge-fund billionaires and fuck around with the stock market.

DS: I feel like everyone in the UK has lost it too.

PL: Mental, yeah. I think we’ve all just hit the point where it has been so long. And people who have tried to take precautions and stay in their houses are at this point going mad; so everyone’s simultaneously experiencing a mental break.

DS: Let’s talk about your new book. It’s essentially about spending way too much time online, and the importance of real-life, human connection – two extremely relevant themes for the last 12 months. When I read it I was like, wow, how did you know all this would happen? Are you psychic?

PL: I’m very psychic from my Irish ancestors, but even this was more psychic than I expected. [Laughs.]. I think there was feeling while I was writing the book that we were ramping up to something. It was a feeling that something was going to happen, but we didn’t know exactly what. What we witnessed in America over the past four years, it felt like it had to come to a head, but no-one knew what that was going to look like. Actually, after I got Covid last March, I became a lot more psychic; even more than I already had been, and was having loads of prophetic dreams. I thought I was experiencing the same thing everyone was and then was like, “oh no I have Covid and I’m about to die”.

“It really feels like the internet is inside our bodies ... so I think that’s part of the claustrophobia we’re experiencing. It’s like we can’t get out of it” – Patricia Lockwood

DS: Your Covid experience sounded traumatic. How are you feeling now?

PL: It’s really strange. I thought that I was completely OK and returning to normal, and then I started to have relapses again when it got cold. It’s so odd. When it happens I can’t read or comprehend in the same way, I experience phantom smells, and my hands go totally numb. The relapses don’t last long – like I had a pretty bad one around the time of the coup, which I think was understandable – but it is very odd and it really makes you want to know what’s going on. I have just decided to be very open about it and see if anyone else is experiencing the same things, because this is a brand new bat disease and how often does that come along?

DS: Obviously, given everything that’s happened over the last year, there’s nothing else to do but be Extremely Online. How has your relationship with the internet changed over the last year? Because I want to throw my phone out of the window every day.

PL: We’re all there. I think what I was charting in the book was that we were all feeling, for the first time, that the internet was in our bodies. Because before, we were using much more external devices; like huge computers and laptops. But now it really feels like the internet is inside our bodies and inside our minds, so I think that’s part of the claustrophobia we’re experiencing. It’s like we can’t get out of it, right? So maybe if we throw this little object away, this phone, maybe we’ll somehow get back to that previous paradise of just being in our own bodies, experiencing our own thoughts, and not letting other people write the inside of our minds. Maybe if we just logged off forever, we could go back to that previous state.

DS: That reminds me of that character in your book who gets diagnosed with a “terrible case of internet poisoning”. Do you think that’s something we all have that now?

PL: Yeah so in the book, the character’s wife is pregnant, and he makes a joke like, “saw my daughter’s tits on the ultrasound, looking pretty good!” Then he just stops, and is like, “I don’t know how to act. I’ve been this way so long that I don’t know how to be a decent human being.” I wanted to write an entire book about that moment, because sometimes it feels like we don’t know how to act, right? We’ve adopted meme language to apply to really profound situations, like the birth of a kid or getting married. I think people do feel discomfort about that. I don’t think that we’re at the point where the internet is so integrated into our bloodstreams that we don’t notice. I think we’re still at that point where it prickles, bristles, itches.

DS: Do you think you use absurdity as a deflection, or as a coping mechanism?

PL: Yes, I have a deflective style of humour, and I think it’s one that we all are participating in. How else are we going to protect ourselves from what is going on? On the internet you’re just watching, you can’t even reach out a hand. You’re all standing together, bodiless, and you’re watching these things happen. And we’re all going a little bit mad now because we realise, more than before, our impotence.

DS: You’ve been christened the “Poet Laureate of Twitter”. What keeps you on the site? Is it the dopamine rush?

PL: It’s more than a dopamine rush, it’s the idea that you have to remain visible, especially when you have a book coming out. But the dopamine does come in other places – like when all the Republicans got coronavirus. I was legitimately concerned that I was going to get serotonin syndrome that day.

DS: I’ve also noticed that you never get angry or too political on Twitter, which is a special talent these days. Have you ever come close to unleashing a furious Twitter thread? 

PL: It will never happen. My superpower is basically that I never get mad online. I do not fight online. I grew up in a very conflict-ridden household and basically any sort of conflict makes me feel like my parents are screaming. I basically start to blackout and have to sit down. When things are really happening, I retweet a lot – I find the people who are more eloquent. That’s how you know when I’m mad. If something’s going on and you’ll see like four retweets, I’m so mad. 

DS: You’ve spoken before about there being “oppressors” standing on the sidelines of social media, who are co-opting the language, humour and irony of the internet. Can you expand on that?

PL: It’s been making a lot of us uneasy for a while, this idea that any sort of language you develop for your own freedom, your own use, can be adopted and turned against you. So, any progressive language that we’ve developed over the past ten or 15 years online, you will now see in the mouths of the politicians [and corporations]. Recognising that you had some part in the development of this language, and it’s just been plucked from you, and it’s going to be used against you in the public political forum, I think has made a lot of people uneasy. It’s also probably what is lending to the feeling that maybe we should all get out of this.

“Capitalism just eats and incorporates everything, including human lives. And then if you get too close to it, you can also be sucked in” – Patricia Lockwood

DS: It does feel like capitalism is alive, and evolving faster than us, and is just one day going to eat us.  

PL: It’s that type of organism that just eats and incorporates everything, including human lives. And then if you get too close to it, you can also be sucked in.

DS: Have you had any big brand soft drinks coming up to you for sponsorship deals or Twitter partnerships?

PL: I tried for so long to get a Red Bull sponsorship deal. My husband is like, “all you have to do is tweet at Red Bull and just tell them that you wrote all your books on it, then you can get a sponsorship deal for life.” But then, after I got Covid, I couldn’t drink caffeine anymore! There goes my sponsorship. It’s really, really tragic. Maybe I’ll be able to drink it again. 

DS: Wait, is Red Bull your secret?

PL: Yes. Red Bull is absolutely dreadful and it’s the colour of piss. It tastes more artificial than anything in the universe. It tastes like what they probably pour into Rosie from The Jetsons’ hole in order to make her go. That is what Red Bull is. And that is what I was drinking, and that is how I was able to write my books. Put it in print!

DS: It helped you become a novelist. Is that a title you feel comfortable with now?

PL: I think “novelist” never had that heavenly sheen for me that that “poet” did. But a lot of poets do write novels, and people are calling this a novel, so that’s what we’re gonna call it. We allow a lot of latitude, I think, for poets in this country and also in yours. Maybe we’ve given them too much freedom.

DS: Let them have it. 

PL: I was texting my brothers and sisters this morning, and my youngest brother’s playing the stock market – he’s kind of a Redditor – and he was giving me tips, and I was like: “I’m a fucking poet, I own stock in the wind and trees, and that’s the only stock I’m going to play!” [Laughs.]. God, we’re gonna look back on all this in ten years and need so much therapy.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No One Is Talking About This is released on February 16 by Bloomsbury.