• March 30, 2022

    Zombie Round

  • Lauren Groff

    1No One Is Talking About This

    Patricia Lockwood

  • Judged by

    Fernando A. Flores

No One Is Talking About This

The two books I had to judge, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood and Matrix by Lauren Groff, were two very different books by authors I admire very much. I really tried to think about this in a variety of ways, beginning with my “20-year radius” method: Could either of these books have been written 20 years ago, 20 years in the future, or are they very much books that couldn’t exist at any other point in time but now?

Fernando A. Flores (he/him) is the author of Tears of the Trufflepig and Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. His story collection Valleyesque is forthcoming. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Matrix by Lauren Groff I admired very much as an act of erudition—the kind of book a writer tells themselves they’ll write one day if they have time for the research involved. Could this book have been written 20 years ago? Seems to me it could. In fact, I’m reminded of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s superb The Corner That Held Them. Could this book have been written 20 years in the future? Also, yes. Research for this book is just sitting there, waiting for an author to apply their vision of a story. The novel is interesting and told masterfully, with beautiful lines like: “She thinks of running away from the abbey; of running into the woods alone and catching beasts to eat with her hands and drinking from freshets, become a wildwoman or lady brigand or a hermit in a hollowed trunk of a tree.”

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No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood was many things: hilarious, self-aware, stylistically daring, and if this was a contest of who had the better title, the contest here is a no-brainer. (Not sure about the choice of having a book with the same title as the Wachowskis’ cultural phenomenon.) Could Lockwood’s book have been written 20 years ago? Probably not, considering how much it relies on the social media of the past 10 years or so. Could this book have been written 20 years from now? Again, probably not, considering how much it relies on the trends of the moment—by their own nature, trends change all the time. This book really manages to capture the whiplash sensations of our current world, our feelings being tugged here and there. I love how our narrator slowly emerges, through her experiences in the “portal,” her developing tragedies and conflicts. Also, just the way she phrases things—like “but the pants he was wearing were Cyber Pants, the sort of pants we wore back when we believed we had to skateboard through the internet”—had me rolling on the ground. This was actually the first book I’ve read by Lockwood, and am excited to read more of her work.

Most contemporary popular literary novels tend to have similar paths to publication: The writer graduates from college, attends an MFA program, and the pages that result end up being their first/second books. As a college-dropout writer, and now Tournament of Books judge, I will always pick the book with the odds stacked against it. Although these two books are very popular and need no help in the marketplace, No One Is Talking About This is the more unique of the two, the more unconventional, experimental, the one I’d recommend to both readers and non-readers alike. Matrix is more of a niche book, to be recommended to more patient (maybe well-educated) readers, or people interested in the themes and subject matter therein. I picked No One Is Talking About This to advance for the sheer experience of it, its originality, ferocity of voice, and for the fact that it manages to capture our present moment more than Matrix. I’m not saying books should capture our present world, or be ultra-present. Not at all. But Matrix doesn’t have the urgency that No One Is Talking About This does. Lockwood writes as if she’s about to spontaneously combust at any moment. Groff’s book has a certain laid-back comfort you can feel in every line. They both contain a desperation/frustration with the world within them, but No One Is Talking About This comes out more punk rock, more reaching, less comfortable than Matrix. By my own nature, I always pick the most punk-rock book, if I have to judge between them.

TODAY’S WINNER: No One Is Talking About This

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Match Commentary

By Chris Holmes & Rosecrans Baldwin

Roserans Baldwin (he/him): And so concludes the Zombie Round! Joining me in conversation today is Chris Holmes. Chris, please introduce yourself to the audience—where are you corresponding with me from today?

Chris Holmes (he/him): Hi, Rosecrans! I am writing from the eternal winter of the lovely Ithaca, NY, where I am the Chair of the Dept. of Literatures in English at Ithaca College. I also co-direct the New Voices Literary Festival with the novelist Eleanor Henderson, and I am the host of the literary podcast Burned by Books. Truthfully, I am an absolute ToB nerd, and that includes owning multiple ToB T-shirts, and begging my sports-loving brother to pay attention to this much more interesting March madness.

Rosecrans: Ithaca—it’s gorges! So, today, Judge Flores seems to me to have picked his “winner” from a sense of urgency. I mean, if punk rock is about how much humanity can explode out of a three-minute song—as a recent example, here’s the video for Soul Glo’s new single “Jump!! (Or Get Jumped!!!)((by the future))”—then perhaps it makes sense that No One Is Talking About This, which definitely contains a lot of humanity, takes the day.

