No One Is Talking About This
  • March 23, 2022


  • Patricia Lockwood

    1No One Is Talking About This
    3When We Cease to Understand the World

    Benjamín Labatut

  • Judged by

    Maria Dahvana Headley

When We Cease to Understand the World

Beginning in 1983, when I was five, I suffered from a recurring nightmare about a mountain of dirty laundry. I’d been assigned to crush the pile into nothingness, squeezing and smashing and compressing until it could be pinched wholecloth between my thumb and index finger. If I lost vigilance for a moment, I understood it’d explode back into being and fill the universe. I woke up screaming every morning.

Maria Dahvana Headley (she/her) is the New York Times-bestselling author of eight books, across a variety of genres, most recently Beowulf: A New Translation, and The Mere Wife, both from McD x FSG. She is the winner of the 2021 Harold Morton Landon Translation Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the World Fantasy Award, and her work has been shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula, and Shirley Jackson Awards, among others. She grew up in rural Idaho, plucking the winter coat from her father’s wolf. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “Sarah Gailey, Katie Kitamura, and Lauren Groff are casual friends of mine.”

Jump to 2022. I’m now the writer-parent of a toddler whose daycare classroom has been open, as of this writing, a grand total of five days since mid-December. I’m sitting squarely in the middle of a laundry mountain, in a sea of crumbs and tiny plastic objects, trying to crush everything I feel about wrangling acute existential crisis into this essay comparing two unquestionably brilliant books about disaster, Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, and Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West.

It’s been two long years of pandemic and childrearing, and I haven’t read as much as I usually do. I’m therefore happy about/destroyed by the opportunity to let these authors lead me to thinking deeply about the accrued messes that led to this moment. Big bombs. Twitter. Accelerated entropy. Bad blood. Quantum mechanics. Cyanide. Trump. The proliferative nature of the living, even, perhaps especially, in times of catastrophe.

I’m in awe at how Labatut and Lockwood managed to map this terrain. Ambitious? Yes. Gigantic? Yes. Daunting as fuck? Also yes, even to read. I spend two weeks declaiming sections of these books to my toddler and my partner, googling facts in suspicious disbelief, and announcing that I’m definitely, definitely quitting Twitter. I wake up screaming every morning…

I don’t. But I’ve long since come to the conclusion that everything we do as humans, everything that brings our lives meaning, everything that destroys us, falls into the category of strange laundry, done in the dark.

No One Is Talking About This and When We Cease to Understand the World are both investigations into that kind of laundry, through the lens of existential terror. Terror, in this case, includes boredom, compulsion, yearning, and shame, as well as the more classic atrocity category. We get deep into the meaning of knowledge, in both cases, and into the meaning of human relationships. Are we all connected? Is there any moral calculus for anything, when we get right down to it?

The concept of the “heart of the heart”—mathematician Alexander Grothendieck’s phrase for the infinitely elusive Rosetta Stone of theory that could link the entire mathematical universe—is at the core of When We Cease to Understand the World.  The question the book seeks to investigate—not necessarily answer—is what sort of heart that heart might actually be. Neutral? Bad? Horrific? Good isn’t really an option, because even a glimpse of said mysterious heart yields big trouble for everyone who sees it.

The scientists and mathematicians profiled here are seized by horror, madness, and in one case, that of Karl Schwarzschild (whose exact solution to the equation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity yielded accidental side knowledge of the existence of black holes), excruciating death by full-body blisters. The book (is it a novel? Kind of? Is it nonfiction? Kind of?) begins as Lives of the Saints-ish profiles of geniuses foraging for certainty, scientific history done in the style of, say, W.G. Sebald with lashings of Hermann Hesse, and evolves into novelistic depictions of the revelatory cycles of men who become the woeful bearers of great knowledge. It ends with a garden at what feels like the end of the world, an Eden overgrown and full of poison. Men there, too.

The dazzling initial chapter, “Prussian Blue,” a linking of chemistry, warfare, and Cassandran foreknowledge across centuries, is an analysis of scientific sin. Fritz Haber, the Jewish German chemist who developed a method for extracting nitrogen from the air in 1907, thus creating the means for the making of modern nitrogen fertilizers and saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation in the years following, also oversaw the release of chlorine gas at Ypres, Belgium, in 1915, massacring thousands of agonized French soldiers. By the time Haber died in 1934, he’d helped develop the cyanide-based pesticide that became Zyklon B, the bright blue fumigant that would be used in Nazi gas chambers. Haber’s chief guilt though, Labatut relates, was the guilt of verdancy:

His method of extracting nitrogen from the air had so altered the natural equilibrium of the planet that he feared the world’s future belonged not to mankind, but to plants, as all that was needed was a drop in population to pre-modern levels for a few decades to allow them to grow without limit, taking advantage of the excess nutrients humanity had bestowed upon them, to spread out across the earth and cover it completely, suffocating all forms of life beneath a terrible verdure.

