Like a lot of people I know, I read books for work, or because I believe they’ll improve me, or because I know discourse will follow and even if no one asks my opinion I’ll feel inadequate if I don’t have one. There are books for when I need a break from the voices of my generation, books that fall into my lap spontaneously and I feel pressure to honor the whimsy, and books to balance all of it out. I can’t remember the last time I read a book just for fun, which I always find boring when I hear it as a complaint in publishing circles but I don’t mean as one; I still derive pleasure from the books I read for all these reasons, despite the overwhelming fact that most books are mediocre and based on sheer numbers I’ll never get around to most of the best ones out there.
I did not read Lauren Oyler’s debut, Fake Accounts, for fun, and I won’t say that’s what it turned into, because that would be something adjacent to a lie. I read it for the discourse, just like plenty of others who have spent enough time in media-adjacent circles to recognize Oyler’s biting book reviews and were curious to see whether her own fiction would meet her high standards. Given how she doesn’t pull her punches regarding anyone else’s writing, and how she’s unafraid of burning media darlings, the perverse side of me settled down to read it with my arms mentally crossed.
The unnamed narrator of Fake Accounts finds out the evening before the 2016 inauguration that her boyfriend, Felix, has been a popular anonymous conspiracy theorist on social media for the entirety of their relationship. The nature of these conspiracies is more of a given than a concern for the narrator, who is almost high in her relief at being vindicated in wanting to break up, and having something fascinating — her own potential reactions to this information, which she has gleaned by snooping through his phone — to mull over before she does it. But before she makes a decision, she learns while in D.C. for the Women’s March, that Felix has died in an accident.
A twist at the end of the book accounts for why I’m more interested in the narrator’s other relationships — with herself, her own public persona, and the people she meets when she quits her job as a blogger and moves to Berlin after Felix’s accident — than her relationship with him, though the way she relates the mostly observational grief that accompanies the loss of someone she had grown to quietly dislike is wholly believable.
The narrator adopts a conversational tone with her reader, addressing them directly, as when she reveals some of her first memories meeting Felix in Berlin: “I know it’s tempting to read a lot into sex, but pace yourself, you still have a lot left to read; all that really matters in the beginning is can he kiss, does he make an effort, and is his sexism overt or merely residual.” The gossipy tone is bolstered by a greek chorus of ex-boyfriends, who are a distinct part of her audience and whose reactions to her stories she often describes in a quippy aside. This is a quick stroke of genius, because of course they’re the perfect listener: they’ve obviously found the narrator attractive (and, just as importantly, intelligent) at some point, they know her neuroses, and they’re familiar with how she postures in public because they’ve known her, to some extent, in private. They toss in the grain of salt with which we’re supposed to take her self-aware posturing — including her semi-ironic foray into OkCupid once she arrives in Berlin, eventually taking a job nannying.
Around this time — in a section delineated as “Middle: Nothing Happens” — the narrator begins to frame her narrative through a parody of fragmented novels, which Oyler (or at least her narrator) doesn’t like: “this trendy style was melodramatic, insinuating utmost meaning when 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.” For the record, I think this is wrong — when done well, fragmented novels can render some narrative glue unnecessary, which can be a nice break in deeply introspective literary fiction — and Oyler would have done it well enough to prove my point had she not included some overly cute lines about “messing up” the structure by allowing herself to go on for a couple pages, or coyly remarking that this style of writing (if she utilized it) would help her understand women.
All of this makes for a very clever and entertaining comedy of manners; Fake Accounts proves that Oyler can apply her astute observational skills to fiction just as well as her criticism, and her treatment of social media is where they’re at their sharpest. The book is as close an approximation can get of what it’s like to be desperately reaching for meaning when the lines between work and life are so shot through with social media as to be rendered ineffective; when earnestness is passé, except when used sparingly by hip personalities on Twitter before returning to regularly scheduled nihilistic content. Oyler has been writing for years about how social media is the ringing in our ears, and the hopelessness of having it fade in our lifetimes. In her essay “Habitual User” for The Baffler in 2018she wrote, “Though I understand the sweeping consequences of a monopolistic data marketplace in nefarious partnership with the security state — the companies have pictures of our faces and robots that can identify them! — like many I find it difficult to care, at least to the extent that caring means changing my life. I mainly wish I could get it back.”
Most people I know use social media without acknowledging how much time/energy it siphons (or do so only sardonically) or have spent years calibrating their usage to stop it from taking over their lives. It’s easy to convince yourself you can do social media the “right” way, with your own personal method of extrapolating benefits and minimizing costs; it renders my understanding of cost-benefit analysis useless, because the benefits — wispy promises of opportunity after straight up validation — are unquantifiable.
If you’re on the subway and you don’t have a book, why not scroll through Twitter to get the news? If you work a shit job and get the same output no matter how much energy you expend, why not check Instagram to see how everyone else is passing time? What’s wrong with keeping Facebook (because solitary defections won’t lessen Zuckerberg’s power) if checking it means you can wish happy birthday to people you feel fondly towards even if you forgot their birthdays and wouldn’t have texted them, or learning that a retired family friend will be in town and they can meet you for coffee and career advice? What if a high school friend becomes famous and you were just close enough to call in a favor when it matters? What if running a company’s Twitter becomes part of your job, which might help you get a job you want? What if you’re able to organize an in-person protest or online boycott? All of these possibilities, which can be twisted into something positive, end up calcifying into your screen time. And for people in media, publishing, and entertainment, even if you disavow the internet’s demand on your time and attention, chances are your employers don’t. If your job indirectly demands an online presence, it’s hard to abstain, when the only thing it might eat up is your time — which we’ve all been training for years to optimize infinitely. If your job is just a way to pay bills, it’s difficult to not spend time on platforms where you might take your mind off the mundanity.