But I wish we had more to chew on here, if only around that final line about punk. To my understanding, there’s a pride in punk on rejecting things mainstream, on being anti-establishment—and I see that sentiment more reflected in somebody constructing a women’s sanctuary in the 12th century than a social-media influencer today riffing on funny tweets. What do you think?

Chris: What is more punk rock than a young woman flung from privilege into the physical and emotional deprivations of a crumbling nunnery, only to steel herself to battle the patriarchy of the church and the cruelty of a fickle queen?

Rosecrans: My man!

Chris: I love Fernando (his new short-story collection Valleyesque just got a monster starred review in Kirkus), but frankly there is nothing less punk rock than a novel about society’s nosedive into the anesthetizing goo of social media. In describing the near-universal turn away from material reality in favor of the endless scroll of squished-face cats falling off couches, No One Is Talking About This performs a mostly expected dramatization of our shared bad habit (that happens to be collapsing democracy one boring meme at a time). Matrix is a rejection of the sleepwalking that No One Is Talking About This aims to critique. Faced with a life without agency, without a choice as primal as eating something delicious or wearing something joyful, Marie de France rises up to hack away at the roots of the religion that orders every facet of human life in the 12th century. Punk. Rock.

Rosecrans: Absolutely. You know, we don’t require our commenters to have read the books in question—we’re here to talk about the judge’s decision mainly—but it sounds like you’ve read these books, yeah?

Chris: These are both novels that were near impossible to avoid this past year. Heavily promoted, feted by basically everyone with a pen, and topping the list of “best-ofs”—I dutifully bought and read both.

Rosecrans: What’s your take if you had to compare them? Starting with No One Is Talking About This.

Chris: I found them both to be ripping reads, but for very different formal reasons. No One Is Talking About This moves with the now very familiar “short paragraph followed by conspicuous white space on the page formula” (the brilliant Jenny Offill is the grandmaster of this contemporary form of the novel); in this case, that white space is punctured by ellipses that denote a passage of time. The paragraphs are engaging, sometimes shocking, and often uncannily familiar in a way that pleases or sickens as it reminds us of our own wasted hours and days in the cyber world. Lockwood has written something that is meant to replicate and perhaps critique the fragmentation of our thoughts into meme-like pockets of information. And the form mirrors that fragmentation. Everything is contextless and thus leads our attention inevitably on to the next fascinating singularity—think TikTok’s endless stream of unrelated mini-vids, cheerleader dropped from the pyramid, to violent interaction with an anti-masker, to trick-shot golfer, to Ukrainians surviving in the subway tunnels below Kyiv—we care about everything and nothing, all at once.

Rosecrans: What about Matrix? Which relies heavily on context.

Chris: Matrix propels by means of our attachment to a developing character, the once-darling orphan of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie, who is exiled to the outskirts of society. Both novels share an interest in what happens when life is radically reduced to certain base elements. In the case of Matrix, those elements are the leftovers when one is stripped of the comforts and blissful ignorance of privilege. In No One Is Talking About This, the base elements are memes, lively visuals evacuated of meaning. Matrix could properly be described as a novel’s novel.

Rosecrans: Ooh that’s interesting. Meaning what?

Chris: Lauren Groff is invested in how language can be structured and manipulated to aesthetic purposes—even moments of abject horror are beautiful in her hands, as any reader of Fates and Furies will remember. She has an old-fashioned dedication to the craft of plotting, and it makes for a more lasting and textured portrait of a life.


This isn’t to say that Lockwood failed; I agree with Judge Flores that No One Is Talking About This is “hilarious [and] self-aware.” It is also deeply sad and mournful, despite its affinity for absurdity. But the clarifying test for me is not whether a book will last, but rather, will it shift the ground beneath us, convince us that what was solid is fractured and tilting, and Matrix is, for me, that book. The irony of arguing that a 12th-century radical nun makes me more aware of the uncertainty of my own existence is not lost on me, but nevertheless Lauren Groff works a kind of transhistorical magic with Matrix, and there’s no contest between these books when read head to head.

But I am dying to know where you would have landed.

Rosecrans: I love your analysis here. For my part, I loved both of these books for very different reasons, but I probably loved No One Is Talking About This more, and oddly enough it was on a sentence level—so many times, I just marveled at where the book took me next. Normally I’d probably choose whichever novel moved me more? And in this case that was Matrix. But I just found No One Is Talking About This so frequently startling, that’s how I’d pick, at least today. (Thankfully I’m not the judge today, or ever!)