The end of the book is a description of the last act of a lemon tree, a wild abundance, lemon after lemon ripening until the branches break and all the lemons fall, covering the ground. A terrible greening. As far as that heart of the heart is concerned, we’re in Conradian territory.

In No One Is Talking About This, the heart of the heart being investigated is that of human longing, recursive culture creation, and collective validation. Has virtual life spilt into reality, and is what exists now a toxic cocktail made of, say, crème de menthe, moscato, and Skinny Girl mix, something that can never be undrunk?

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I admit to feeling jaundiced as I opened No One Is Talking About This. I didn’t want to read a book about Twitter. Twitter exists; this is more than enough. I wanted an escape from pandemic seclusion and its associated internet lives. The good news, immediately obvious? This book is often very, very funny. The bad news? It’s definitely a deep dive into the Twitter abyss. The deep dive ultimately yields something totally unexpected, though.

The unnamed protagonist of the novel is the creator of a viral post about a dog that’s enabled her to make a living commenting on virality. She compulsively circles the “portal,” imbibing all the dopamine that 280 characters can offer, feeling alternately ashamed about and justified in her need to eat the internet. The first half of the book is an elegantly rendered tweet-structured portrait of the portal and its citizens: their class revelations and judgments. A terrible greening can be found here as well, though in this case the greening is the furious proliferation of content.

We took the things we found in the portal as much for granted as if they had grown there, gathered them as God’s own flowers. When we learned they had been planted there on purpose by people who understood them to be poisonous, who were pointing their poison at us, well.



Our enemies! What if they had planted the thing about eating ass, to make us all suddenly want and claim to eat ass, to talk constantly about our devotion to eating ass, to pose on our album covers with napkins tied around our necks, and knives and forks posed over delectable asses?…But no. No, this is how conspiracy thinking began. This is how you became someone who put the whole sky into finger quotes.

“This is too real! Too much real!” I yelped at one point, sounding exactly like the book.

The world-shaping side effects of tailored white noise as emotional landscape are legion, but our protagonist can’t leave it. I just wrote “white nose” which tells you something about the content. It’s an investigation of addiction, and it’s also, eventually, about the cold-turkey quitting of what feels like community, but is, perhaps, just algorithmic engagement—math with a heart emoji wrapped around it. Midway through the book, the protagonist is forced back into being by the birth of her niece, who has Proteus Syndrome, an exceedingly rare condition characterized by relentless cellular overgrowth. The baby’s life will be very short, and the family converges around her crib in grief, the existential crisis taken out of the realm of theory and into actuality. From a book that begins with cryptic wit, comes a deeply humane reckoning.

She sang into the cup of the baby’s ear as she was being washed, for her hearing hung imperceptibly above them, like a big bronze bell now rocked to a stop. Strange, but she couldn’t seem to remember anything but the most universal choruses, jukebox hits, stadium anthems—songs where the radio rested after scanning past the shouting evangelists, where the whole family lifted up together and let whatever the human voice was just fly.

Excess is the engine by which the protagonist rejoins life among the living, and love is the result, overwhelming, unconditional love, the kind of love no one is talking about. Nature wins here again, again with expansion, but this time with hope at its heart. My partner found me weeping at the dinner table.

Still, though, emotional impact wasn’t my only criterion, and even if it had been, I’d have had a difficult time deciding between these two books. They both wrung me out and hung me up. They were both too real. They were both too relevant. They both felt screamingly important and they both filled me with questions and a vigorous urge to not only google, but to hunt down a JSTOR login.

I weighed them based on the things I loved, then based on the things that caused me screaming discomfort, then based on Big Meaning. Finally, I weighed them based on the nature of their respective black holes. What had been compressed out of existence in these books?

Fact and fiction entwine in both, in ways that are sometimes startling. No One Is Talking About This is based on real events, which, for me, increased the feeling of scalding intimacy as the book progressed. The initially factual material in When We Cease to Understand the World is increasingly braided with unmarked fictional elements, and that’s been a source of discomfort for many reviewers. History is as much imagination and curation as it is truth, though, and I write about that all the time myself. I didn’t think the imbrication of fact and fiction would trouble me, and it didn’t. I found the book to be, by and large, riveting, but when I got to the makeup of the genius pool, there was a gap.

