The protagonist of Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler’s first novel, is a thirty-something writer with a job in digital media. She spends ‘all day on the internet, and especially on Twitter, ostensibly looking for stories but mainly just looking’. It’s January 2017, just after Donald Trump’s election, and something’s up. She’s suspicious of Felix, her boyfriend of eighteen months: ‘Felix had revealed himself to be completely unrevealing, insisting over and over as I baited and nagged and implored him to tell me his innermost hopes, fears and childhood-formed biases either that there was nothing to tell or, conflictingly, that he’d told me everything already and it wasn’t his fault if I didn’t remember.’ His personality is ‘a very detailed negative space’. She snoops on his phone one night and finds a fake Instagram profile: @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_.
The topics ranged from science to politics to business to national security and were illustrated by images heavy-handed and amateur: crisp blue skies crisscrossed with lines of puffy white; doctored gatherings of Barack Obama with George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jacob Rothschild, one of their arms stuck out at an unnatural angle to point a gun at the viewer; frowning women next to cell phones emitting harmful energies; the blurry Twin Towers in the moments before and after they were struck; all inscribed with warnings in big, artless fonts. The government at fault somehow. The Jews at fault somehow. Incredible, unbelievable facts.
She doesn’t know how to ask him about his profile, or his duplicitousness. Instead she considers the advantage she’s gained in discovering the fake account. She tells herself she wanted to break up with him anyhow. ‘Why was I with him?’ she asks herself. The answer begins straightforwardly enough – he was her tour guide on a Berlin pub crawl – then meanders until it resolves into a version of the ‘About Me’ page once common on Tumblr:
Keep in mind that right now, at the outset of this paragraph, I don’t completely know the answer – that this writing is as much an effort to better understand myself, the person I can’t help but feel is the most important figure in this narrative (if not, apologies, the most intriguing), as it is an effort to enchant an audience, promote certain principles I feel are lacking in contemporary literature, interpret events both world-historical and interpersonal (perhaps at the same time) etc.
This ironic self-examination puts the protagonist somewhere between @laurenoyler (the character’s description of her Twitter avatar matches the author’s profile pic) and Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces (although she’d hate to be compared to him). She feels superior to everyone around her: ‘The people at my yoga studio, which was on the more bourgeois side of my neighbourhood, were primarily white women living in Brooklyn, and although I too was a white woman living in Brooklyn, I of course did not identify as such, since the description usually signified someone selfish, lazy, and in possession of superficial understandings of complex topics such as racism and literature.’
While wondering what she ought to do about her boyfriend’s burner account, she carpools with a colleague to Washington DC to attend the first Women’s March. While she’s there, she gets a call from Felix’s mother, who tells her that he has been killed in a cycling accident. This doesn’t prompt an emotional response, only more commentary. ‘At one point I said something like, Did they take him to the hospital? because I felt my thoughtlessness was not appropriate and it was the only question that occurred to me.’ Conversational silence, like the draft page for the content management system she uses at work, is nothing more than empty space waiting to be filled. Over lunch in DC with her friend Jeremy, the narrator reasons her way to a silver lining:
I started thinking it, at least now I didn’t have to break up with him, so I imagined Jeremy had been thinking it the whole time. We had that in common, selfish black humour, always saying things our mothers kind of gasped at, first because we wanted to test them out and then because we became more comfortable with – and better at defending – the selfish black thoughts. What can you do when something is that shocking but react reflexively? It was a guilty thought but it was the obvious thought. I think anyone in my position, not that many people would ever find themselves there, would think it.
The repetition of ‘think’ doesn’t signal any particular thoughtfulness on the narrator’s part. It points, rather, to half-finished ideas, to what a writing teacher I once had called the ‘vomit draft’ – the first attempt at getting thoughts down. It begins to feel as though the book’s section breaks, indicated by three asterisks in a row, are merely pauses between the character’s unedited, incessantly articulated impressions.