I’m curious about the judge mentioning he feels Matrix might be better suited to readers with higher degrees of education. Suggesting, at least to me, that some books, by dint of theme and topic, possess a greater degree of difficulty to understand—and then I’m surprised he picked Matrix of these two books as the one to qualify under those terms. Is it something to do with Matrix being historical, more Mary Wollstonecraft than Joy Williams? I mean, the first half of No One Is Talking About This would be pretty frustrating to parse if you’re not an analytical reader, not to mention at least minimally meme-fluent. You’re an English professor—how do you read that comment?

Chris: I am often struck by the novel’s change in fortunes. It went from being a cultural castoff in the 18th century, regularly cast as morally degrading to the reader (especially women!), to finding itself atop the hierarchy of intellectual pursuits. I’ll be bold and say that great novels don’t require anything beyond literacy and a curious mind from their readers. James Joyce’s Ulysses is famously a novel meant to trip you up and demand things from your reading process, but that has never kept Dubliners of every education level from adoring the novel. The caveat being that—and this is where being a professor biases me terribly—an education, whether formal or autodidactical, can reveal things about context and allusion in a novel that can create resonances with other times and places. Education can make a book sticky; it starts to feel relevant and attached to contexts that might otherwise remain opaque. Is it necessary to know about the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine to fully engage with Matrix? No. But would it add historical, political, and cultural texture to your reading? Absolutely. Similarly, as you point out, having at least a passing familiarity with memes and social media tropes will enrich your reading of No One Is Talking About This. But both books welcome the reader into their worlds.

Rosecrans: I think all of that’s exactly right. Maybe Judge Flores was responding to the lyricism of Groff’s style, which would be interesting, because it read (to me) as more restrained than some of her earlier works.

Chris: My students love lyricism—Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is often their favorite book—but they have trouble with antiquity. Not the setting, but the language itself. If the language doesn’t immediately register as contemporary English, they have to slow their reading down, and sometimes this is a blockade to their enjoyment. Neither of these novels reads as “English from another time.” Rosecrans, what makes a novel difficult for you? And is difficulty a barrier to your enjoyment, or is it a bonus?

Rosecrans: To be honest, sometimes it’s a format thing—an absence of paragraph breaks, or a lack of narrative pull—but even there, I’ve read lots of books that are long blocks of text, or are seemingly plotless, and I’m riveted. But sometimes I just read for style anyway; I heard Dennis Cooper say something similar during an Apology podcast interview recently and felt very seen. Mostly a book is difficult for me when it just sucks. Too cliché, too plain, too rote. I like the tension of not knowing what’s coming next, and the sense that whatever is coming will be interesting. If a book goes flat, I move on.

Chris, thank you so much for joining us today! How can the people find you?

Chris: It has been a real pleasure to commentate with you, Rosecrans. I am excited to see how the final shakes out, and it was a privilege to get to participate. Long live the Rooster! I actually had the pleasure to interview a few of the authors represented on this year’s bracket on my show, Burned by Books: Katie Kitamura, Benjamín Labatut, and Percival Everett. I am also a guest host for Novel Dialogue, a one-of-a-kind literary interview podcast that puts critics in conversation with notable writers like Jennifer Egan, Ruth Ozeki, Colm Tóibín, Damon Galgut, and Chang-rae Lee. Also, my book Kazuo Ishiguro as World Literature is under contract with Bloomsbury Publishing.

Rosecrans: Well crap, we should’ve had you come in on a day involving Klara and the Sun! In any case, fabulous. Major thanks again to Chris and all of this year’s guest commentators.

So, our final is set: Klara and the Sun, which already won last summer’s Camp ToB, and No One Is Talking About This, which lost to Klara and the Sun last summer and finds itself in another faceoff. Who will win? A story about artificial intelligence and robots’ feelings, the eighth novel from a Nobel Prize-winning novelist—or a book about social media and humans’ feelings, a poet’s debut? Well, your guess could win you some prizes. Let me welcome Andrew into the booth regarding our traditional last-minute contest.

Andrew Womack (he/him): That’s right! We’re again running the Contest of the Commentariat to see which two (2) commenters can guess tomorrow’s spread. Each winner will receive a ToB 2022 prize package, which includes a one-year subscription from Field Notes to their Quarterly Limited Editions ($120 value); a $25 gift card from Bookshop; and a piece of ToB merch of their choice.

To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment below (one guess per commenter) with your pick for tomorrow’s winner, along with a prediction of the final tally. There are 17 jurors, so an entry might be “Klara and the Sun, 9-8,” or “No One Is Talking About This, 12-5.”

Good luck, and we’ll see you tomorrow for the championship!


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