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.
Gore Vidal once observed in an interview that he “used to be a famous novelist.” His interviewer replied that he was still well known and widely read. Vidal replied, archly, that he wasn’t talking about himself specifically, but rather that the “category has vanished.” I thought of this exchange when deciding how to describe Oyler. My initial impulse was to call her a “prominent” reviewer and critic. Is there such a thing as a prominent book reviewer anymore? Either way, Oyler is a widely published critic who is a sharp, idiosyncratic, and very entertaining writer, by turns generous and witheringly skeptical. Her appreciation of Shirley Hazzard made me pick up The Transit of Venus, which I’d never read, and The Great Fire, which I’d read too hastily to really appreciate; a 2018 review of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood made me reconsider a book that I had found to be, frankly, a bit exasperating.
On her more skeptical side, Oyler is one of our most perceptive observers of the excesses and derangements of internet-driven literary celebrity. Take her review of Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This, the short-story collection that followed her viral sensation, “Cat Person,” in which Oyler witheringly compared reading the book to downloading Tinder: “I certainly wouldn’t be here if so many other people weren’t already.” Or when she panned Jia Tolentino’s lavishly praised Trick Mirror and drove right to the heart of the problems with social-media self-presentation. I think some people found her review harsh, but as a reluctant (all right, not so reluctant) connoisseur of online personae, reading her review felt to me like meeting a half-stranger’s eye at a bar over some other drinker’s bullshit story. Who does she think she’s kidding, huh?
All of this makes Oyler’s decision to try her hand at fiction, and to try her hand at a novel about life and identity on- and offline in the Trump era, interesting and a bit audacious. Literary ambition shadows many book critics’ work, and many critics’ work stalks their literary ambition. Gore Vidal at his best was a marvelous and ingenious novelist who was probably right to grumble that his durable fame as a writer would come from his essays. Susan Sontag and Joan Didion were both awful novelists who couldn’t stop trying even though their genius lay elsewhere. James Wood’s The Book Against God is unreadable.
So let me get this out of the way: Lauren Oyler is a good novelist. Fake Accounts is not a dilettante’s effort, nor the work of a critic who, having marinated in other authors’ books for too long, decides that she can do one better. That isn’t to say that it has no flaws. It has a coyly ironic relationship to autofiction that can grate. Okay, we get it, she’s you and not you. Its meta-fictive conceits can likewise feel a bit clunky—at one point, the narrator, speaking to a “rich friend,” says that she’s “been quietly preparing to flee the country and write a novel.” Immediately, the bracketed observation: “[NOT this one].” Okay, we get it. The basic narrative premise of Fake Accounts—jilted/disappointed semi-autobiographical narrator flees home for Berlin and writes a book about it—is such a post-Isherwood cliché that it could have stood as a knowing joke on its own. It’s already funny, without the wink and the nudge.
Such minor missteps aside, Fake Accounts really is a knowing and hilariously bleak updating of the Berlin Stories model for our own stupid, self-satisfied, fascist-adjacent age. Our narrator meets Felix on a trip to Berlin. Felix, an American, is leading English-language pub crawls and club tours at the time. She wills herself to like him; wills a romantic encounter; wills a relationship. She both understands what she is doing and does not. She returns to New York, where she works for an internet publication on the mold of Vice or a pre-lawsuit Gawker. Her depictions of this content mill have their own true-to-life quality. “[I] developed my tone, a rote, pseudo-intellectual dismissiveness that could be applied to any topic so long as the worst political implications (ideally, that the thing being discussed was bad for women) were spelled out by the end of the article,” the narrator explains. Felix eventually moves to New York as well. Their relationship progresses, even as it remains emotionally dissipated. Eventually she discovers his secret identity, resolves to break up with him, goes to D.C. After he dies, she quits her job, takes her savings, and goes back to Berlin, where she finds a cheap apartment share with a German woman who wants to practice her English. She writes emails, tries and fails to ignore Twitter, and eventually embarks upon a kind of life experiment in which she attempts to concoct her own fictitious identities, online and in real life, through the medium of online dating apps.
