:: Article

Your Attention is Holy

By Sam Burt.

Patricia Lockwood, No One is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus, 2021)

Would we spend less of our lives online if the clock on our computers was in the middle of our screens, rather than being hidden down there in the corner like a guilty secret? Or would we just Tweet more about the passing of time?

The narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s new novel remembers lost time in a way functionally similar to a foregrounded clock: her niece is born with Proteus syndrome, a genetic disorder that will radically shorten her lifespan. But instead of a linear narrative in which a millennial realises that life is short and logs off to go and smell some roses, we’re given something more honest. This narrator always knew she was wasting whole days pouring herself into what Lockwood calls ‘the portal’; the baby’s arrival doesn’t teach her to waste less time posting but to waste less time feeling bad about it.

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In conditions of late capitalism, as Lockwood observes, we want to be cavemen, or at least to eat like them. For, unlike us, cavemen ‘knew what the fuck they were supposed to be’. ‘A man alone under the sky’ is in need of protection.

The question that was the pure liquid element of the portal — who am I failing to protect?

The portal is millions of individual crusades for justice and then for relief from the guilt that results from failing to live up to that standard.

Go not far enough, and find yourself guilty of complacency, complicity, a political slumping into the cushions of your time. Go too far, and find yourself saying that you didn’t care that a white child had been eaten by an alligator.

The only constant in this cycle is culpability. (Alligator-apathy sure sounds bad but what sharp objects are hidden under those cushions?) The more you strive to be at the cutting-edge of what the portal deems to be ethical attitudes/pronouns/behaviours, the more conscious you are of what an unredeemable fuck-up you are. Also, how much time has passed since you logged on.

Breaking the cycle means recognising that life is too short to feel shit about time wasted online. The narrator is incapable of justifying the time she devotes to fighting arcane battles on the portal, to those, like her husband, who exist independently of it. While she doesn’t feel particularly responsible for giving him an account, when she imagines trying and failing to explain her behaviour to a future grandchild, there is, underneath the deadpan humour inherent in that scenario, a deeper unease about the communicative gap. The unease is always there, just under the surface, but gets absorbed into and lost within countless other forms of unease about the human condition that she pores over online, and then strives to atone for with posts, likes and shares.

Her niece’s diagnosis, received while still in the womb, is the pivot on which the book turns. Its most moving lines describe her niece’s openness to all that her curtailed life has to offer. Hearing live music for the first time, ‘her eyes went as wide as a documentary called Planet Earth.’ While being read to, ‘she shook with what must have been excitement, trying in her tininess to be as large as what pressed in on her.’ Initially, this reminder of real-life priorities severs the narrator from the portal. She often describes the portal as a body, with her positioned at its head; now, on the same maternity ward, she and her niece step out of their sheltering hosts.

And yet, as Lockwood has said, the postnatal half of the novel, though taking place ‘completely outside the internet…still texturally had something in common with it.’ Online and offline experiences turn out not to be so different after all. Ultimately, the baby’s innocence, reflected in her joy and wonder at the world around her, makes the narrator conscious, not of guilt for her own neglect of the offline world, but of her own innocence. Just as her niece has a bottomless thirst for ‘the pouring and continuous element’ of the world made available to her — itself described in similar terms to the ‘liquid’ stream of the portal — so the narrator was only seeking simple joy in a continuous stream of newness. In the beginning, she reflects, the portal had enticed her with the prospect of becoming ‘a creature of pure call and response: she wanted to delight and be delighted.’

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This epiphany allows her to return to the portal after her niece’s passing. It problematises the portal, and her dependence on it, as well as highlighting the portal’s inadequacies — as the title tells us, no one online is talking about the most important thing: her niece’s laughter. At the same time, however, it brings home the futility of any attempt to renounce the portal; to do so would entail a wilful loss of some part of the attentiveness she has come to prize.

What the portal can teach us about offline attentiveness is alluded to in its effects on our vernaculars. Lockwood is concerned with what the portal’s frenzy of activity does to everyday words, how it renders them hyper-dense with connotations and in-jokes, and how this sets up an intimacy between words and their online users; like two adulterous lovers exchanging pleasantries in public view, only they know what these innocuous gestures signify. We can see this process at work on the ‘candida overgrowth board’:

what began as the most elastic and snappable verbal play soon emerged in jargon, and then in doctrine, and then in dogma. […] the candida board might conceivably birth a new vernacular — one that the rest of the world at first didn’t understand, and which was then seen to be the universal language.

Later, the narrator advises her sister to use this condensing of language to make what is ephemeral endure — which in this case means the months she can spend with her daughter, rather than what’s trending this week:

“Write everything down,” she told her sister — the portal had taught her that, that just one word could raise it all up again before your eyes — and came across a slip of paper afterward that said, “scanning always back and forth, like someone with an endless supply of sight.”

Lockwood’s narrator thus demonstrates the element of truth in an earlier remark made by her sister, when she had doubted whether a lifetime of swapping memes had prepared them in any way to cope with personal tragedy:

For whatever lives we lead they do prepare us for these moments.

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The novel ends by reaffirming the permanence of the personal. The narrator imagines herself taking her niece around the British Museum while reassuring her that ‘“Someone in some future time will think of us.”’ She repeats a line that came to her earlier in the novel, from the mythologist Joseph Campbell: ‘more and more I begin to feel that the whole world is conscious.’

People outside the portal expressing scant interest in its contents aren’t all callous bastards, after all. Many of them care just as much about being good people. Perhaps they just haven’t found the words for it yet.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sam Burt is a writer/tutor and a student of creative writing at the University of Manchester. He has a particular interest in autofiction and fiction that explores the affects of internet dependence. His work has appeared in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Popshot Quarterly, the Guardian and London Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 24th, 2021.