No One Is Talking About This
  • March 15, 2022

    Opening Round

  • Patricia Lockwood

    1No One Is Talking About This
    4Several People Are Typing

    Calvin Kasulke

  • Judged by

    Megan Giddings

Several People Are Typing

I’m uncomfortable saying a book that was a Good Morning America Book Club pick is underhyped. But Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing should get more recognition for how truly ambitious this book is. It’s set up as only being inside Slack and has to follow all the maddening logic of Slack, from side groups to bots, to the infuriating languages and social cultures that offices make for themselves.

Megan Giddings (she/her) is an assistant professor at Michigan State University and a mentor in Antioch University’s (Los Angeles) low-residency MFA program. Megan’s first novel, Lakewood, was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Lakewood was an NPR Book of the Year, one of New York Magazine’s 10 Best Books of 2020, and a Michigan Notable Book for 2021. Megan’s second novel, The Women Could Fly, will be published by Amistad in August 2022. You can learn more about her at Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

This book has to do several things that readers expect novels to do (characters, ideas, plot, setting, worldbuilding) while balancing an understanding of Slack and potential readers’ understanding of that software designed to ostensibly be a place of business communications and workflow. The first half of this novel was maybe the most exciting book I read last year because it takes an absurd premise while navigating all those craft elements: As Gerald No-Last-Name-Given awoke from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a sentient Slackbot. The rest of his colleagues think he is doing a bit until one of them finally agrees to check in on him. “I’m going to treat this like cat sitting, okay?” a character decides after seeing Gerald’s “Slack-Coma.” The rest of the office is obsessed with their work, their romances, and all the petty dehumanizing tasks of a modern American office place. Things continue to escalate on Gerald’s end, but for many of the workers involved in the novel, their plots move around the petty intrigues of the office: who gets a prime desk location, who is perceived as “productive,” and covering up a workplace romance.

While this has been called an “internet novel,” the book’s attention is primarily focused on the workplace as a culture. Please don’t hate me for this, but it might be better termed as a “software novel.” The questions Several People Are Typing asks via Gerald are closer to: What does it mean to be in a space that primarily values you for being efficient? How does it feel to genuinely ask your workplace for help and instead have conversation after conversation that is instead about productivity?

But around the last 60 pages, I started struggling a lot with this novel. It might be because it leans toward a tidiness that fights against the absurdity needed for a contemporary satire. Maybe I was frustrated because there’s subtext throughout of how dehumanizing the American office environment is and then the ending pages look away from having anyone fully react to that. It’s hard not to raise my eyebrows at a book that ends with Gerald not at all really impacted or disillusioned by the experience. Gerald, still on Slack, is reminded by his boss near the end, “@gerald still waiting on that blog post about wfh productivity can’t slow down now…,” and Gerald responds with a simple, “yup/working on it.”

Maybe it’s because the attempts at tying things together end up pointing toward real-life complacency. Or maybe it feels like too big of a win for corporate America: Your employees can be taken over by AI, they will have to wear diapers and live on protein shakes force-fed to them, but they will be deeply productive, and they won’t care that all you cared about is them cranking out press releases and writing tweets while they were possessed by the bland poltergeist known as Slackbot. Maybe it’s also the times. There is no absurdity now versus when it was written because the majority of us are in positions where we are risking our health and future autonomy in the name of productivity.

* * *

There were multiple times where in the opening half of No One Is Talking About This that I put the book down and said “deuces,” sure I was never going to return. The book is centered around a nameless cis white woman who has earned her living and notoriety by being very good at the internet, aka “the portal.” It’s written in the third person most of the time; the camera can only see this woman’s preoccupations with the internet but very few defining characteristics of her corporeal life or body except she is often away from home.

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This is what I would call an internet novel. It demonstrates the snarls and tangles that come from scrolling, from absorbing ideas and language but never pausing to question those things before reproducing them. This does not mean No One Is Talking About This is divorced from the specters of race, class, and gender. The concerns of this internet novel are deeply white, liberal, and upper middle class. Which is fine, but a lot of the coverage around this novel has seemed to take on a weird, early-’90s vibe that still treats the internet as a place that transcends all these earthly concerns simply because the novel refers to it as “the portal,” and I’m salty about that perspective. Several People Are Typing could be categorized under the same criteria in terms of race—although there are more diverse characters—but does spend much more time emphasizing the financial needs of these characters.