I was alternately fascinated and maddened by the way the miseries and revelations of the scientists and mathematicians depicted tend toward the ejaculatory. Repeatedly, the selected geniuses, in times of crisis, hole up in lonely rooms around the continent, woefully jerking off to visions of a teenage girl and the goddess Kali, in the case of Erwin Schrödinger, and in the case of Werner Karl Heisenberg, to visions of Goethe straddling and fellating the corpse of the mystic poet Hafez.

Is this accurate fiction, that spectacular understanding of the construction of the universe has often required a whole lot of masturbation? If the door to Schrödinger’s room is sealed, is he in there, both jerking off and not jerking off? Maybe.

That said, though, there are no genius women jerking their way to clarity in this book. No Marie Curie, no Emmy Noether. There are a few marginal wives, here and there. The only woman given a longer-form character is the end-stage tubercular teenager, one Miss Herwig, whose sleeping body is fondled by Schrödinger after she requests a final math lesson in her bed at their shared sanatorium. Miss Herwig falls asleep as Schrödinger explains wave function, and when, mid-molestation, he pulls back the coverlet that covers the girl, her body has transformed into:

…the goddess of his dreams, a black-skinned corpse covered in suppurating wounds and scabs, her tongue lolling from her smiling skull, while her hands pulled open the shriveled lips of her vagina, where the legs of a massive beetle flailed, trapped in a tangle of snow-white hairs.

Schrödinger quickly flees back to Zurich, where he’s “possessed by genius,” solves his equations, and essentially creates quantum mechanics.

OK, then. Though there’s ample evidence of Schrödinger’s real-life pedophilic tendencies, there is no attempt made in this book to analyze the mechanics of predatory revelation as they’ve been constructed here. Given that the book contains ample analysis of the mechanics of everything else, this is a surprising omission.

The initial premise of When We Cease to Understand the World is that revelatory understanding consistently yields the total intellectual collapse of the revelator. The accrued premise of the book, though, is that revelatory understanding by humans assures the demise of the planet itself. On the one hand, this is an obvious conclusion. Scientia potentia est, after all, and power is rarely peaceful. On the other hand, to this writer and reader, whose life came from access to libraries, and to injectable insulin—well. It left me hunting for a more varied trajectory. The men profiled in this volume are certainly geniuses, but they’ve been curated to reflect catastrophe. Though I began the book turning pages quickly, totally obsessed and feeling as though I was expanding my knowledge of breakthroughs, however ghastly, by the end, the narrative had shrunk to a series of intricately described sickrooms, and I was slumped on a chair by the window, looking out at a snowstorm, unable to see anything beautiful about it.

When We Cease to Understand the World feels invested in the idea that the existential crises are the genius condition, not the universal human condition. If a person of radical intellect investigates too deeply, it tells us, and understands too much, then that person will be overwhelmed. I’m unconvinced. It seems that to be human, whoever you might be, is to be periodically paralyzed by the enormity, to struggle against the heaving size and meaning of the universe and all the people, lemon trees, and laundry in it. No One Is Talking About This’s take on the same themes, the crisis of living here, on this planet, the long story of bleakness, bewilderment, and injustice, is that love can stun and reshape us, no matter who we are. To me, the arc of transformation is a more compelling and complicated arc than the arc of destabilization, even of profound destabilization, and so I award this round to No One Is Talking About This.

TODAY’S WINNER: No One Is Talking About This

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Match Commentary

By Isaac Miller & Rosecrans Baldwin

Rosecrans Baldwin (he/him): Hello, everybody, and welcome to another day in the Tournament of Books. And when we have a great judgment such as this, it’s a great day in the ToB. I’m joined today in conversation by Isaac Miller. Isaac, please introduce yourself.

Isaac Miller (he/him): Hello, Rosecrans and my fellow Commentarians. I’ve been a proud Tournament of Books completist and participant since 2020 when the pandemic kicked off, though that’s only by coincidence. I read voraciously, and in my spare time I teach English virtually in an Oklahoma school district.

Rosecrans: We’ve had more than a few Oklahomans here over the years! Well, Judge Headley has given us a lot to talk about. The terror of laundry piles, the beating heart of “deeply humane reckoning,” and an utter lack of genius women sticking their hands down their pants. Where do we start? I mean, just this line by the judge is enough for me: “Everything we do as humans, everything that brings our lives meaning, everything that destroys us, falls into the category of strange laundry, done in the dark.”

