I spoke with Lauren Oyler in the days after the 2020 election about her debut novel, Fake Accounts, which is set in the aftermath of the 2016 election. The novel interacts with ideas about online identity, social media duplicity, and disinformation, against the backdrop of early 2017 and the Women’s March. Set between Brooklyn and Berlin, we meet the nameless narrator in a tailspin after finding out her boyfriend, Felix, is a secret internet conspiracy theorist. Fake Accounts explores the internet as a place where the lies where we tell others and ourselves can make way for an alternative reality.
Oyler started writing the novel in 2017, but many of Fake Account’s themes have ballooned into immediacy in 2020, feeling more prescient than ever in new, morphed ways an election later. Lauren Oyler’s essays on books and culture have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, London Review of Books, The Guardian, New York Magazine’s The Cut, The New Republic, Bookforum, and elsewhere. Born and raised in West Virginia, she now divides her time between New York and Berlin.
Oyler and I had the chance to talk recently about her new novel, autofiction, Berlin, writing about the internet, and what it means to find motivation when your life is performance art on social media.
The Rumpus: The way you’ve written about the internet in Fake Accounts feels incredibly distinctive. You’ve gone to lengths explaining exactly how someone uses the internet by documenting very rote movements—every keystroke, hopping between apps, searching through a search engine. Can you talk about your choice to write about the internet like this?
Lauren Oyler: I’m very aware of the ways people write about the internet, which is usually by assuming people know what you’re talking about. We know what “Facebook” means when it pops up in a novel, but it’s taken for granted that it’s a technology and a process, and that you’re engaging with it and making lots of little choices while you’re using it. And some bigger choices. The book engages with all sorts of ideas about agency, so I was interested in writing clearly: This is what I’m doing with my phone. Yes, the phone is designed to make you want to do that, but also, it’s not like, oh, your phone is doing this to you. You are actively doing this. You could throw the phone away; you could get a flip phone. And of course, you don’t need to be going through your boyfriend’s phone. He has agency, too.
I was also thinking a lot about the ways novelists shy away from the internet because they don’t want a novel to feel dated. If a book were set in 2006, then we’d be writing about MySpace and LiveJournal—or whatever was popular at the time; I was sixteen and living in West Virginia, where things like this come late, if at all—so to get away from that problem, I tried to explain everything in detail. I’m confident someone could make MySpace literary, if they haven’t already.
Rumpus: Early on in Fake Accounts, your narrator is mentioned as having the same Twitter photo you currently have. The novel is so focused on how we often manipulate ourselves and others through social media. Is this an instance where you’ve anticipated how your own online presence figures into how your readers will experience Fake Accounts?
Oyler: I was thinking about the resistance a lot of authors feel to aligning themselves autobiographically with their own novels and wanted to anticipate the reader’s natural tendency to do that—not necessarily to deflect it, but to incorporate it into the experience of the book and the ideas the book puts forth about identity and persona. Zadie Smith has a nice essay, “The I Who Is Not Me,” that lays out the relationship between the author and the narrator very clearly. Many other people have done this, too, but I think she does it particularly well. I wrote the novel, so of course I have something to do with what’s in it. This sort of goes back again to the questions of agency the novel brings up.
It would be easy to get stressed out with people’s perceptions of me weighing on the novel, but I also think that’s inevitable. By the time I started writing the novel, that ship had sailed, and even if I didn’t have as many Twitter followers as I do now, there would still be a senate of people who feel like they know me, so they’re expecting something specific. And even if you defy their expectations, they will still see in the finished book whatever they expected. It was very liberating to lean into that.
Rumpus: Can we talk about Berlin as the setting of your novel a bit? How does the city function in Fake Accounts?
Oyler: I see Berlin functioning in the novel in a couple ways. I see it as a place that makes history so visible that it almost literalizes it. Later in the novel, there’s a scene where the narrator is cycling down a street, and there are these Australian tourists, there’s a long stretch of the Berlin Wall, and behind the wall is the former SS Reich Main Security Office, which was turned into a museum. The rest of this particular street is very historical as well. You can look through the holes in the Berlin Wall and see the site of the SS headquarters—I don’t really need to explain that as an image, it’s very obvious. And so is the meaning of Australians on rented bicycles screaming about Trabis in the background.
There’s the German notion of remembrance and repair present in Berlin, but now especially when there’s this growing, loud expat population, you also can really see how the city could transition badly into the future. There are many places where you walk around and you only hear English or a Scandinavian language. It’s hard to ignore the very weighty notion of capital-H history present in the city, which is why so many stories set in Berlin veer into this “and now, the research portion of the novel” tone.
