One of the consolations of literature—and one of its uncanny terrors—is discovering some secret, perverse fantasy, which you had previously imagined to be yours alone, reflected on the page. This is also a counterargument to the charge that fiction, especially “realistic” fiction (and especially the novel), is an exhausted medium. That complaint is almost as old as the novel itself, and it seems that every few decades we are required to re-litigate the question of whether or not long stories full of made-up people having made-up thoughts about fake situations are useful, necessary, timely, relevant. The novel’s sheer persistence in the face of these attempts to cancel it must say something about the form’s ability to speak to the underground desires of at least some portion of the population.
For me, such a moment of recognition came about one-third of the way through Lauren Oyler’s debut novel, Fake Accounts. Very minor spoiler: the unnamed narrator—whom you would be forgiven for assuming to be some version of Oyler herself—has learned that her boyfriend just died in a bicycle accident. It is 2017. They both have been living in New York City. The narrator has gone to Washington D.C. for the Women’s March. Her boyfriend, Felix, had gone “somewhere upstate” to go cycling. It doesn’t strike her as unusual, but perhaps it should. “This was consistent with other things he did.” Felix’s consistency has an ersatz quality, the studied appearance of a put-on. Through the narrator and Felix’s somewhat awkward initial meet-cute in Berlin, their subsequent transatlantic courtship, and his eventual move to New York, the book has already established that Felix marches to his own beat. A child of some degree of wealth and privilege, he has an abstracted quality that is hard to pin down. He seems governed by undiscernible whims and maintains, by the way, a shockingly sparse online presence.
The narrator reacts to Felix’s death first with predictable numbness, then, equally predictably, tears. Then she reflects. She had already decided to break up with him after her D.C. trip because she had just learned an equally shocking truth: Felix did maintain an online presence, a secret one, as a right-wing conspiracist and provocateur. The narrator is as upset by the secretiveness of these fake accounts as she is by their content. It is one thing to be an online troll, but to not share it with your girlfriend? And so, sitting in bed with a bottle of wine at a friend’s house, she stops crying, hides under a blanket, and thinks “nothing.”
Was there something to be sad about? I had been with a person; I had come to see him as despicable; twinges of doubt about that assessment were chalked up to memories and hormones and ultimately redoubled my certainty of his contemptibility; now we were no longer together. I had already mentally separated Felix who had become, I guess you could say, despite it seeming a little on the nose, dead to me. From a certain perspective, the only difference between this and a messy breakup was that now I could be certain we would never see each other again. The elimination of this possibility could only be good. What’s more, my memories of Felix would be mine, to do with what I please, rather than subject to objection from the only person who knew them as well as I did.
To read this is to feel very seen, as we’d say online, by another person’s imagination. I can’t be the only one who encountered this passage and remembered the dread of what I knew would be the messy end of a relationship, or the horrible guilty pleasure of briefly imagining how much neater, how much easier it might be if only, in place of a breakup, there were some bloodless, offscreen demise.