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  • David Savill

Novel Thoughts - No-One is talking about this: Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury, 2021)

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

What do we mean when we say a novel feels poetic? In the creative writing classroom, students usually use the ‘p’ word when they detect lyric sentiment in prose. Asked to justify why they describe a novel as poetic, they invariably suggest the style is descriptive, fond of adjectives, metaphor and simile, perhaps driven by particular rhythms.

This observation debases poetry, which is far more than just lyric sentiment and rhythm.

How do we know when something is a poem and not a novel? Why do we separate the novel from the medium of poetry? Length is the obvious answer. But, hating answers, writers give us poems long as novels.

Patricia Lockwood’s ‘No-one is talking about this’ is a poetic novel. This is not just prose containing lyric sentiment and a handful of devices common to poetry, (although metaphor abounds). It is a novel composed of moments observed by a poetic mind. A poetic mind represents life as a series of encounters, each resonating its own meaning, each asking its own question. The singularity of these moments conflicts with the novel’s tendency to narrative continuity. Awed by the crystalline compression of a poet’s art, we are stopped in contemplation. I read this book slowly. Its broken-up paragraphs are not the flowing wine of a novelist, but shots of hard liquor.

Ostensibly, Lockwood’s narrator is a woman whose viral posts have given her the status of meme-creating celebrity. But, by evidence of the writing, she’s a poet and so is the author. Give any of these paragraphs line breaks and No-one is talking about this could be a collection of poetry about a life trapped in social media. Does it matter whether we call it poem or prose, collection or novel? No, but it does help us understand how the craft in the writing is working on us.

The narrative is an undertow, a slow accumulation of character development, (and inability to develop), as the moments the author describes begin to press like a weight on the narrator’s consciousness; driftwood gathering at the shore of her mind and slowly changing its shape. There is one dramatic question for author and narrator alike – can the idea of self, of humankind, survive digitisation?

For anyone who hates the experience of social media, the first half of this novel is almost as frustrating as the medium itself. It is only because the narrator is so clearly a poet, capable of finding poetry in everything, that the experience is bearable. When the urgency of real life, and real death, enter half-way through the novel’s course, the narrator finds her question answered.

At this point the novel does not change shape – it is still told in the attention deficit paragraphs of the meme artist – but the narrator’s life is given meaning and focus by the birth and death of her sister’s child; a baby born with Proteus Syndrome. In relief to the first half of the novel, we see how the physical circumstances of life cannot be transcended by the digital. A baby whose will to live means she simply will not stop growing. A family whose will to love is inexhaustible.

This is also a novel close to memoir, the moving details of caring for a niece with Proteus syndrome are taken from Lockwood’s own life, and Lockwood herself has been celebrated for her influence in, and use of, social media. Presumably, there are too many invented details in the narrative for Lockwood to want to own this work as memoir, although the confessional, digressive intimacy of memoir is closest to the experience of reading this novel.

Perhaps the guise of fiction allowed Lockwood to push the ideas further than confession would allow. Whatever the reasoning, Lockwood is an extraordinary writer and poet, and she has used this book to capture a real sense of what consciousness feels like in the digital age. Perhaps it takes the art of both the poet and the novelist to do it.

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