The main character in No One Is Talking About This is traveling the world as a paid lecturer on the portal, aka dank memes, aka Twitter, aka Reddit hellscapes, aka have opinions on Juno vs. Nashville vs. Lo-Fi. How language that can be used to give its user a serotonin ping also begins to degrade their quality of expression, which then begins to degrade their sense of being an individual: “Was it better to resist the new language where it stole, defanged, co-opted, consumed, or was it better to text thanksgiving titties be poppin to all your friends on the fourth Thursday of November…”

The language of this book fails often when it comes to discussing issues of race and wealth and politics. It does capture how social media posts can sound initially good, but when you start to think about what they’re signaling, what many posts are saying is at their deepest: attention, please. There is a section I found pretty tasteless about Heather Heyer’s death by white supremacists that demonstrates everything wrong with internet activism. No, we are not all Heather Heyer! She was an actual young woman who died for her beliefs against white supremacy. In a passage that seems weirdly unwilling to say the word “Black,” the book tries to describe seemingly almost everything about LeBron James, even going so far as to address the “pink tips of his fingers.” It’s noticeable in a book that seems to relish play and the delights of language how often the language changes or darts away from issues of race, especially when it comes to Blackness. The person being observed, who the book refers to as “she,” can fantasize about plopping on a blonde wig and seducing the former president in a James Bond-esque assassination attempt. The novel often demonstrates who exactly gets to dehumanize themselves for pleasure versus those who are never able to disconnect from the real world and its persistent dehumanization against us whenever we venture outside our safe communities. There are times where the book shifts from the third person to a plural we, a rhetorical move that might make a reader feel included, or, if you’re like me, brings out the annoying scold part of your personality that folds her arms and says No, do not involve me in this.

No One Is Talking About This takes a profound turn in the second half when real trouble stretches its way into the main character’s life. The protagonist’s niece has been diagnosed with a genetic disease. Her sister, who is carrying the child, is at risk of dying from pregnancy complications. The book is specific about the policies Ohio has in place that could force this baby to be born and don’t give a shit about the mother and her health. Rarely do novels capture the specific insidious mechanisms of the state as clearly as this one does in its latter half.

I did not expect that the back half of this novel would make me think about Levin from Anna Karenina. It often feels that many contemporary novelists are actively in conversation with that novel, that the only way human brains come close to being truly engaged with life is via suffering and labor. To truly feel, static comfort must be deserted. It’s hard not to feel like this novel isn’t reaffirming in some ways a commitment to those now 144-year-old ideas. One of the reasons why I was so enamored of the beginning of Several People Are Typing is because it feels like a book leaning toward an argument against this notion. Even though the white-collar workers in that novel aren’t doing anything close to hard labor, the anxieties of always having to measure yourself against how others perceive your abilities cloud their abilities to truly live. The more Gerald becomes productive and efficient, the more his personality begins to bleed away, leaving behind only the “helpful” language of Slackbot.

No One Is Talking About This in its second half shows the intensity and vividness of loss with necessary sentimentality. Please don’t think the word “sentimentality” is an insult; it’s praise here, in a book that for its majority is so obsessed with language, the sentimentality is necessary to make this book have consequences and life. When death happens, the family searches for the smells of the lost one. When a surprise life happens, the family relishes in firsts: “I think she’s hearing rain for the very first time. The first flake of the snow of everything, now wild and warm.” I love that second sentence deeply and in a way it summarizes the second part of this book so well. In the middle of the wound, the family comes together. The novel doesn’t tie things up—no one is left off easily—but shows that maybe it isn’t the suffering that makes us feel alive, but it’s the ways that we persevere throughout and in the aftermath that recommit us to living.

