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Lauren Oyler Is a Tough Critic of Contemporary Fiction. Can Her Novel Do Better?

On “Fake Accounts” and the problems of millennial fiction

A user scrolls through Facebook on a laptop.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

We all know the story. Boy meets girl. Boy tells girl about his life. Girl goes home and cyberstalks boy. Girl discovers boy lied about his life. Girl confronts boy. Boy comes clean. Boy and girl start dating. Donald Trump is elected president. Girl snoops through boy’s phone and discovers he’s an alt-right conspiracy theorist with tens of thousands of social media followers.

Fake Accounts
by Lauren Oyler
Catapult Books, 272 pp., $26.00

Well, perhaps we don’t know that story, but we understand the context. So much of modern life is conducted on and mediated through the internet, constant electronic communication, and social media. In a way that would have been unthinkable barely a decade ago, we now have ready access to highly addictive and potentially immense platforms, providing a serious incentive to perform a personality online. This personality can be fun or dour, earnest or cynical, politically radical or smugly apolitical. Yet no matter what it is, this personality doesn’t quite reflect who we are offline. For some of us, our internet selves are more confident, more outgoing, blasting the powerful on Twitter or sharing carefully cultivated collections of smiling pictures on Instagram, even as we brood at home in quarantine. For others, our internet selves are wholly fake, artifices meant to generate clicks, and thus attention, and thus money.

This is the backdrop for Lauren Oyler’s smart and dark and confounding debut novel, Fake Accounts. Hers is a story about catfishing and shit-posting—a story, in other words, about lying. It is, as mentioned, also the story of a woman, the unnamed narrator, who goes through her boyfriend’s cell phone one evening and discovers that he is (to steal Pankaj Mishra’s recent coinage) one of the “Proud Boys of the mind.” Her boyfriend, Felix—a consummate but, she’d thought, harmless liar—secretly runs a popular Instagram account called THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_, featuring shadowy pictures of world figures and Twin Towers and “unbelievable facts” about history, the government, and the Jews.

The narrator is shocked, and also thrilled. “I was overtaken by a sense of purpose unlike anything I could recreate in a workplace environment.” She’d been planning to break up with Felix anyway, but now she could do it in glorious fashion: hijacking the account, maybe, or abruptly throwing him out, or slyly messing with him, all while embodying “the calm dignity befitting the partner of a person who needs help.” That she was sure Felix didn’t actually believe in the conspiracy theories—that she was “pretty sure he was Jewish”—didn’t change the fact that this is “my chance to be purely and entirely the good one.”

Fascinated by her discovery but feeling no particular urgency, the narrator decides to make Felix pancakes. She will end the relationship after the Women’s March (an event she hadn’t originally planned to attend “because it seemed there would be a lot of pink, which in a feminist context signaled to me a lack of rigor”). Yet when circumstances make the breakup suddenly impossible, the narrator, robbed of her shining opportunity, departs for Berlin, where she originally met Felix. She arrives in Germany and, as Oyler herself acknowledges in a chapter subheading, “Nothing Happens.” For more than a hundred pages, the narrator simply scrolls through apps, makes little effort to meet people, makes even less effort to learn the language, and lies to everyone she meets. She goes on dates and lies. She applies for a part-time job and lies. She applies for German residency and lies. Mostly, though, she lies in bed, or wanders through the streets of Berlin, thinking clever and profound and mean and dejected things, until finally a belated plot twist concludes the story.

Oyler, a prolific critic and reviewer, has written a novel that is a pleasure to read and easy to inhale. The writing is brilliant, bringing to life a narrator with a penetrating gaze and a mordant, misanthropic voice. And yet Fake Accounts is a strange and difficult book, one in which the writer takes a dazzling premise and does little with it beyond making a string of wry comments. That this review is critical of Fake Accounts should be taken as a sign of my respect for the novel. I loved it. But even a great novel can also be fairly inexplicable.

It’s a truism that art inevitably reflects the politics of its time, and so, it follows, a lot of millennial fiction betrays an intense preoccupation with the internet, an ambivalence about social media, the aimlessness and nihilism that come with the decimation of the labor market and the erosion of the welfare state, the inexorable rise of secularism and neoliberalism, the changing climate, and, yes, Trump. Novels that, a few years ago, were very concerned about stopping consumerism and environmental destruction have become novels that model how we might live in a burned-out, consumerist-capitalist hellscape. How do you make art in a time when more people than ever before can identify both the problems and the solutions, but still nothing improves?

Oyler has, herself, shaped some part of the conversation about the contemporary novel. Shortly after graduating from college, she began blogging for the (dearly departed) site Bookslut. When one of her pieces—a lacerating review of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist—went viral at the end of 2014, Oyler got a job writing for Vice. In that position, she met former White House Deputy Chief of Staff (and then Vice executive) Alyssa Mastromonaco, with whom she wrote a couple of books. Subsequent ghostwriting gigs allowed Oyler to transition to freelancing full-time, and her criticism and essays became omnipresent, at least on literary Twitter. “To be frank, my trajectory has these lily-pads of semi-viral critical articles, which is sort of how it goes,” she recently said in an interview. In the last few years, Oyler has dissected Lady Bird; examined the millennial obsession with astrology; ruminated perceptively on Andrea Dworkin, Netflix dating shows, and the overuse of the word “toxic”; and written a lot of book reviews.

