Satire and heartache collide in the Priestdaddy author’s funny portrait of a woman’s real and online life

Patricia Lockwood’s 2017 memoir Priestdaddy was, on the face of it, the story of a comically eccentric Catholic upbringing in midwest America. But it also recounted a life shaped just as forcefully by the internet, where Lockwood found an education (after her family stopped her going to university), a husband, and a break: the autobiographical poem Rape Joke, from a 2012 collection issued by a small indie press, went viral only when an online magazine ran it a year later – at which point a poetry editor at Penguin suddenly remembered he had one of Lockwood’s manuscripts sitting on his desk.

In 2019 Lockwood published a third-person diary of what she half-jokingly called her mental “disintegration” as a result of spending too much time on Twitter, or “the portal”, ever more grimly addictive in the wake of Trump’s election. Delivered as a lecture at the British Museum before being printed in the London Review of Books, it took the form of a feed-like stream of quasi-satirical reflections on the oddities of online life, as experienced by a Lockwood-adjacent “she” who finds herself sought after as an authority on internet culture, thanks to her much-circulated social media post: “Can a dog be twins?”

When Lockwood told the audience it was a taster of a book in progress, I didn’t imagine she meant fiction. Seeing it again here as the first part of her debut novel, I wondered how she would wring any kind of story from material that seemed essentially observational in quality. Yet I also found myself laughing too much to care: at one point, the protagonist, inexplicably spending “hypnotized hours of her life… posting OH YES HUNNY in response to old images of Stalin”, puts down her cup of tea and then can’t find it again, struck by the sense that she must have put it inside her phone – the kind of warning sign that makes her ask her husband to lock her phone away in a safe crafted from a hollowed-out dictionary whose spine, tellingly, reads “NEW ENGLISH”.

Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole

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