I’m picking No One Is Talking About This. It made me so frustrated. It also made me cry throughout the latter half of the book in spite of myself. It sometimes made me laugh. Despite all these things, I never checked out. Every page made me actively engage. It’s the book—and I’m not at all trying to pun here—I most wanted to talk to other people about after reading because it captures a painful snapshot of the ways some people understand life and one another are shaped by the internet.

TODAY’S WINNER: No One Is Talking About This

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Match Commentary

By Elisa Shoenberger & Meave Gallagher

Meave Gallagher (she/her): Hello and welcome to the second week of the Tournament! Writer, historian, and erstwhile world traveler Elisa Shoenberger joins me in the commentary booth today from Chicago. Hello, Elisa! Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Elisa Shoenberger (she/her): Hello! I’m so thrilled to be here. A dream come true! I work in fundraising research by day and am a freelance journalist by night and day. I write about a lot of things, but books would be my biggest area—I write for Book Riot, and have written on books for the Rumpus, Murder & Mayhem, Earth Island Journal, and many more.

Meave: A jobbing freelancer and a full-on book person! What’s your history with the Tournament of Books?

Elisa: I discovered the ToB in 2011 and it’s still my favorite thing on the internet. Favorite thing. I love getting to see into people’s thought processes.

Meave: I know what you mean. Reading anything good lately?

Elisa: I just finished Alexander Maksik’s The Long Corner (due out in May), which I really liked. In addition to everything else, I’m co-editor and co-founder of The Antelope: A Journal of Mischief and Mayhem, and I’m a mother to a 17-month-old child.

Meave: I have to ask: Can an Elisa be twins? How do you manage to accomplish so much as a sole human person? It’s very impressive. Now, to the judgment! It would seem Judge Giddings had some reservations about giving the win to either of these novels. I know which I prefer, but you spill first.

Elisa: I have read both books. I prefer Several People Are Typing; it was a beautiful merge of form and meaning. I’ve been using Slack at work since 2016, and thought it caught the culture on Slack perfectly.

Meave: The culture, the tone, the spelled-out emojis—I really loved it. The whole dog food campaign…episode? I died.

Elisa: I didn’t love No One Is Talking About This. I was often lost in the references in the first half. I’m a big fan of books taking chances with structure and format, so it was doubly disappointing. Or maybe I’m just not “with it” in terms of my knowledge of internet culture. But the second half hit me like a ton of bricks. The story of her niece broke my heart and made the book come to life. I think I have to acknowledge that my life and my reading interests have changed since I had my kid.

Meave: You know, I wanted to like No One Is Talking About This more than I did. But Judge Giddings is not kidding around with her critique of Several People Are Typing: “There is no absurdity now versus when [Several People Are Typing] was written because the majority of us are in positions where we are risking our health and future autonomy in the name of productivity.” Which actually reminded me of Amelia Horgan’s savaging of Out of Office, whose authors attempt to prescribe improvements to remote office work. A line from Horgan—“Disentangling your identity from your work is easier said than done when a great deal of contemporary work compels their entwinement”—seemed perfectly complementary to Judge Giddings’s argument that the inciting absurdity in Several People Are Typing is moot: It’s almost reality already.

Elisa: That’s tricky. Several People Are Typing feels more pitch-perfect now than it did if it had come out pre-pandemic. If anything, it should resonate even more with people who are “risking [their] health and future autonomy in the name of productivity.”

Meave: Ugh, especially with the whole “back to the office” push by CEOs whose arguments all boil down to “I want to see my employees typing when I swan through the office once a week” or whatever. Leave people alone, FastCompany.

Elisa: Maybe Several People Are Typing’s neat ending might be what Judge Giddings is reacting to. It’s too clean and tidy, and that might have dimmed the book. If it had leaned into the ending, went even more over the top, it would have hammered home its point even more strongly. But it’s always a balance. I recently read The Cabinet by Un-su Kim, translated by Sean Lin Halbert, which has its own absurd take on the modern workplace, but the strange ending still felt clichéd.


There’s also the question of the one coworker who quits to do her dream job. It feels a bit like a punchline to a pre-pandemic world, but now with the Great Resignation, it seems natural that someone would walk away from a mediocre job to do something meaningful. So that might add to Judge Giddings questioning the book’s relevance.