As a critic, she has expressed a consistent consternation with the “moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction.” Anxieties about “being a good person,” she has argued, “pervade contemporary novels and criticism.” Informed by much-needed societal reckonings surrounding race and sex and power, as well as the rise of “popular, social-media-inflected criticism,” the reader has usurped the writer as God, “examining works for their political content and assessing the moral goodness of the author in the process.”

In response, Oyler writes, many novels now “feature writers who are wildly self-conscious about both the thing they spend all their time doing and what that says about the essence of their souls.” Consider the books of Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Michael Thomas, Sam Lansky, Ayad Akhtar, or Karl Ove Knausgård, whose diffident writer-protagonists are based nakedly on the authors themselves, living similar lives and often even bearing identical names. Oyler has also written about “a recent cohort of female anti-protagonists,” in the novels of such writers as Catherine Lacey and Rachel Cusk. “Devoid of personality and interests, they are not so much characters as devices through which the author can funnel observations about modern life and thoughtful plots.”

What’s odd about these observations is that they apply equally to Oyler’s own protagonist. Fake Accounts is clearly semi-autobiographical. The protagonist splits her time between New York and Berlin, just as Oyler herself does; the protagonist is a young writer with a recognizable social media presence, just as Oyler herself is; the protagonist even has a Twitter profile picture “in which my hair completely covers my eyes and nose, representing me as a poutily sexy girl without a face,” describing perfectly Oyler’s own Twitter profile picture (even using language nearly identical to her own description of her online avatar from a 2018 essay). Further, Oyler’s first-person narration is nothing if not a vehicle for funny and trenchant observations. Her narrator is ostensibly a writer, but one who seems to think quite little about writing, much less do it with any frequency. She has little backstory beyond the relationship at the heart of the novel; we never meet her parents or family, never hear much about her childhood or coming of age, never really get her political convictions beyond allusions to a vague, throwaway leftism. (This mirrors Oyler’s take on Cusk: “From her taste, voice, and the stories she selects, the reader can infer a character, but the character is not explicitly constructed with any backstory.”) Indeed, Fake Accounts has essentially no characters other than the protagonist—certainly, there are none with any interiority. Instead, there is the protagonist and her witty, deadpan musings.

When she is teased for being American, she reflects that this “seemed so 2004.” When she attends a yoga class in Brooklyn with other white women from Brooklyn, she silently mocks the post-2016 rise of “resistance”—“a helpfully broad term the force of which was derived from social media, where you could not look away from the spectacle of previously apolitical coworkers and high school classmates and one-night stands rallying around paragraphs of drastic recommendations, often copied and pasted from users of n degrees of separation who would later emerge demanding credit for having started whatever action was scrambling into being.” The narrator doesn’t feel; she observes and considers. She has plenty of pith, but little depth.

Though Fake Accounts could be read as Oyler’s response to the trends she has observed in much-discussed novels, she copies many of the tics she has noted, sometimes with annoyance, in these books. Oyler is irked, for instance, by writers who “check their privilege” but never truly act on their awareness of their structural advantages. In a scathing review of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, she noted that the author “is careful to mention her relative ‘luck’ and privilege before she complains, but usually only so that she can justify aligning herself with the suffering of people with whom she has little in common, making her experience seem worse and theirs not that bad.” Oyler has also written, of the celebrated Irish novelist Sally Rooney, that “a painstaking awareness of class and gender dynamics guides her characters’ inner lives as well as how they interact.”

In her own novel, Oyler’s narrator is hyperconscious of these dynamics, but she is also kind of exhausted by them. Reflecting on her boyfriend’s fairly charmed background, she notes how “he expressed mild shame about it, and not through some falsely penitent acknowledgment of his privilege or ‘luck’ but by seeming genuinely unsure how to present the concomitant summers in the family’s villa.” Reflecting on her own lack of serious problems, she adds,

Usually when you have these sort of searching bourgeois-white-person narratives you have to offer a disclaimer, I know my problems do not rank in comparison to the manifold sufferings of most of the world’s people … but, but this preamble isn’t meant to be perfunctory, a tick on a checklist; I really mean it as a point to be made in itself. Nothing was wrong. I had no problems. And yet I had, improbably, problems.

Such reflections are not a skewering or a satire; they appear to suggest a real uncertainty about how to proceed in a fraught, unequal world that often prioritizes symbolic action (acknowledging one’s privilege) over actual action (redistributing wealth).