But history is also happening every day, and I think we all sort of know that, yet we can’t believe that this is the pathetic history we’re living through. It’s like, This? Museum reproductions and Australians are my historical moment?! Twitter is what we will remember about this time? Which is where the tendency towards nostalgia and our weird relationship to history come from. Meanwhile the “real” history is happening elsewhere, and we read about it online in a way that makes us feel like it’s not taking place in the same reality we live in.
Rumpus: I’m interested in how Berlin extends itself as a place to your narrator’s revisioning of herself. She starts trying on different roles for herself as soon as she arrives.
Oyler: In terms of the narrator, it’s much harder to explain what role the city plays for her. Many expats end up there because it’s cool and cheap and in Europe—in other words they don’t really have a “good reason” to be there either. She moves there because she wants some organizing force to adjust her out of her confusion, and to give her a good reason for doing anything. She’s been subject to Felix’s musings about Berlin as an expat who doesn’t speak any German and cannot even pronounce the name of his neighborhood that he lives in for a year, and she feels competitive. But also I think she wants to know what she missed out on by listening to him say inaccurate stuff about it for so long.
There’s a tension between expats who feel they’re “really” living there and expats who are seen as “tourists” that gets at how we understand authenticity and identity, too. Both, I think, tend to see themselves as very interesting for the way they’re living their lives, but the latter are also seen as taking advantage somehow, and they’re also probably thinking, I will use this city to reinvent myself. The narrator’s already critical of this type of expat lifestyle, having soured on Felix and his theories and his time in Berlin, but initially, at least, she’s no different from him, even if she sees herself in a nuanced way. There is some truth to it all—you go to another country, and you do learn things about other people, and you do grow from there. But at the same time you can totally control how many new things you encounter to learn, which is pretty similar to how the internet works. You have a great deal of control and agency in these environments. Even if they should emphasize how small and insignificant you are, they can also just reinforce your stupid views about yourself.
Rumpus: For a lot of American millennials having this privileged expat experience of finding yourself in another country, the reality is that you’re constrained by your visa situation. It’s part of why your narrator’s major conflict in Berlin revolves around getting a visa or not getting a visa. How does your narrator feel this pressure, and how does it play out?
Oyler: Yeah, the feeling of, am I going to stay here? Why would I stay here? But there’s a generation of young people—that I’m definitely a part of—that have no real reason to do any one thing or another, who avoid making commitments so that they don’t have to limit their future options. And some of the questions regarding agency or motivation attempt to show that even when people are just floating around, they still have to make choices. I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s true. Things like your tourist visa expiring force you to make a decision that you otherwise wouldn’t ever have to make.
My book is about someone who randomly pops over to Berlin for an indefinite period of time, and that fits with a very specific, international class of people. In this “millennials have no money” discourse, there’s a portion of the group who, because they can’t buy houses or have children, have a little bit of disposable income to live cheaply for like, three, six, nine months at a time without having to work much. This is adjacent to the “digital nomads,” but digital nomads tend to be described as very wealthy “creatives.” I’m talking about a combination of the Easyjet set and an international bourgeois bohemian set, many of whom probably get some money from their parents but also subsist on various gig jobs. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. It just depends on how you do it.
Rumpus: When your narrator leaves Brooklyn for Berlin, she shows up and begins performing different personalities. This aspect of Fake Accounts felt like a different way to think about autofiction, which is often talked about as a groundbreaking or defying genre. As you watch the narrator take the same feat to an insane degree, it doesn’t feel super radical. How does autofiction figure into the themes of identity?
Oyler: I think that autofiction is popular now as a way of writing because, in part, the internet makes these questions very explicit. If you’re reading Rachel Cusk, she’s not on Twitter, but you can google her. At least, I google everyone whose book I’m reading. It’s harder and harder to keep whatever ideas you have about an author out of your experience of the text. Even before the internet I assume it was hard to do, though you’re not “supposed” to read books that way. I wanted to play with the reality of the public writer. Because the book is full of fake and partially fake identities, it created another level of uncertainty and another way to examine how identity develops and transforms. Or mutates, as the case may be.