Meave: Oh, excellent point. I do appreciate how the judge ties her critiques to reality—maybe as a sort of reply to the distorted realities of both novels? I enjoyed Judge Giddings’s wrestling with the “dehumanization” and “disconnection” of people from their fellows via apps like Slack or platforms like Twitter, as she says that No One Is Talking About This “captures how social media posts can sound initially good, but when you start to think about what…many posts are saying is at their deepest: attention, please.” Which I’d say is one of Lockwood’s Whole Deals, right?

Elisa: This was the first I’d heard of Lockwood, to be honest. It took me a while to get what she was referring to in the book. I was a bit lost with the references, despite being online more than I should, but I am one of the last people to get pop trends.

After reading it I was interested in seeing the novel’s initial form on the internet with the memes embedded. I realized that there were more references that I knew, but perhaps I wasn’t expecting to read a description of a meme instead of the meme itself.

Meave: OK, “I wasn’t expecting to read a description of a meme” is so funny. Elisa!

Elisa: There’s so much “there there,” to steal a phrase, that there’s no way to encompass it all. So it’s natural for it to be splintered as she wrote it. Or if you want to think of ominous algorithms, we’re seeing what the social media site wants us to see. Thinking of it that way works way much better for me.

Meave: To be honest, I also don’t get the conclusion of the judge’s opening riff about No One’s plot: “ …aka have opinions on Juno vs. Nashville vs. Lo-Fi”—it feels snide in a very online way, though I couldn’t articulate why. Judge Giddings says she gave the win to No One Is Talking About This because “it captures a painful snapshot of the ways some people understand life and one another are shaped by the internet.” That is a complex summary. It’s interesting how her criticisms of Lockwood’s narrator-of-the-portal sort of fall away when the narrator is forced to engage in life outside the portal, and confront emotions immediately instead of through the medium of the internet. Like, you know, life finds a way.

Elisa: Hmm…It’s admittedly been a bit since I read No One Is Talking About This, but I felt Lockwood was setting up this dichotomy with the internet is where we spend our time, too much time, but it’s “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” while the things that really matter are the ones we can see with our own eyes. I too was blown away by sentences that Judge Giddings quoted: “I think she’s hearing rain for the very first time…” It feels like it connects to the title—why do we talk about all this stuff on the internet and not about a child’s first experience with sunlight? Or the riveting pain of knowing you have a finite amount of time with someone? It may even be a commentary on how we don’t share meaningful things on social media or how we tend to hide our struggles. Or maybe it’s a book form of yelling at kids to get off their devices.

Meave: You and the judge are definitely on to something with that passage. By rewarding No One Is Talking About This, Giddings seems to reject the lesson of Anna Karenina she proposes earlier, “that the only way human brains come close to being truly engaged with life is via suffering and labor.” Instead, Giddings praises the second half of No One Is Talking About This for depicting raw joy as much as raw pain, all these emotions swirling around the baby and reconnecting the narrator with her family as whole humans. Not perfect people, but certainly three-dimensional. Maybe I liked No One Is Talking About This better than I thought; thanks, Judge Giddings.

Elisa: I think I have a healthier respect for the book than I thought I would. I do like it when I think books are one thing and then another. It’s hard to surprise me in books these days. I also think that joy and sadness are often two sides of the same coin.

Meave: Speaking of surprises, the big question: Any predictions or hopes for the win this year?

Elisa: I am sad to see Several People Are Typing leaving so soon. Maybe it will come back roaring for brains in the Zombie Round? I think No One Is Talking About This will go very far—it was the darling of all the best of 2021 lists. But I want Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence to take it all. That book…dang.

Meave: You gotta keep the faith, especially when the books are so good. Well, thank you very much for joining me in the commentary booth today, Elisa. You’ve kept me on my toes the whole time. I’m so glad and grateful to talk with a(nother) ToB superfan, and I wish you the best of luck with your many, many future endeavors. Remind the friendly people where they can find you and your work?

Elisa: Thank you! This has been a real dream come true to be a tiny part of this all. You can find me at my website or tweet at me at @vogontroubadour.


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