The internet makes us weird, and we do strange things for attention there. That’s an uncontroversial statement, but the heavily online continue scrolling anyway. We’ve even come up with names for what social media, in particular, does to the human mind after prolonged exposure: brain worms, poster’s brain, terminal onlineness. These describe the desire to chronicle our days in public as we are living them and to base our satisfaction off the approval of others. They also cover the more advanced stages of the disease, where users begin to inhabit a very different kind of personality online: needlessly aggressive, uncommonly flippant, and primed to see all kinds of interaction as a zero-sum game—especially when a poster spends more of their waking time on the internet than off, like during lockdown.
On the same internet where we are encouraged to hyperbolize our behavior, to double down when overwhelmed with criticism and then to disappear, Lauren Oyler is best known as a critic—a harsh one. She’s skeptical of consensus, unconvinced by sentimentality, and her work is regularly the talk of the literary town; her takedown of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror crashed the London Review of Books’ website. Now Oyler’s debut novel, Fake Accounts, is up for review. Unfortunately for anyone hoping for quick revenge, it’s self-assured and stylish. According to Merve Emre’s survey of the state of literary fiction in The Drift, a particularly popular contemporary genre “is the novel of self-fashioning, though the self that is fashioned, we are reminded, is mere simulacrum—an unnamed, over-filtered, extremely online, precarious shape-shifter.” Fake Accounts is one of those novels, and the novel is less a story and more a long reminder.
At its start, an unnamed narrator is recounting the end of her relationship with her boyfriend, Felix. The two met in Berlin; their romance curdled in New York, but the two are still together. Felix is manipulative, confusing, and closed-off, though in small enough quantities that he’s not actively hateful. Still, the narrator doesn’t actually like him all that much. Then, snooping through his phone, she finds that instead of having no social media like he’d said, he runs anonymous conspiracy-peddling accounts. He’s not a true believer, she concludes; she knows he likes to tell “little, inconsequential lies and build slightly alternate realities out of them, a game with no objective except to delight himself.”
The narrator schemes about how best to play her hand. She decides to attend the 2017 Women’s March in D.C. before triumphantly breaking up with Felix and taking her place as the unquestionably wronged party, worthy of sympathy and fascination. We know this because we read her examining and justifying her own desires, performing self-awareness that ultimately hides how she really feels, if she feels anything at all. The D.C. of the novel is very much Washington, for locals who might be interested (Brooklyn and Berlin are drawn much more fully). She meets up with someone in Shaw, gets penned in by bodies near the Capitol, and, while out to eat with a friend, gets a call informing her that Felix is dead. Adrift, she moves to Berlin with few plans and no friends, and she uses dating apps to invent characters that she plays on dates with a motley crew of suitors. That is what happens, more or less, with a twist at the end.
Clearly, Fake Accounts is not interested in plot. It’s interested in self-fashioning. The narrator is writing a novel, which is ostensibly what we’re reading, to explain herself or acquit herself or both. She self-defensively responds to an imagined Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends. She mocks the fragmentary structure popularized by writers like Jenny Offill, only to interrupt herself with “Fuck! I messed up the structure. That one was too long.” She shares biographical details (places lived and worked, the same Twitter avatar) with the author, while knowingly referencing Ben Lerner’s autofiction. And though the narration looks confessional at first glance, it isn’t. The novel is just one more place, like the internet, where the narrator can control her own story. Nothing is of real consequence; no actual feelings are bared, and as a result, no emotional damage is ventured. The most emotion we see from her—fear, confusion, self-pity—comes after she rides her bike into a patch of stinging nettles in Berlin. The physical pain plus the confusion (she’s American, she’s never heard of the plant) sends her into a kind of hysterical overdrive. Those are the stakes: Fall off your bike, get a painful rash, the kind schoolchildren get. Nothing else actually affects her. Or, at least, she won’t show us anything else.
There’s no need for an Oyler-esque review of Fake Accounts; it’s ambitious and accomplished, and quite funny about working in online media, online dating, and relationships mediated by the internet. Its lack of story leaves the reader only with the cultivated, claustrophobic sense that instead of turning pages, one is scrolling through the timeline. Mimicking your-brain-on-Twitter does provide representation for some extremely online self-destructive millennial women.
Fake Accounts. Catapult, 265 pages.