Chair of judges and novelist Bernardine Evaristo, said: ‘…with this shortlist, we are excited to present a gloriously varied and thematically rich exploration of women’s fiction at its finest. These novels will take the reader from a rural Britain left behind to the underbelly of a community in Barbados; from inside the hectic performance of social media to inside a family beset by addiction and oppression; from a tale of racial hierarchy in America to a mind-expanding tale of altered perceptions. Fiction by women defies easy categorisation or stereotyping, and all of these novels grapple with society’s big issues expressed through thrilling storytelling. We feel passionate about them, and we hope readers do too.’
Lockwood’s energetic prose zips from killer simile to daft gag to wise epigram. But the novel isn’t entirely successful. One obvious issue is the sheer friability of the material. If you’re not au fait with Twitter — more specifically, if you haven’t been keeping up with recent online trends — you will struggle to understand the first half. Entry level test: what is the narrator referring to here? ‘Everyone was reading the same short story. It was about texting....’ If you don’t instantly know that this is Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’, then you are not ‘everyone’ and this book is not for you.
It’s an abrupt about-turn from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the unserious to the serious and, in the framework of the book, a bit of a cop out. If one of the fundamental questions in this book is how do we write seriously about ourselves in the age of Twitter, then Lockwood’s own answer would seem to be: at the end of the day in the same way we’ve always done.
What Oyler worked in a dull, unyielding metal, Lockwood renders in gold. Her story of living online is not only more succulent, witty and imaginative, it’s truer. It’s a novel that vibrates with feeling, not just about the intense bond the protagonist develops with her baby niece – that would be too easy – but also her joyful communion with the internet. She may be excruciatingly honest about its problems but she’s not judgemental. She knows that the voice she has used to soothe the baby is also the same voice she uses to tour the world, talking about her web-based fame.
By design, the first half of No One Is Talking About This recreates the sensation of too much time scrolling – bringing to mind Eric Carle’s children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in which the fuzzy protagonist binges on a series of foodstuffs only to find himself craving a nice green leaf, leaving one feeling overstimulated and empty. So, does the change of tack in the second half offer more sustenance? The baby’s caretaking is meant to be in sharp contrast to what Lockwood calls “the portal”, although the story continues to be told in fragments.
Lockwood is an incontrovertibly gifted writer. Her sentences are routinely surprising, her voice a startling agglomeration of poetic clarity and hectic comedy. But weirdly enough, given the comic gifts on display in Priestdaddy, it’s that hectic quality that causes problems. It wouldn’t be quite fair to call No One Is Talking About This a comic novel, but it does seem, particularly in its first half, too fixated on getting jokes over the line, and too pleased with itself for having done so. There is an airlessness that reminded me of being in the presence of a Known Wit, intent on living up to their reputation by keeping the jests coming at all costs... Eventually, the anxious comedy gives way to a richer and more complex amalgamation of grief and beauty. Although Lockwood’s protagonist never fully transcends her ironic self-enclosure, and therefore only fleetingly allows us a clear view of the baby’s parents – the people to whom this awful thing is actually happening – there are nonetheless moments of real poignancy, as she describes her niece’s little life, and the heartbreak of her condition.
Half online, half off, No One Is Talking About This takes us on a complex journey that ends with a simple moral: real life matters more. After 100 pages of quippy, exasperating irony the reader craves earnestness and then earns it. The question that lingers, though, is: how long until we are inevitably sucked back in?
When Lockwood told the audience it was a taster of a book in progress, I didn’t imagine she meant fiction. Seeing it again here as the first part of her debut novel, I wondered how she would wring any kind of story from material that seemed essentially observational in quality. Yet I also found myself laughing too much to care: at one point, the protagonist, inexplicably spending “hypnotized hours of her life... posting OH YES HUNNY in response to old images of Stalin”, puts down her cup of tea and then can’t find it again, struck by the sense that she must have put it inside her phone – the kind of warning sign that makes her ask her husband to lock her phone away in a safe crafted from a hollowed-out dictionary whose spine, tellingly, reads “NEW ENGLISH”... “Tweeting is an art form,” Lockwood tells her mother in Priestdaddy; and for all its virtues, this richly tragicomic debut never quite shakes the sense that you could just as well drink the author’s gleefully surreal wit straight from the tap.
No One Is Talking About This is full of sharp, funny observations about life in “the portal”, as Twitter is referred to throughout. The narrator, labouring to have correct opinions, bemoans that her mother was only a high-school librarian. “If only my mother had been a college librarian, she thought! Then I would have had a real shot at the right ideas.” It’s a perfect crack at the elitism of the online world’s supposed equality. She also nails the self-interest at the core of Twitter’s pretended high-mindedness: “Callout culture! Were things rapidly approaching the point where even you would be seen as bad?”
Lockwood employs a prose style reminiscent of that used by Jenny Offill in Dept of Speculation (2014) and last year’s Weather. Short, all-but stand-alone paragraphs; little eruptions of information on which the story bubbles and bursts along. In the first section, it makes sense to think of these as social media posts. “Why were we all writing like this now?” asks the narrator. “Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.” But they’re no less efficacious a means of communication in the second section; moments of breath gasped between doctors’ appointments when bad – or good (relatively speaking) – news is processed, or those stolen while caring for a gravely sick infant.
The internet is called ‘the portal’, a place where every user starts off sounding like themselves but ends up being homogenised until everyone sounds like each other.
Users are so terrified of holding the wrong opinion and being cancelled that they can’t trust their own thoughts without fact-checking them against the ever-changing crowd-sanctioned opinions. In the second half, a family tragedy splits this fake existence in two. An intellectual and emotional rollercoaster.