Some of the cynicism that Oyler and her narrative proxy display may come from the fact that there has never been any longform subversion of the power that social media has. The ability it has to make anything instantly ubiquitous has been heralded as some kind of equalizer, as if the possibility of being “discovered” is worth dealing with the consequences of being tracked down. The power it has to shape and reinforce lexical and aesthetic norms has allowed us to think that certain highly visual victories in battles for representation are contributing to the cause, instead of the social justice equivalent of scoring an own goal. For a while, the norm on Instagram was teasing a sparkling life, but as that became passé — sorry, basic — attempts at subverting it evolved: finstas, graphically personal accounts, rejecting even slight curation of photographs in favor of close-ups of nonsexual body parts, post-ironic peace signs, blurry birds near trash cans, and other deliberately unframed photos of reality. We insist that there are millions of ways to “be online” because it wraps us in the cozy delusion that social media highlights our individuality more than any group vulnerability. I’m including here, by the way, the people who have publicly resigned themselves to the logged-on life, embrace it, are committed to this bit, pull attention to the hours of the morning in which they post, make constant nihilistic jokes about their usage, double down on giving up because it’s the ironic or realist thing to do, yet somehow also act as if their recognition of the hopeless power dynamics completely differentiates them from people who post pretty pictures and don’t care how much money Kevin Systrom makes. As posts from those who posture as outside the social media mainstream still result in the same type of engagement, they may not be subversions so much as capitulations. People say that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. But the opposite of indifference isn’t love, it’s engagement.
How can you subvert power held by those whose platforms structure and infiltrate everything from the way you absorb news, form relationships, perceive beauty and progress, and are introduced to anything on the cutting edge, and sign away your decision rights? The social media cleanse craze, which redirects attention to our personal habits, bubbled up in part because the drive to subvert social media has come and gone unsuccessfully. The only true subversion might be logging off completely, which feels futile; even if you chucked your smartphone, you’d still be surrounded by them. The observations and behaviors of the woman in Fake Accounts begin from a place of already having to come to terms with all of this, and inextricably tied to her awareness that fitting into a certain kind of white womanhood — yoga, sexiness ironically divorced from sex, middle class banalities — doesn’t absolve her even from the embarrassment of going through those motions and in fact, makes it feel worse.
A related intrigue that Fake Accounts deftly executes, so smoothly as to almost be incidental even though of course it isn’t, is capturing interpersonal dynamics as perceived by young women who have had to broker some sort of peace with themselves regarding the fact that there is almost nothing that doesn’t feel like a performance, especially when dealing with men. I like to impishly maintain that I no longer give men the opportunity to send me into an incandescent rage; this is pretty farcical for a variety of reasons, mainly that the (few) men actually in my life have been extensively vetted, most of my close friends routinely date women, getting infuriated by men in politics isn’t productive because they don’t care what I think (please do not email me to ask if I “used my voice” to vote), and I am now old enough to no longer have the energy, usually, to get mad at men on the internet. My Venn Diagram of being angry at men and being angry at the state of the country has mostly dissolved, which is not to say that I subscribe to the feminism that insists any woman in charge, anywhere, at anytime, would automatically make something better, but that it’s exhausting and unproductive to continuously draw those distinctions and react accordingly. Also, like Oyler’s narrator, I generally prefer other people to assume I’m able to manage my emotions in an intellectual yet also very chill way, revealing them only when I decide it’s appropriate and am completely in control (this is very aspirational). Yet the final thing that Felix says to the narrator, which we learn at the end, sent me into the kind of throw-the-book-out-the-window mood captured by Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. The fact that Fake Accounts is fiction should have tempered the feeling; but the last few pages of the book, more than anything else, hit me like the amalgamation of every aggravating “self aware” man I have ever met, and Oyler rendered it so cleanly, and didn’t even have to make the book revolve around him to drive the point home. It’s the cleverest ending to a book I’ve read in a long time, and I’ll be thinking of it while reading everyone else’s reviews of this book when they come out and the discourse that might follow — knowing that might be entirely by design.
By ducking and weaving around earnestness, by painting so lurid a portrait of how performative irony online can calcify emotional muscles and corrode the ability to relate to others in a way that isn’t mediated by technology at all, Oyler has created a narrator who is both wholly unreliable, pretty unlikeable, and something of a stand-in for her own public persona. I cannot tell whether I would have liked the style of Fake Accounts as much had it not come from someone whose writing and opinions I mostly already trust, or if I would have thought it overly defensive in her need to set it apart from the other contemporary voices of a generation, when they’re usually all talking over each other anyway. But figuring that out seems to be, as Oyler might have put it, entirely beside the point.
Sophia Kaufman is a reader and editor living in New York. You can reach her at @skmadeleine or [email protected].