People increasingly feel like they can and should lie in public, even though we have many more tools to figure them out than we did before. I often know gossip about someone—or I know something about someone for some reason—and then I see them post a total lie on social media. It’s incredible to watch. Trump has sort of ruined lying because anyone doing it is now considered to exemplify some principle of “the Trump era,” but it’s not just a Trump thing. It’s not just the alt-right who take advantage of unstable media and all these unstable, insecure relationships it creates. Some people get away with things because no one cares enough to say something about it, and some people get away with things because they’re so glaringly, obviously wrong that it’s too shocking to say something about it. Or there’s always the chance that by pointing out the lie you’re being made part of the joke.
Rumpus: Or contradicting yourself without caring, like, you know I can look up your LinkedIn page and confirm your tweet is a lie, right?
Oyler: There are all these extreme cases of fake identities now—those academics and writers who are white but have been living as people of color. The most prominent recent example is Jessica Krug, but, of course, before that there was Rachel Dolezal. I’m sure we could go on forever. (Case in point: I answered follow-ups for this interview while Hilaria Baldwin was trending on Twitter.)
But everything is autofiction on the internet—as soon as you set down something about yourself you lose some little bit of truth.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the novel’s ideas about how normal social performance is and the ways this begs the question of authentic motivation. When your narrator decides to go to the Women’s March and later when she decides to go to Berlin, she’s ambivalent about her choices. How is Fake Accounts interested in fake motivations?
Oyler: I do a lot of monotonous, boring things just to be doing something, because I want to feel like I can erase the desire to be productive. But in fiction there’s this tendency to attribute every action to a very clear-cut, psychological reason that exalts in the backstory and often the family life of the narrator. Like, the character has flaws, but the reader is sympathetic because of this and that and her childhood. Realistically, that’s rarely the case. I think that motivations are complicated, and things could always have taken another path.
Which is another reason the narrator alludes to her background, but you never know where she’s from exactly, or anything about her family, or things like that. I hope you feel you learn a lot about the narrator throughout the course of the novel, but it’s never this very prescriptive information that allows you to armchair-psychoanalyze her. I think there’s something similar in the way we learn about people in life—friends we have online, or anyone really. There’s rarely a vision of someone’s past that illuminates their motivations behind every action.
Rumpus: It almost feels harder to take responsibility for your actions, if you can write off everything you do as just performing for your internet audience.
Oyler: I think that the interesting point about performance is that it’s real and authentic, because that’s what you’re doing with your life. Someone just tweeted at me that “We are what we pretend to be” is a Kurt Vonnegut quote, which is, of course, a much pithier, more succinct version of this. If you spend twelve hours a day online as a twenty-five-year-old girl but actually you’re a sixty-year-old man, that’s still your reality, and the reality is that you’re performing all the time. What your motivations are for that could be any number of things.
I think many of the things we do online have very authentic, real motivations which aren’t as simple as “I want to get more likes, I want more followers, I want to be popular.” Yes, we want that. But there’s a reason none of that is particularly satisfying once you get it.
Rumpus: Over and over again while I was reading Fake Accounts, I was coming back to the questions of, where are we in identity and where are we in reality? In the novel, these terms feel malleable and like movable concepts. So where are we in reality and in identity given all the constructs of the novel?
Oyler: This is another difficulty I found in writing about the internet—you feel as if you’re nowhere in space and time. You’re often hunched over your computer for several hours that feel like they go by very quickly.
Whenever the narrator’s online, I tried to set her in a very specific scenario—even if it’s just that she’s in her room and it gets dark while she’s on the computer—so that where she is in space and time sort of bleeds into whatever is happening on the internet at the time. Even the long lists of internet activity include some references to the setting, or her body, because I wanted to convey how easily she moves between identities online and in person. I didn’t want it to feel like, I’m performing now and I’m not performing now. Including in the continuum my own social media persona or my own public persona, I wanted to make clear there’s no barrier, there’s no limitation. You might bring something from one performance to another and it becomes integrated into the new persona and eventually you forget where you got it. There’s no essential self in there. Everything is malleable.
These sorts of questions feel natural to explore in a novel. When I hear things like, the realist novel is dead—or dying—I just think that’s so ridiculous. Especially when you’re asking questions about identity and reality, fiction already contains within it the notion of an unstable truth. Because a novel is supposed to be something that’s true, but it’s not literally true.
Rumpus: Nonfiction, too, is this idea that it’s supposed to be reality, but of course, everyone has their own biased view of what happened.
Oyler: There’s something that is objectively right somewhere, but you’ll never be able to quite reach it. Except for maybe a second or two.
Photograph of Lauren Oyler by Pete Voelker.