Lauren Oyler is one the most prolific literary opinion-havers of her generation. She is 30, lives between Brooklyn and Berlin, and writes forensic, scathing, bugbear-filled essays and criticism for Vice, the New Yorker, the London Review of Books and everywhere in-between. She is highly particular about the authors she doesn’t like (Sally Rooney) and the authors she really doesn’t like (Jia Tolentino).
Oyler disdains fiction that’s described as “spare” and can’t abide the overuse of similes. She’s sick of books written in a fragmentary style and blames a significant number of bad novels on Master of Fine Arts writing programmes. She has no qualms about dropping plot spoilers and believes the elision between entertaining genre fiction and meaningful art in literary fiction is “concerning”. She has little patience with mainstream feminism and its “rampant false hatred towards men”.
Oyler’s problem with Normal People was Rooney’s “unwavering neatness” which leads to “pat lessons and characters totally lacking in mystery”. Her 5,000-word critique of Tolentino’s essay collection, Trick Mirror, homed in on the writer’s centring of her own feelings and her “shoddy mode of thinking”. “I get the sense that Jia Tolentino must feel overwhelming pity for ugly women, if she has ever met one.” I’d be tempted to make a similar comment about Oyler and weak-minded people – but she doesn’t appear to go in much for pity. She also recently disclosed in a podcast interview that she doesn’t read male novelists and doesn’t like music either. She does like it, however, when people quote her reviews back at her.
How many of these opinions are performance, how many sincerely held? If a consistent theme emerges in Oyler’s criticism it is a disdain for “shoddy” thinking, but her own writing is such a curious mix of the sweeping and specific it can come across as mere contrariness calculated to go viral. In her favour, she has reinvigorated the world of literary criticism and made book reviews into event journalism; there are surely easier paths to renown. She has also taken down enough hyped books to know that there is a “weird ambient pressure”, as she puts it, around her own hyped debut.
Fake Accounts, which seeks to examine the emotional dissonance of online life, begins promisingly if predictably. In the days leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration, our unnamed narrator – a Brooklyn-based blogger – snoops at her boyfriend Felix’s phone while he’s sleeping and discovers that he has a secret Instagram account in which he posts alt-right conspiracy theories. He has always claimed he hates social media. The pictures are “heavy-handed and amateur”, blurry images of the twin towers and doctored gatherings with Barack Obama, George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Jacob Rothschild.
Felix has always been withdrawn and there are other red flags that now make sense: his “nihilistic opinions” and “cynicism”, his friendlessness and the fact that when she takes him to parties, he likes to tell strangers “little inconsequential lies and build slightly alternate realities out of them”. Oh, and he also has a habit of pronouncing Slavoj Zizek in a radically different way every time he says it “(As a joke!)”.
The disjuncture between surface and reality disturbs the narrator profoundly – but as she considers how to dump Felix, she receives the news that he has been killed in a road accident. She quits her media job and flees to Berlin, where she somehow supports herself on $1,000 that his mother mysteriously donates – and begins her own deceptions, making up fake dating profiles and regaling everyone she meets with whimsical lies about her life.
It sounds like a sexy premise, in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith’s thrillers or any number of novels about Americans in Europe, notably Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, which was about an American writer in Madrid who can’t stop telling lies. But Fake Accounts soon reverts to the familiar scathing tone of Oyler’s book reviews – her own spiky comfort zone – and the shapelessness of autofiction.
The narrator shares Oyler’s Brooklyn-to-Berlin trajectory and her Twitter profile picture (“in which my hair completely covers my eyes and nose, representing me as a poutily sexy girl without a face”). But she also says plenty of things so daft, you suspect Oyler must be lampooning millennials: “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,” she tells us. “I believe it hurts the feminist cause. And, worse, makes me personally look bad.”
She is not above being brattish: “Sometimes they switched the peanut butter M&M’s out for peanut M&M’s and the discovery was so crushing that I couldn’t work for the rest of the day.” But she is also, apparently, one of only two people in an office of writers who knows how to use a semi-colon.
How much are we to believe this is the real Oyler or a parody? It’s hard to tell, particularly when the narrator describes her sexual fantasies: “I wanted to fuck him with a strap-on while he read the novel I was working on.” Throughout the book, she is chastened by an imaginary Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends. Other metafictional devices include directly addressing the reader and signposting each section of the book: Beginning, Middle (Something Happens), Middle (Nothing Happens), Climax. But despite a strong “Beginning”, the novel soon becomes laboured and pretentious.
