Patricia Lockwood is, sort of, in bed. As we sit down to talk – over Zoom, naturally – she’s obliging lockdown’s leisurewear dress code, but still leaning on her headboard, still contemplating the world into which she will emerge today. It is the day of the US inauguration, and no one is quite sure what to expect.
“I performed a series of pretty much insane rituals on election day to ensure that the oldest white man would win,” Lockwood muses, twisting her face up in a way that suggests it was a situation she wasn’t entirely comfortable with. “I’m getting all of these emails from people around the world. It’s like, ‘Really hoping that the oldest white man is going to win,’ because that was the choice that were given. And we were like, ‘What exactly are we to do with this?’”
Lockwood hails from Ohio, but lives in Georgia, a state which proved to be far more electorally critical than anyone could have predicted four years ago. Being there right now “feels just incredible”, she says. And yet, watching Trump leave office as we speak, there is still the feeling that there’s a long way to go.
“It’s like we’ve experienced so much trauma over the past four years. It’s not all of it directly attributable to this man. But just that climate, this dome that we’ve been living in that was just full of his voice booming at the top of his lungs, it all felt tied up with that. So yeah, I think we get a moment. I think that you get a free day today to feel all of your neo-lib, uncool, middle of the road feelings. We know it’s not over, right? But there is something in the body that I think is loosening, just slightly, that grip, those muscles that you’ve been holding.”
Lockwood, 38, often hailed as “the poet laureate of Twitter”, is a star among the highly intellectual, joyfully weird, sometimes misanthropic creative community that makes up what’s loosely known as ‘weird Twitter’. Her rise to prominence came on the back of her ‘sexts’ series – ‘I am a living male turtleneck. You are an art teacher in winter. You put your whole head through me’ – and, even more so, through Rape Joke, a searing autobiographical poem about her own experience of rape aged 19 that went viral, as poems so rarely do.
“I speak of it as being one of the things that I’ve done that was accidentally helpful,” she says now of the poem’s reception. “Like, you don’t set out to do something that’s helpful or that helps people, but it ends up working that way. It changed my ideas about what it was my responsibility to do and what it was possible for art to do. Also, I think that before I’d had a very strong sense of secrecy about my own life, about my own past and what had happened to me, about my upbringing, this idea that you didn’t talk about things. And I think that it did free me from that.”
With her literary star in the ascendent, she published two poetry collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, and a bestselling memoir, Priestdaddy, about her unendingly eccentric family, helmed by a gun-toting, right-wing father who became a married catholic priest after watching The Exorcist 72 times in quick succession onboard a nuclear submarine.
Lockwood makes no secret in those works of her regret at having never gone to university. However, having found her profession and much of her literary education, not to mention her husband, online, she is a woman who understands better than most what it means to exist inside the internet. And it is this existence which dominates her first novel, No One Is Talking About This, a book which is, in the very best way, singularly, hilariously and then heartbreakingly weird.
How would she describe it? “I do have just a kind of a packaged line, which is that this is a book about being very inside the internet and very outside the internet,” she smiles. “It is in two parts. And I tried to construct a timeline of the way we experience the internet when we log on to something like Twitter, and suddenly we’re all just sliding through this space together and through this non-existent air that contains all of these words, all of these stories, all of these ideas that you’re passing through. And then sliding down that rabbit hole and ending up in the real world, being confronted with real pain, with your own life, really, which you weren’t entirely sure that you were living before.”
The first half of the book freewheels through a Twitter-esque timeline, changing subject at breakneck pace, while its unnamed protagonist – a woman who has become a world-travelling intellectual sought out for internet commentary on the back of a tweet asking ‘Can a dog be twins?’ – tries valiantly to keep up. ‘Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate’, she writes. ‘Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.’
Having lulled the reader into a false sense of security with this hilarious, scattergun cultural commentary, the second part of the book hits like a sucker punch. The lead character’s sister is pregnant with a baby who, thanks to a genetic defect similar to that of Joseph ‘Elephant Man’ Merrick, may not survive. In her abortion-banning midwestern state, the sister, too, may die. And our protagonist, Lockwood now, playing out under cloak of fiction her own experiences of 2018, must leave the internet behind for a period of living hour-to-hour in hospital, watching the birth and slow loss of a critically ill child.
“You think you’re prepared,” she says now, thoughtfully and uncharacteristically slowly. “I mean, I’ve seen absolutely the excesses of the pro-life movement that people would not believe. I’ve seen my own father get arrested [at a pro-life protest], so you would think I would be prepared. If I’m not prepared, then something is going on.
“In the past four years, you’ve seen a lot of terror among women that reproductive rights are all going to be taken away” – she snaps her fingers – “like that. But we’re already living in that country that we fear.”