Isaac: I think Judge Headley nailed it in saying these are two unquestionably brilliant books that seem very different on the surface but end up grappling with very similar issues, especially that of human reckoning with the overwhelming nature of existence. I’ve been a foster parent before, but even now that it’s just my wife and I at home we still have to deal with piles of laundry that move back and forth in states of dirty and needs-to-be-folded. I should probably focus more on that and less with my to-be-read book pile, but it stresses me out, and so things go unfinished lest I stare into the abyss of an empty laundry hamper. So I strongly connected with that part.

Rosecrans: I’ve got to think that pretty much everybody, especially post-lockdown, can relate to laundry nightmares.

Isaac: I also agree with the reasoning behind Judge Headley’s decision. As incisive as it is, When We Cease to Understand the World ends up reading like a research paper in which the student ignored any information which didn’t support its premise, which is that genius, specifically of the masculine variety, put to the task of seeking knowledge at the heart of everything, yields only negative results like madness, isolation, and/or grisly death. While the omission of female figures is definitely an issue, it might be a blessing in disguise considering what happens to all the men.

Rosecrans: I felt the same. Like the judge, I was rapt in the beginning, gradually lost traction, then by the end felt a bit like a dead lemon myself.

Isaac: When we get to the lemon tree dying from an overabundance of fruit, I was reminded of the phrase “When life gives you lemons, say thank you, because life doesn’t owe you anything, and hey, free lemons!” For Labutut, this heavy lemon death (band name, called it)—

Rosecrans: Lol.


Isaac: The heavy lemon death is a bookend to Fritz Haber’s nightmares about the world drowning in verdure. To Lockwood, however, the lemons handed to her semi-autobiographical narrator give her a greater appreciation for life, and that is far more compelling to me than Grothendieck’s retreat from it. But how about yourself? What connected for you?

Rosecrans: I really appreciated the judge addressing how relevant these books are to the moment, and how that’s both enriching and off-putting. Some days I want escapism and alternate worlds. Some days I want to read fiction that feels torn from the newspaper, and I definitely rate it a little differently. I guess when fiction soaks into my reality, I feel a stronger confidence to say if it’s getting things right or wrong. And if I sense it’s wrong, my trigger’s a little more sensitive—the trigger that, being pulled, flings the book against the wall.

Isaac: I definitely feel that way, too. For me that happened while reading Bewilderment by Richard Powers off of this year’s long list. Having it set in a world a few clicks worse than this one, in which Trump is reelected, the environment is in even more peril, and people can connect their consciousness with dead people’s, for me detracted and distracted from the father-son bond at the heart of the novel. I don’t mind a mix of fact and fiction, which is something I feel like Labutut pulled off very well in his novel. I just think it should make sense and help the story and be something that the reader doesn’t even notice; otherwise it just feels like a pointless Jacob’s Ladder scenario. Is it just me, or has this sort of set-in-the-real-world-but-not-quite mode become more of a trend in contemporary fiction of late?

Rosecrans: You certainly see a lot of it. And maybe market forces play a part. The broad, sweeping realistic novel doesn’t seem to find traction these days in the same fashion as the small and singular. Does a contemporary The Bonfire of the Vanities become a national hit in today’s culture? Anyway. You’ve read both books, right?

Isaac: I read both of them last year, but that was several dozen books ago for me, so I reread them after reading Judge Headley’s decision.

Rosecrans: Wow, commitment!

Isaac: Luckily they’re both about the same length as the judgment itself. Call it confirmation bias, but I really did read them with an open mind and found myself in complete agreement with the decision she made. No One Is Talking About This is a book that deserves to be talked about and move on in the Tournament because it cuts like a knife straight to the heart of what it’s like to be a person navigating this social-media universe supposedly connected to the masses while dealing with the reality that what you’re really hooked into is a corporate algorithm—present company excluded—only to have that vision and version of the world pulled out from under you and shrunk to the size of a tiny person. I thought of the ending of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and its last, devastating line “You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.” To me, good fiction is about making that sort of human connection, paring life down to, yes, the heart of the heart and showing us what we’re made of. Moving into the future, When We Cease to Understand the World seems to say “proceed with caution.” No One Is Talking About This says “proceed with love.” I’m a softie, but for me love wins everytime.

Rosecrans: I have nothing to say to that except, bravo! Isaac, thank you so much for joining us today. Readers, we’ll see you in the comments.


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