The question many people have demanded that the great internet novel answer is: What does it feel like to be online? For Lockwood, the question of how it feels for one person to be online is indistinguishable from how the internet would narrate its own virtual existence — how it would speak, if it could speak, in a single voice, of the intense, exhausting accretion of matter that makes it feel alive, electric with rage and desperation, greedy for attention and praise, and, as the narrator’s husband says, “like a ventriloquist’s dummy,” “just totally, totally dead.”
“This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?” the narrator wonders. She emerges as a portal for the portal’s uncanny consciousness, churning individual thoughts into tweets, tweets into memes, memes back into the language of thought, until what belongs to me and what belongs to you can no longer be discerned amid this mute, incessant chatter. “What about the stream-of-a-consciousness that is not entirely your own? One that you participate in, but also acts upon you?” the narrator asks. Perhaps worried about being misunderstood or read the wrong way — a persistent fear online, where intent is impossible to fix — the narrator has an anxious habit of providing her reader with running commentary, a user’s guide to the novel.
[ “No One Is Talking About This” was one of our most anticipated titles of February. See the full list. ]
The challenge the novel sets for itself is how to wrench the narrator from the portal and into a singular reality. Her release comes in the novel’s second section, which begins when the narrator learns that her sister is carrying a child with Proteus syndrome, a condition that causes an overgrowth of skin and bone — a child who will likely die soon after she is born.
The narrator knows that the internet is no place for bereavement; here, there are only drive-by mourners, rubberneckers gawking at the pain of others. Both for the sake of plot, what little plot can be salvaged, and for the sake of self-preservation, she must withdraw. Though for one so closely identified with the portal’s consciousness, such withdrawal can only be partial. The fragments remain but are repurposed for the inchoate work of loving then losing. Humor is attempted, but falls terribly flat, dragged down by sentiment. Grief is always a slog.
Yet from this grief emerges grace, a sublimity that is not universal but achingly particular. The baby grows toward death, with “a kind of absolutism that was almost joy,” inhabiting a body and a consciousness that is wholly her own. “She only knows what it is to be herself,” the doctors keep repeating. The baby is not a metaphor, the narrator warns us, yet her wild, untrammeled, inscrutable being is everywhere counterpoised by the internet’s similarly enigmatic existence. When she dies, her doctors harvest her brain. “As long as people were looking at that mind, it was still active in the world, asking and answering, finding out about things, making small dear cries of discovery,” the narrator thinks.
Here is the novel’s secondary virtue: its insistence that the shadow forms of living and thinking — the life led online amid the buzz of the hive mind; the life that persists after death — are, for all their vaporous mystery, no less real than the life led by you or me. And so, the question the narrator first asked of the portal comes back at the end to strike a consolatory note after death: “This did not feel like real life exactly, but nowadays what did.”
Something Kobek did not anticipate in his rubric for how to solve the problem of the internet was that people might stop writing novels altogether. They might write experimental essays or memoirs; champion shagginess and shapelessness; pronounce, as Lockwood did in a recent interview, that the internet has anointed “the fragmentary and the autofictional … the modes of the times.” Whether or not this is true, one test of the novel in the age of the internet is if it offers enough resistance, on the level of plot or character, structure or tone, to the very media forms it wants to represent. A good novel would not speak in the voice of the internet; it would speak over it, and the clamor it made would allow its critics to hazard a stronger claim for the value of the novel to our virtual lives. For all the local beauty and humor of “No One Is Talking About This,” it does not feel like a good novel, exactly, because it does not feel like a novel at all. But nowadays what does?