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No One Is Talking About This
by patricia lockwood
riverhead, 224 pages, $25

Chosen Spirits
by samit basu
simon and schuster, 280 pages, $13.92

A half-century after ARPANET created networks of computers, the “Internet novel” is coming of age at last. Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This and Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits take radically different approaches to depicting the unreal cities we’ve created online: the time-sucks and the comments-box arenas, the sloughs of scrolling despond and the candylands of trivia. Reading either novel will show you something about this shadow-world. Reading both together gets you even closer to understanding the experience—sometimes choral, sometimes cacophonic—of life online.

Lockwood is a poet and memoirist; No One blends both genres, combining the immediacy of memoir with the contrasts and compression of poetry. It reads like memoir on Silly Putty, depicting its nameless protagonist in the third person but borrowing experiences from Lockwood’s own online and offline life. It’s about a woman whose social media addiction is interrupted by the birth of her terminally-ill niece: a book about the discovery of life, when that life is immediately overshadowed by death. Chosen Spirits is genre science fiction that plays with the conventions of romance, set in a violent, totalitarian near-future Delhi that the author describes, in the acknowledgments, as “not . . . a dystopia,” but “a best-case scenario.” It’s about Joey (nee Bijoyini), who works for a social media influencer as his “Reality Controller,” or manager. In a rare moment away from work, Joey collides with Rudra, a video-game addict and low-key hikikomori (or recluse). She rescues him from his family’s wellness conglomerate/genetic inequality farm/slave empire, setting in motion a chain of events that drag both of them into political rebellion.

Lockwood gives you short sections, a couple paragraphs or maybe just a sentence long, a lightly experimental style mimicking the collage/barrage of scrolling Twitter. Her novel is divided roughly in half. In the front half, a woman revels in the surf of social media, that sea full of coral, blood, and trash. She lives by memes, she knows all the communal misspellings (and the reader cries: moar!); she remembers when online was “the place where you sounded like yourself,” not “the place where we sounded like each other.” The first half of No One is like reading the best, trainwreckiest Twitter account out there, punctuated by exquisite imagery. Her narrative voice is ridiculous, crass, self-destructive—and pierced by moments of spiritual longing, or brutal self-knowledge:

“What are you doing?” her husband asked softly, tentatively, repeating his question until she shifted her blank gaze up to him. What was she doing? Couldn’t he see her arms all full of the sapphires of the instant? Didn’t he realize that a male feminist had posted a picture of his nipple that day?

This is a novel about a woman who becomes Internet famous for the blithely idiotic anti-koan, “Can a dog be twins?” And then this woman has to stand under a Niagara of agony and gratitude. “All the worries about what a mind was fell away as soon as the baby was placed in her arms. A mind was merely something trying to make it in the world.” Lockwood’s prose becomes inexpressibly tender, helplessly finding beauty even in the symptoms of Proteus syndrome, because those symptoms are the baby’s body: clouds resemble the “dense flocked pattern that had begun to appear on the baby’s skin, the soles of her feet and palms of her hands, so she seemed to have weather for finger and footprints.”

Basu, by contrast, writes perfectly serviceable, painless prose. His gift is for plethora: the bright chaos of a Delhi of cybercrime, K-pop, and water riots, where political subversives hide behind identical avatars at an online-only “place” they’ve named the Sadface Cafe, where joggers wear gas masks and hawks crash surveillance drones. (They tried monkeys first, “but the monkeys, being monkeys, didn’t listen.”) Basu isn’t interested in spirituality except as a scam—the scathing portraits of modern Indian religious life are fantastic. His characters are easy to cheer for, entertainingly constructed to serve the setting and the theme.

This theme slowly reveals itself to be the intersection of wealth and politics. Chosen Spirits has its own midway swerve. The front half is all about Joey’s job, which monetizes every real relationship in her life—even her brother turns his chats with her into auditions for an influencer job—but may hold hidden romantic opportunities. Slowly the story shifts to Rudra, the black sheep of a wealthy family, and his plunge into the underground political opposition.

Both characters see the evils of their society, but wealth and caste keep them insulated. (Even Joey’s futuristic job, as a villainous character notes, is a variation on her caste’s traditional role.) Joey relies on her family’s maid to tell her when it’s safe to protest. Rudra treats online gaming as a kind of internal exile: a refuge his impoverished neighbors can’t afford. Left to their own devices, so to speak, Joey and Rudra don’t risk much. Their opinions only become action—and sacrifice—when they’re guided by people outside their sheltering privilege, who can know what to do in a way the wealthy simply can’t.

The novel’s ending is unsatisfyingly vague—what change are Rudra and Joey finally working toward? How? But of course it has to be vague, because Basu, seeing the ways privilege prevents understanding, finds himself stuck in the former just like his characters.

In Lockwood’s novel, political action appears almost entirely as posturing—a kind of performative outrage that Lockwood satirizes but rarely escapes. In the front half we get several weak, repetitive attempts to wring out insights about the alt-right. In the back half Lockwood fiercely defends abortion rights. This is the right to prevent any encounter with the wondrous, vulnerable child whose every moment is a gift—a tension Lockwood touches, in sardonic or lyrical passages about the nature of mind, but doesn’t quite explore. And she has a searing section about hospital bills: “Was the baby American . . . because this was the country that had so steadfastly refused to care for her?” But mostly politics drops away from the novel when real life starts.

So does the rest of her protagonist’s online life. In No One the Internet is a world apart. Her protagonist travels the globe, but it all looks like Twitter, whereas even Basu’s online worlds are recognizably Indian. The terms Lockwood and Basu invent for social media reflect the fundamental difference in their understanding of the Internet: For Lockwood it’s “the portal,” a doorway into a separate realm. For Basu it’s “Flow.” Chosen Spirits is about the way the Internet flows through our real lives: hashtags for street protests, public humiliation for social media clout, gamified religion, and genocides promoted by video games. Basu’s Internet has consequences—just like Tinder and GoFundMe. Chosen Spirits was written before India became a COVID epicenter; nonetheless Basu captures the world where people live-tweet their desperate hunt for oxygen tanks, then live-tweet their deaths. For Lockwood, the Internet is a prison shaped like a playground. For Basu, the Internet is more like a juke joint, serving every human purpose from addiction to community, sex to storytelling, cruelty to liberation.

Lockwood’s novel is extraordinary, while Basu’s is merely very good. But to understand the Internet you need both: Lockwood’s diptych of cloud and clarity, and Basu’s chaos mosaic.

Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.

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