It seems that many novelists have chosen to proceed by draping their protagonists in a cloak of irony. Writing for this magazine, Ryu Spaeth has argued that self-awareness is a tool many novelists use to “avoid engaging with tricky questions about cultural appropriation and authenticity,” but “it comes with a cost: deeply felt emotion, unobstructed by the restless voice in one’s head.” The characters are unapproachable, in other words, as a result of their “ironic distance.” The problem of ironic distance greatly bothered David Foster Wallace and the young Jedediah Purdy; in a recent piece in The Nation, Larissa Pham called this “a kind of neurotic overwriting—the laughing specter of the author, preventing the reader from getting an earnest grip on the text.”

Oyler, too, has critiqued characters employing “a qualified, almost defensive irony.” In a piece on online communication, she added, “When someone turns to our shared catalogue of ironic signifiers, I assume they don’t want me to get too close, or they feel our conversation isn’t worth the energy it would take to come up with something original. After all, that’s why I use them.” And, indeed, she has employed the same ironic tone in her own novel. “I’m told I don’t have to try to justify love,” the narrator comments of her romantic relationship with Felix, “but I just can’t stand the thought of seeming irrationally carried away by emotion and unable to freestyle my way back to the calm waters of reason. I believe it hurts the feminist cause. And, worse, makes me personally look bad.” She grudgingly decides to go to the Women’s March, she later reflects, because “everyone was going to the protest, so I, someone who actually cared, someone who had, after all, served as president of her (red-state) high school’s Young Democrats of America for not one but two years, should go, too.”

To be sure, Oyler has not reproduced all of the trends she has interrogated as a book critic. “It’s hard to be a writer under these conditions,” Oyler has written. “Every narrator is understood to be unreliable—the better they are at the job, the less you can trust them.” Her own narrator is remarkably reliable—she lies to the world but not to the reader. Fake Accounts is a traditional novel about an untraditional subject, a bildungsroman with no growth, a hero’s journey with no hero and not much of a journey, a comedy of manners in a world in which the powerful are so spectacularly stupid that they’re essentially immune from satire. The narrator is hilarious. It’s just a shame that she says so much and means so little.

Above all, Fake Accounts reflects the author’s fixation on social media and the role it plays in society. Of course, Oyler has written at length on this topic. Social media, she has noted, “makes stalking unprecedentedly easy,” and so her protagonist stalks a prospective boyfriend online with ease. “The internet’s contribution to language,” she has also noted, “has been to give us more ways to communicate without saying anything at all,” and so her protagonist communicates incessantly yet feels thoroughly alone.

Oyler’s narrator is perceptive about social media and her own online habits, at one point labeling herself “dependent on social media for a humiliatingly large percentage of my self-esteem, social life, and reading material.” She spends a lot of time on Twitter, which she acknowledges is “both placating and stressful, the stakes of any comment or discussion unclear except that they were high.” After several solitary weeks in Berlin, she decides to join a dating app—not because she is lonely, she tells herself, “just bored!” She chooses Tinder over Bumble “because of the requirement that women message first. I disliked being told what to do—I made a mental note to add this to my profile, a sexy but meaningless declaration.” Then, for no clear reason other than the ease with which it could be done, she tells each and every date a different and false story about herself. Needless to say, she finds no romantic fulfillment.

Fake Accounts is pessimistic about social media. Online, as in real life, Felix was a liar. The narrator is a liar. Social media, Oyler seems to argue, makes liars of us all. Social media demands careful curation and constant creation. Social media makes it almost impossible to avoid turning the self into a brand, even as it also becomes almost impossible to log out, to turn off, to avoid the likes and hearts and news alerts and effectively infinite scroll of smart and stupid and pretty and ugly content. We may not all run alt-right alt-Instagram accounts, and we may not all falsify backgrounds on OkCupid all day, but all of us perform online, for one reason or another. And if online is indeed real life, then these performances have seeped into our every interaction.

Although Oyler has rejected the idea that good art must make a political point, it’s hard not to consider the point of her novel, especially because it is chock full of so much political and cultural commentary.

There are plenty of things this novel could be said to be about—politics in the age of Trump, social media in the age of Zuckerberg, the death of truth, the difference between solitude and isolation. Oyler could be trying to make a broader point about literary fiction—that a novel can be complex and only loosely defined by plot and still find a market. Oyler is, after all, worried about the decline of literary fiction. As she said in a recent interview, “I don’t see a problem with commercial fiction or memoir, or with YA. What I see a problem with is the encroachment of those genres into literary fiction, which sort of needs protecting.” Protecting, above all, from the publishing industry itself, which simply wants books that will sell a lot of copies and generate a lot of clicks.

With inequality deepening, true leisure time diminishing, and the publishing industry consolidating and contracting by the day, the novel stands at a crossroads. Literary fiction simply cannot survive with only fakeness to guard it against the world, with only wry self-absorption or ironic disillusionment athwart corporate rapaciousness and ecological collapse. In spite of the pressures, in spite of the fear of viral social media rebuke, in spite of the need to sing for their supper even as everything burns, perhaps the next generation of novelists can move past the self-conscious self-awareness, past the ironic distance, and find a way to be witty while also being vulnerable.