What made her want to write about such a personal experience, given the impact it continues to have within her own family? “So, I was in a better position to observe it and talk about it, but I also felt, I think, a lot more rage just coming up in that situation having seen the things that I had seen, from my father, from my family. I was just there, thinking, ‘Here is the edge case. This is in your own family. And if this does not change how you look at things, then nothing will.’ That’s very difficult. That’s very difficult to be going through in real time.”
Prior to this family crisis, Lockwood had already somewhat lost touch with her own parents, horrified at their support for Trump. Returning home to support her sister, she says, exposed her to the realities of the internet’s corrupting influence on so many. “A huge part of it, I think, is what I call the poison groundwater of Ohio Facebook. Basically, what you had is a bunch of younger shit posters who all got online at the same time as their parents and grandparents, who have very little internet literacy, and the two are basically infecting each other and passing these things back and forth.
“And a lot of people are doing it, people that you wouldn’t necessarily expect – like my mom, who I feel gets on Facebook at 9pm at night and just starts reading. It started out being pictures of people’s babies. And then it gradually became whatever insane thing was happening on Facebook, and this is how all of this has worked. Something strange is happening there.”
Having been forced during her time in hospital to retreat from the internet – and having done so again in early 2020 when she contracted long-covid – Lockwood began to muse on the disconnect between life on and offline, or in and outside of The Portal, as the novel would have it.
“I mean, you would just miss days, weeks, when you just wouldn’t even open the door at all. And then you would come back and try to figure out what everyone was talking about. You had to reconstruct it backwards, and half the time you were like, ‘But wait, why was everyone upset about this on this day? Why did we pour an entire day of our lives into this story that seems quite ephemeral, that doesn’t seem important in the grand scheme of things?’”
After I had coronavirus, I developed neuropathy in my hands, so I can’t scroll as easily. It’s like God is shocking me every time I try to do it,”
This revelatory experience, she says, changed her relationship with the internet entirely. “Part of the reason you stay online in the way that you do, and the way that I did previous to this event, is that fear of missing something. That if you don’t pay attention, that in a split second the crucial thing will happen and you missed it. You didn’t see it, and maybe if you had been watching, you could’ve stopped it. We know that is not true. It’s a mass delusion.
“The way you feel in the portal” she continues, “is that you feel like you’re everywhere. And it leads to that feeling of wanting to be everywhere in the real world as well, to be participating in this mass movement that is on the ground, that’s not underneath the crust of the earth but that’s walking on top of it.
“But you can step out. You can miss days and it’s fine. Your life goes on. I think afterwards I could’ve gone back to the way I had been before, but it didn’t feel the same. Plus, after I had coronavirus, I developed neuropathy in my hands, so it’s actually quite painful and I can’t scroll as easily. It’s like God is shocking me every time I try to do it,” she laughs, ruefully. “I’m like a lab rat who’s being punished.”
Predicting the future
While the book that has emerged is based on these real life experiences, No One Is Talking About This feels universally, presciently current. Within its fictionalised pages, Trump is referred to only as The Dictator. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to feel a sharp intake of breath when it asks ‘are we all being radicalised?’
“Yeah, it’s really hit the moment,” she laughs. “But no, I mean, it does feel prescient, but I also think that if you were paying attention, if you were glued to the internet during the Trump administration, you were in a certain way ready for what happened on January 6th. You maybe weren’t ready for the physical shock of it, but yes, a part of that eye that was watching did see this coming.
“But that’s not the way that you want your book to be relevant, because all of these things have come to fruition. You don’t want to get to a point where you wished for those things, where you wished for some sort of cleansing fire to rain down. It’s your job as a human being to not hope for that, no matter how bad things get. I just think I was paying attention, maybe, to a degree that was unhealthy for a single person. And it felt that way for those four years, that you were just drinking this in to your own detriment.”
Today, Lockwood says, she will watch the inauguration and allow herself to feel, briefly, that her book is arriving into a time of wider, positive change out there in the non-digital world. “I want to have written an experience that people can go through with me, with the protagonist, with other people who read it, maybe something surprising. Maybe if they do feel that shift from online life to real life, if they do feel that sort of rupture inside them, I would be very happy if people experienced that.”
For now though, she’s back online to publicise the book, the irony of that predicament not lost. “I mean this is a very provisional kind of new interview that we’re doing,” she says, sighing with resignation. “We’re also doing it at a very strange time.
“I’m talking to people and I’m like, ‘If I sound like an idiot, if I’m not phrasing things as delicately or as perfectly as I previously would have, I think that that’s okay,.’ I think that we can just be kind of understanding about that because this is a very,” – she raises her eyebrow – “unprecedented time”.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, published by Bloomsbury Circus, is out on February 16 (£14.99). Pre-order your copy here.