Between these aimless (if pithy) ruminations, Oyler’s writing can be precise, even dazzling. The narrator observes of one character that ‘he had a soft, uneven voice that despite his antagonism was difficult to hear; he would emphasise certain syllables unexpectedly and then pause, as if his voice were tiptoeing across a hardwood floor in the night, interrupting its journey following an errant step on a creaking board to assess whether it had caused a stirring in the bedroom.’ This woke me up, and in passages like this she jolts us out of the anesthetised state engendered by her character’s malaise.
Fake Accounts is divided into sections – ‘Beginning’, ‘Backstory’, ‘Middle (Something Happens)’, ‘Middle (Nothing Happens)’, ‘Climax’ and ‘End’ – a structure that plays on the reading time estimates now common on websites (attempts to anticipate and manage the reader’s concentration span). The headings are signposts to nowhere, or all lead to much the same place. After taking time to grieve, or to perform grief, or to describe the level of grief she aspires to but fails to achieve, the protagonist moves to Berlin, where she continues the lifestyle she had in Brooklyn, though swapping writing for babysitting, which isn’t unlike the hand-holding she did when she worked in online media.
Fake Accounts has a plot and things happen, but the narrator’s running monologue – at once airy and cantankerous – means that the events occur on a single plane, from Felix’s death to her move to Berlin, to her experiences with dating apps and what she sees on Twitter. It’s all wearying, or interesting, or better yet, an example of parataxis. Our protagonist doesn’t change in any perceptible way. She feels confused in her new home and occasionally longs for clarity, or requires translation, but those feelings are swiftly addressed using her phone, or by retreating inside her own head. She remains essentially static, despite the nice descriptions of Berlin’s Neukölln neighbourhood. The point isn’t that Oyler’s character is supposed to ‘grow’ by going abroad. Trendy metropolitan enclaves are much the same around the world – especially if you plan to spend a lot of time online, which she does. So what is the point?
The ‘global hipster’ is nothing new: the writer Jace Clayton identified the phenomenon in 2009. The following year, Twitter announced the release of the New Twitter Experience, the precursor to the app we use today. This update allowed users to view ‘inline media’ or links or photographs without leaving the website, turning Twitter into a one-stop data-mining town and its users into a captive data pool. The narrator of Fake Accounts is conditioned to all of this. Twitter is her work, her social life, her news feed, her addiction. She is old enough to have been a hipster in the early 2000s and to have moved on. She now namedrops Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, Ikea’s Malm furniture, Joan Didion, Andrea Dworkin. But instead of truly getting the fuck out, or selling out, or moving far enough away to drop her pose, she has become a cog in the global branding cognoscenti. In Brooklyn, she wrote advertising copy, possibly for a class of people too dumb or smug to realise that they missed the lightning, or Pabst Blue Ribbon, in a bottle. As she explains: ‘I’d had a couple of small student loans and paid them off doing freelance work I never told anyone about because it was embarrassing. (Copywriting, not sex, which I at least might have written about later.)’ Her observations are marked by the particular tone of familiarity that advertisers use to suggest intimacy. Both the language – and the products themselves – inspire consumption (in this case, the buying of ideas, a point of view), but not a radical reframing of the subject on offer. Acting in the same way as the ads that appear between tweets, these similar modes of address become enmeshed in the narrator’s consciousness.
In this context, the reader becomes pure attention, a critical consciousness, an assumed audience. She refers to a chorus of dudes from her past: ‘OK, get to the point, my ex-boyfriends are saying from the audience, not unkindly but not kindly either.’ There’s always an audience if you’re someone with a smartphone, a social media influencer or just paranoid. But the lack of connection is not only a problem of address, but of artifice. Consider her tactic for creating false intimacy:
It was a strategy I often used with my mother: offer some tidbit of what most people would consider intimate information but which you do not care about sharing with others – anything romantic is what I choose – and the person thinks they are close with you, that they know some essential thing about your character, and you can get whatever you want from them, including to be rid of them at your leisure.
Is that the enterprise of the novel? Is the text we’re reading an accretion of tidbits carefully curated to suggest intimacy? Instead of putting down the book when we’re done are we being cast off once the narrator has finished harvesting our attention?
Oyler is good at capturing the mood of online engagement, but less successful when it comes to the emotional impulse behind her protagonist’s Twitter addiction. The site’s algorithm is designed to promote content that triggers a strong emotional response in users, so what is it that keeps the narrator scrolling? Like the huddle of women in pink pussy hats who walk past her in Washington DC earlier in the novel, it’s only partially glimpsed. The narrator is so absorbed in her own detachment that it’s hard to see past the obfuscation. In an interview in January, Oyler said that in writing Fake Accounts she wanted to take on the challenge of ‘narrativis[ing] the internet in [a] meaningful or compelling way’ and ‘to think about a lot of these questions about the self and about autofiction and the relationship between the author and their books’. It’s hard to dramatise the experience of being always online, and harder still to make it feel consequential. All the chatter gives the reader the dizzying sense of being permanently online, but doesn’t reveal anything meaningful about the characters, the narrator included.
Although she admits that she is ‘dependent on social media for a humiliatingly large percentage of [her] self-esteem, social life and reading material’, that dynamic is never animated, or maybe it gets lost in the narrator’s other impressions. This is a misstep. In an aside on the use of the ‘feelings’ meme – represented by a Twitter banner of a pink neon sign spelling out the word ‘FEELINGS’ – the narrator explains that ‘the seriousness of the object of the feelings was usually inversely proportional to the strength with which they were announced’. Perhaps that’s an explanation for the lack of real interest the narrator demonstrates, but if so, it seems like a cop-out. ‘I had identified with the impulse to express profligately at times, though I tried not to act on it, because the people who declared their emotions in this way were annoying,’ she says, before concluding, ‘feelings are nothing like a pink neon sign at all.’ But what are they like? I never found out.
Reviewing Fake Accounts alongside Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking about This, Brandon Taylor wrote:
I’m not totally sure I believe in the Internet Novel as an aesthetic project … There are no black people in these novels. And what black people do exist only exist as superficial spoilers to liberal complacency. The modes and mores depicted in both novels are almost entirely to do with white people in the media and in the arts. And the depravity that each novel sees as the moral and social endpoint to online life also seems particularly couched in the decay of certain white liberal values.
The pervasive whiteness of Fake Accounts sometimes appears unconscious. The easy deployment of the term ‘white supremacy’, the myopia of certain comments – these moments lend the book an unwitting verisimilitude, at least to readers outside its presumed audience. The narrator can’t bring herself to care very much about Felix’s fake account or the effects of the Trump years; her political engagement goes no deeper than the disaffection characteristic of her tribe. Of course, this hypocrisy is part of the point, but her capture by 21st-century technology is fundamentally self-serving. Bunk that – she’s an unrepentant liar. We don’t even know her name! She routinely points up her own disingenuousness. ‘This was a terrible suggestion, I thought, so I told them, Good idea.’ She believes that her generation – millennials who grew up in the West during a period of rapidly expanding internet access – are peculiarly able to analyse the impact of the technological revolution:
People often say my generation values authenticity. Reluctantly I will admit to being a member of my generation. If we value authenticity it’s because we’ve been bombarded since our impressionable preteen years with fakery but at the same time are uniquely able to recognise, because of the unspoiled period that stretched from our birth to the moment our parents had the screeching dial-up installed, the ways in which we casually commit fakery ourselves. We are also uniquely unwilling to let this self-awareness stop us. I had thought, then, before accountability became a word everyone used, that explaining oneself and one’s motives was an appropriate addendum to an apology, that an explanation was almost better than an apology, because an explanation gave you something to do beyond accept or reject; it allowed you to understand.