You can see the not-so-subtle influence of Rachel Cusk in the way Oyler’s narrator makes friends with vapid people and then mocks those people for being vapid. There are encounters with dumb ex-pats who voice second-rate opinions for her to roll her eyes at – or else serve as an audience for her own, much more correct takes. Characters with any depth are either sidelined or written in as an afterthought, as if their humanity is an irritating inconvenience. Oyler observes that for a generation that values authenticity because “we’ve been bombarded since our impressionable pre-teen years with fakery”, she and her contemporaries “casually commit fakery ourselves”. All of her relationships feel transactional.
That all relationships have to some extent transactional elements is beyond doubt – an effect of the marketisation of everything, particularly education and dating for younger millennials. The problem is that Oyler can’t see beyond the transactional and it soon becomes exhausting to live in a world where everything is critique – especially one that is so cold and reductive.
It’s not only the supercilious tone and ironic verbosity that makes the reader feel like she’s being mocked, it’s also the glacial pace of the book. Much of it is taken up with the narrator printing out visa application forms and working out which order to place the forms in a ring binder. Once the visa forms have been described, we move on to the health insurance forms. It’s like a bad pastiche of Karl Ove Knausgaard. The more she bores us, the more you can feel Oyler smirking, relishing her effect. It’s supposed to be artless! That’s the whole point. It’s an imitation of social media shallowness.
Worse follows: after the Knausgaard pastiche there arrives a 40-page middle section written in fragments. It’s intended as a send-up of a female writer whose “hollow” and “melodramatic” style annoys the narrator and makes her feel like she doesn’t understand women at all (which isn’t a melodramatic statement in the least). Oyler doesn’t name the writer directly but it reads like a compound of Jenny Offill, Maggie Nelson and Patricia Lockwood. The narrator of Fake Accounts takes their formal experimentation as nothing more than a “trendy” design move: “If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.”
It’s a disingenuous argument, since this mode of writing emerged from much broader and older sources than Twitter (poetry, Wittgenstein’s philosophical fragments, jazz, stand-up comedy). Also: anything looks ridiculous when you take it out of context, crudely label it and write a bad spoof.
In her review of Offill’s Weather in the New Yorker, Oyler complained that critics too often praise books “for their ability to depict reality rather than for their ability to respond to it, critique it, or engage with it”. Fake Accounts is an experiment in sustained snark, far more interested in critiquing than depicting or dramatising. Indeed, dramatising might sound too much like entertainment.
[See also: Remembering The World of Yesterday]
Oyler’s spoiler-heavy takedown of Offill probably gives me carte blanche to give away the final 25 pages of the novel. But I won’t. What I will say is that the narrator receives some shocking news that feels both predictable and – in the way Oyler writes it – improbable. Perhaps that’s the point: she gives us the conspiracy theory ending, the one that artificially wraps up the loose threads. It provides an explanation that superficially satisfies the reader, only to open a new door of doubt.
What is clever is the way Oyler’s narrator processes this news. Her first response is disappointment that she didn’t hear about it earlier on Twitter, having already spent six hours browsing. She is more unnerved by the implication that the algorithm has let her down than she is by the news itself. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the book, revealing how a life lived mostly online fails to prepare a person for the uncomfortable aspects of human existence.
But in between an unsettling opening and a provocative climax, Oyler can’t really be bothered to animate the ideas she’s trying to explore. Fiction needs to describe the shape and experience of the world it’s depicting, not just offer a wordy critique of it. Fake Accounts feels like an elaborate defence mechanism constructed primarily for a tiny Brooklyn literary circle. It’s easy to be a scornful smartass, a call-out agent; it takes a lot more courage to be vulnerable and sincere.
Perhaps Fake Accounts is intended as an imitation of a bad novel. Oyler says she wanted to write a book where “the internet and social media were portrayed very realistically, from an insider’s point of view, without having the novel reproduce the feeling of being online, which is terrible”. In the book, she describes that feeling as a “twitchy frantic boredom”. And yet more than any other novel I’ve read recently, Fake Accounts has given me the same feeling of twitchy frantic boredom without the saving grace of social media, which is that someone might post a funny picture of a dog.
Oyler’s book inadvertently becomes the one thing she definitely did not want it to be: an argument for the primacy of the internet over literature. “To be clear, I know this is boring” the narrator repeatedly says. To be clear, I was bored. By the end, I was delighted to get back to my phone and have a good doomscroll.
Fourth Estate, 272pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost