Like many other sort-of-young, Twitter-active women, my first reaction to Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts was a mingled sense of horror and relief. In the abrasive exposition—as the narrator searches through her boyfriend’s phone as he sleeps, more out of a desire to be “righteously wronged” than out of genuine suspicion, punctuated by asides on her “embarrassingly expensive” skincare routine—I found my own twisted thought processes perfectly articulated. I had been seen, caught in the headlights, and as I grimly read on, I felt as if I were looking at my own mugshot. I was ashamed of the “selfish black thoughts” I shared with the protagonist, and increasingly certain that this discomfort was an intended reaction.
To qualify a novel in relation to how much it reminds you of yourself is an inherently narcissistic act, but a cursory Twitter search proved that I wasn’t alone. A slew of retweets, coyly positioned photos of the book cover and shots of particularly cutting quotes were largely accompanied by “omg it me” captions. Not only had Oyler seen the worst of me, she had apparently seen the worst of the whole world (or, at least, the world populated by middle-class white women with graduate degrees and Twitter addictions). I didn’t realize Oyler wrote my diary, one user said. Wow, it’s like she had personal access into my own thoughts.
It’s not surprising that Lauren Oyler has managed to capture the neurotic spirit of a generation. She is an insightful critic, and in Fake Accounts she turns that critical eye towards the anxious interior life of middle-class millennials. The book is a sharp, brilliant interrogation of the way we live now, our experiences continually filtered through a glowing, selfish lens. Who we are matters less than who we pretend we are, and at some point the two become indistinguishable in the face of our constant projected audience.
After the unnamed narrator discovers her boyfriend runs a conspiracy theory Instagram account, the rest of the plot is kicked into motion. There’s a wryly funny takedown of the 2016 Women’s March, a transatlantic move to Berlin, assumed personalities based on astrological signs and a parade of deliciously stupid side characters and romantic interests. The tone is Twitter-esque: flippant and exuberant, often disdainful. At one point Oyler parodies narrative fragmentation to such great comedic effect—”These people just wanted to talk about themselves. They weren’t giving me a chance to talk about my characters”—that I felt I was actually on the app. A page later, it appeared that Oyler had beaten me to the punch again: “Why would I want to make my book like Twitter?” she asks. “Fragmentation is one of the worst aspects of modern life.”
“We were all self-centered together, supporting each other up as we propped up the social media companies,” Oyler writes. It is the mental and emotional degradation via social media—and the internet, and hyperconnectivity at large—that Oyler is concerned with. More than that, it is the constant manipulation of the self and others that such connectivity requires. We perform constantly, calculating and recalculating our presence and personality based on what someone might perceive us as. But as Oyler knows, “The consequences of public character building are not as fun or useful as the fantasy… suggests.” The narrator even addresses her asides to an imaginary coterie of ex-boyfriends, who “nod” and “sigh” and provide a handy foil against her incisive monologue. She is always being watched, but this, like everything else, is of her own design.
Oyler takes cues from autofiction, too, melding narrative and cultural critique until Fake Accounts becomes a different beast, hovering between story and reality. The novel is obviously inspired by Oyler’s own life—she, too, moved to Berlin, and worked as a feminist blogger—and the lines are alluringly blurred. How much of Oyler are we really getting? How much of Fake Accounts is genuine, and how much is artificial? And more pointedly, is there even a difference anymore?
The pre-release reception to Fake Accounts has been largely but not wholly positive. As a blunt line from a Kirkus review reads: “Not bad as social commentary. Not that great as a story.” If one were to fault Fake Accounts, that would certainly be the obvious complaint. It’s smart, but where is the feeling, I can imagine people asking. Where’s the heart?
What is it that we require from a “story” that Oyler doesn’t—or perhaps doesn’t need to—deliver? I would venture that what we expect from fiction is to be moved, to be taken away from our lives by a novel and deposited somewhere else, to feel what someone else is feeling, and give ourselves over to a fabricated series of emotions. Such is the power of narrative empathy and of fiction that it enables us to climb outside the prison of our own mind and forget the noise of ourselves for one blessed moment. But there is nowhere to go in Fake Accounts but deeper into the self.
As Oyler notes in her VICE essay on narcissism and Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick—the brilliant work of autofiction wherein a filmmaker forms a one-sided fixation with an academic—”as with so many obsessions, Dick’s participation isn’t really necessary.” In Fake Accounts, the reader’s participation isn’t necessary either, not in the way that it is in more conventional fiction. It requires no stretch of imagination to empathize with a reflection. The connection I felt to the text was not built through the careful construction of worlds, characters, or relationships. It was instead the strange kind of recognition that one feels when they read over a series of ill-advised, drunken text messages the morning after. It’s me, but it’s not—it’s the person I fear I am becoming. It’s the world I am disappointed to admit I occupy.
“Educating others,” Oyler notes, “allows one to exist on a higher plane.” So, too, does criticism; critiquing the work of others, or society at large, is a much easier job than putting your own heart and mind up for evaluation. After all of Oyler’s sharply worded reviews and “deep dives,” there was a certain smug curiosity about her debut as a fiction writer, an anticipation of her vulnerability. In this regard, though, Fake Accounts is unassailable; there is nothing negative that you can say about it that Oyler has not said herself, much more cleverly and before you’d even formed the thought. Fake Accounts is perhaps not a shift from her critical practice, then, but merely an extension.
In her semi-famous, caustic essay on Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Oyler writes in a brief aside that “there’s nothing wrong with having feelings; I have plenty of them.” Perhaps there is nothing wrong with having feelings as long as you are quiet about it, but in our hyper-ironic, apathetic cultural landscape, the worst thing you might do is admit to them. Our deepest collective fear seems to be earnestness: having really, truly tried at something, and failed—and the resulting embarrassment at having lost the façade of unruffled coolness that we try so hard to broadcast. But like maintaining that façade, Fake Accounts’ discomfort with vulnerability, its commitment to self-awareness and self-degradation, ultimately makes for a draining emotional experience.
That might just be the point. Who said great literature has to make the reader feel good? And whatever genre Fake Accounts occupies, it is, undeniably, great literature. It is dense and complex, funny and fierce—a textbook for our listless modern age. It is perhaps the cleverest thing I have read in a long time. After I put it down, though, brimming with theories and thoughts, I immediately went to open the window. A kindergarten sits opposite my flat, and I listened to the children for a long time, their unabashed, ugly laughter. I took refuge in the truth of it all. I couldn’t help it; I just wanted to feel something authentic.