But is this analysis or just another symptom? Is the tone of ‘rote, pseudo-intellectual dismissiveness’ she adopts in her work any different from her own voice?
Towards the end of the book, the narrator switches gears and begins to critique the principles she feels are lacking in contemporary literature more pointedly (an ambition she mentions in passing earlier in the novel). Listening to a podcast interview with an author who writes the supposedly new style of novel, she reflects:
Lots of women were writing fragmented books like this now, the interviewer pointed out. Having read several because they were easy to finish, I couldn’t help but object: this trendy style was melodramatic, insinuating utmost meaning where there was only hollow prose, and in its attempts to reflect the world as a sequence of distinct and clearly formed ideas, it ran counter to how reality actually worked. Especially, I had to assume, if you had a baby, which is a purposeful experience (don’t let it die) but also chaotic (it might die). Since the interviewer and the author agreed there was something distinctly feminine about this style, I felt guilty admitting it, but I saw no other choice: I did not like the style.
In a smart and funny section, the character tries out the style herself, deciding that ‘maybe if I wrote like this I would better understand them.’ These fragments of light literary criticism are interwoven with her reflections on the German visa process; as she attempts to integrate into a new country, she’s also trying to make, and resisting, a stylistic accommodation with a mode foreign to her own sensibility. The section is comprised of fragments, and includes a sex scene titled ‘Sex Scene’; mock concern about messing up or failing to employ the structure properly; her observation that ‘the advantage of switching from fiction to non- was that you no longer had to worry about being believable’; a comment on how the books for sale in Urban Outfitters could be improved; a meditation on the fragmented literary structure as an attempt to mimic modern life and so on.
‘What can we learn from literature?’ the protagonist asks. ‘Sometimes things may feel like they’ve been going on forever, but really it’s only been about forty pages.’ This is true of the book as a whole. Soon afterwards, the narrator sets up a writing group with another American expat, but doesn’t bring any writing herself; instead she supplies compliments and a formula recognisable to some readers: ‘A constructive piece of criticism that was substantive but never as big as the biggest compliment.’ She acknowledges that she hasn’t given the other woman ‘any material to later mock in her own semi-autobiographical novel’. What’s the point of all this? ‘You have to admit that doing things ironically can have very straightforward consequences,’ she writes in the fragmented section, and although I interpreted it as a joke about committing to a style just to land the punchline, the sentence might also apply to Oyler’s endeavour. Between flashes of humour and imagination, the thinly veiled criticism is the best part of the book. Fake Accounts has its forebears: Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things about Me Too and Megan Boyle’s Liveblog – the ‘lonely girl phenomenology’. These books also crackle with wit and idiosyncratic observation, but, unlike Fake Accounts, their characters put something on the line.
Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe the revulsion beneath the irony is what’s offered up. Work and self-definition are recurring themes in the book; most of the characters hate their jobs. The narrator hated her writing gig; Felix hated working at the pub crawl, and when he moves to New York to be with the narrator, he sulks in an ‘overpaid job at a startup’. But jobs only matter inasmuch as they are identities to try on. ‘People conform to type but also resist it,’ the narrator says early in the book. ‘Where you’re from and what you do for a job can mean a lot or nothing at all; the measure of any particular tidbit’s significance usually falls somewhere in the middle, depending on how much of the story the person who came up with it has told you.’ Given her focus on the relationship between authors and their texts, I wonder if the slippage between the roles of critic and novelist is also of interest to Oyler. The book’s title refers to made-up events and fake online avatars, and if Fake Accounts is the burner phone of Oyler the critic, this passage reads slightly differently. ‘To look at one’s phone while walking up the stairs is a hazard and a menace. To have been plucked special from one group only to be reincorporated into another more debased is an insult to pride.’ Oyler the critic has bumped into Oyler the novelist (I don’t know which group, novelists or critics, is more debased). Their collision is this book.