This experiment occupies much of the latter half of the novel. The lies the narrator tells are amusingly inept, and in a lesser novel, they would have been milked for mere cringe, the reader’s queasy knowledge that the house of cards is about to tumble and the narrator is about to be caught out and revealed in some humiliating fashion. In fact, no one seems to care enough to penetrate her subterfuges. In one early example, she heads to meet a date and decides “to tell him that my father had written a seminal geography textbook in the eighties and that he’d recently died, leaving me three million dollars.” But before she can begin to spin her story, her date feels “he should make his customary disclosure, making a ninety-degree turn from a lively description of the classes he taught at the John F. Kennedy School.” He is, he tells her, a “Relationship Anarchist,” and proceeds to explain in excruciating detail both the moral and practical precepts of a kind of Ayn Randified polyamory-plus. This exchange occurs IRL, but it has the distinct stamp of contemporary life subsumed by the Balkanized ideological ferment of the internet. What once might have been mere eccentricity has now become this or that “community,” and every possibly human tendency can now find a revolutionary cell and the makings of a manifesto.
It is perhaps fitting that Oyler’s story begins on the eve of Donald Trump’s ascension, while the book’s real-world publication took place as he departed, banned from the very social-media networks for whom he was both an avatar and a demiurge for so many years. More so than his actual presidency, his rise to dominance and then dizzyingly swift fall on Twitter seem to mark a particular era, now ending. It is strange to say so for a book that tells such a recent story, but Fake Accounts already feels in some sense like a historical novel, a madcap, crackpot, Hilary Mantel–encounter with the interior life of a person from a past that’s already becoming alien. Even the idea of gallivanting off to Europe, a central conceit of the story and something that I myself used to do with hardly a second thought, feels like an inscrutable transmission sent to these plague-inflected times from a lost world.
This slippage of time, the discombobulating weirdness of total and immediate global interconnectivity even as events, epochs, and history just keep scrolling forward, is also alluded to, or anticipated, in Fake Accounts, when the narrator discovers that
looking at the internet on my phone in bed in the morning in Europe was functionally equivalent to looking at the internet on my phone in bed at 3 a.m. in the U.S.; no matter how much I scrolled, it wasn’t enough to rouse the people I knew to post on Twitter or, more to the point, read anything I might have posted. They were asleep! How stupid not to have considered this technicality, that relocation to a new time zone would make it harder for me to access my method for coping with difficult things, such as relocating to a new time zone.
She finds herself “ahead of everyone, spinning my wheels, with no one to acknowledge my existence at the customary intervals.” She is overcome by boredom, which is our world’s version of loneliness. There but for the grace of God, etc.
Like the Trump era, the twenty-teens, whatever, Fake Accounts ultimately rushes to a somewhat dissatisfying conclusion, with a hasty (and rather predictable) twist that isn’t exactly a deus ex machina but isn’t exactly not a deus ex machina. If you want a critique of the novel as a form, though, this might be it: they gotta end somewhere, unless you are Balzac. When I published my own first novel, my father read it and said to me that it was great, but what happens? Meaning, what happens next. The hell if I know, I replied. Lives, even fake ones, just keep going, but books do not. This explains part of the appeal and the addictiveness of social media, which exists in a perpetual state of unending. Everything in medias res. No matter how much time you spend online, the next time you log on, you’re in the middle of something familiar and yet new, trying to figure out what everyone is talking about. Fake Accounts does a good job of evoking that slightly manic, vibrating feeling of waking up and reaching for your phone while also knowing that you shouldn’t. It is not entirely pleasant; it mimics the guilty feeling of pouring yourself a drink at five minutes to five o’clock. That is the internet for you: uncomfortable, sprawling, maddening, and incomplete. It isn’t necessarily the how or why of how we live, but it is certainly the where and the now.
$26 | 272 pp.