“I know astrology is fake [...] who cares? It’s real enough to influence how real people think.” So says the unnamed narrator of Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler’s debut novel about a very online woman in the era of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Like the narrator, book critic Oyler offers the following theory on contemporary reality: life outside the internet is no more “real” than that within. Likewise, life can be just as fake offline.
The story begins with a lopsided, adeptly contemporized rendering of Dickens’s “It was the worst of times [...] the age of foolishness [...] the epoch of incredulity [...] the season of darkness [...] the winter of despair”:
Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon, if not by exponential environmental catastrophe then by some combination of nuclear war, the American two-party system, patriarchy, white supremacy, gentrification, globalization, data breaches, and social media.
Yet the narrator feels unsubsumed by the late-capitalist, climate-catastrophic doom that surrounds her, instead wavering between a self-assuredness via her own intellect—it cannot be truly the worst of times—and an errant state of gloom, wherein she questions the ethics of urban-millennial tendencies (such as the Women’s March, yoga classes, and her elaborate skincare routine) and indulges in such base desires as perusing her boyfriend’s phone while he is asleep. Opening the Instagram app to discover that Felix, who has claimed to be off social media, is secretly an alt-right influencer, the narrator is giddy with relief, having found an excuse to finally break up with him. She seems less curious about the motives behind @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_ than she is eager to use the revelation to her immediate benefit, to claim the last hurrah in their more than yearlong cold war:
[H]is smug zen was frustrating, not something that was ever going to inspire feelings of safety or long-lasting love. You could only pin him down by virtue of not being able to pin him down, his sociability entirely calculated and his flirtatiousness equal-opportunity.
Disingenuous or actually depthless, Felix even punishes the narrator’s small acts of earnest: "When I’d nod my head along with the music in a café or make some other minor performance of impromptu joy, he’d often look distraught or even ask me, glancing around, as if truly uncomfortable, to stop."
This tension brews throughout the rest of the book, wherein the narrator does two things: process her feelings towards Felix, and try desperately to one-up him in their unspoken contest of righteousness. Even while Felix is absent for much of the book, he remains a prominent figure in the narrator’s mind, one that makes little room for friends (they give trite advice), other women (they are impossible to understand), and New York, which she departs for Berlin, where she and Felix first met, following the news of Felix’s death in a bike accident. This event finally brings the narrator some respite from his challenging presence, as well as from the blogging job that she has come to despise. It then amplifies the numbness with which she lives, causing her to stay up later on social media and to begin a new life as a jaded, frivolous expat who roams dating apps as much as she does Berlin. Before leaving the U.S., she jokes to her concerned friends, “It’s kind of like he ghosted me.” Like many young writers with a large number of Twitter followers, Oyler has fashioned an appealing voice of wry outbursts, semantic takedowns, and topical wit. Acutely aware of the presence of an audience, she speaks so as to uphold a certain appearance, resulting in her book’s own diversion from more substantive truths:
It was a strategy I often used with my mother: offer some tidbit of what most people would consider intimate information but which you do not care about sharing with others [...] and the person thinks they are close with you, that they know some essential thing about your character.
Fake Accounts operates via this kind of tactical self-restraint, retracting from any deeper inquiry into the themes it alluringly introduces: the ego, (non)connection, lies, doomscrolling. Accustomed to sneering—typically from a distance, and never for too long—the narrator litters provocative questions throughout the book that seem intended as discourse but lack the risk and openness such conversation requires. Her penchant for lists (“thirty-two, six foot one, straight, thin, white, Asian, atheist”; “Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, 4chan, 8chan, Meetup, GitHub, Medium, Quora, Yahoo! Answers”; “maybe pityingly, maybe exasperatedly, maybe patronizingly, maybe guiltily, maybe shamefully, maybe ruefully, maybe matter-of-factly”) seems indicative of this, as though putting something out there were the same as saying something. In one anecdotal “sex scene” (introduced as such verbatim), the narrator shows up uninvited to Felix’s apartment one night. The unease of both an needlessly unfamiliar space—the narrator has only visited there a few times despite their committed relationship—and Felix’s lukewarm welcome is gradually dissipated by their mutual sexual attraction, and the narrator gives him a blowjob despite a sudden desire, mid foreplay, not to have sex. The situation is troubling and not unfamiliar, yet the narrator does little with its essential tension. By intellectualizing the scene, she meanders out of it, wondering whether a woman can fuck rather than merely be fucked (presumably by a man) and finally offering, blasé, that “[i]t was my responsibility to go down on him, not necessarily now but sometimes, and if I didn’t do it now, I would have to do it some other time.” The narrator clarifies this divertive tendency earlier in the book: “[i]t didn’t have to make me look bad [...] so long as I spun it the right way; a laughing confidence would make anyone doubt their harsh judgment of my judgment.” “Ha ha,” she writes cautiously, on the cusp of a feeling yet unsullied by explanation, clarification, or defense—this section (and her poignantly hollow days in the immediate wake of Felix’s accident) being an exception, its ending slipping from pedantic analysis toward disarmed facts laid bare:
it felt like it would never end, like he was withholding his orgasm to demonstrate not only that he had won this battle but that I had been immature to conceive of a casual evening together as a competition in the first place—that if I continued to do that I would lose. The music was nice and I wanted to know the artist. When it was over I swallowed, as I always do, and went to the bathroom to wipe away the smudged mascara from under my eyes, and then I spent the night.
The frankness accompanying these uncomfortable, if not exactly shameful sentences is potent against the book’s predominantly guarded narration. But the next part in the chapter, parodying the in-vogue fragment structure of some contemporary literature (think Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Jenny Offill), proceeds to smother the effect of those last sentences: “Fuck! I messed up the structure. That [section] was too long.” Here, the narrator exchanges a metafictional quasi-openness for control (recall how “the person thinks they are close with you, that they know some essential thing about your character”), tightening the reins on truth each time it begins to trot. For all her unquenched curiosity about Felix’s obscure soul, the narrator hardly ponders his conspiracy theorist bent. She waves away this crucial fact—the grabbiest line in the novel’s nut graf—and instead provides a series of detached and simplistic explanations like “He might make sense, by some elaborate logic, but I would not be the one to determine how” and “BUGGED was also not a word true internet conspiracy theorists used.” The conclusion that @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_ must be ironic, insincere, untrue feels out of line with the narrator’s theory on reality; she now posits that some things are really fake (or really real, as opposed to ambiguously or superficially so) and, more crucially, that this renders them dismissible by her own hand. Following a brief gesture to sympathize with the more archetypical conspiracy theorist who, unlike the well-off, art-schooled Felix, might be “a wayward soul down on his luck, uneducated and left behind,” she halts any further investigation into the matter. In another attempt to explain Felix, the narrator muses that, not unlike herself, “maybe [Felix] did care, but he didn’t want to be associated with an intensity of feeling to anyone he knew, so he had to project himself into an earnest online alter ego.” Converse to this earnestness, however, her own resistance per total scorn and gloom to the hurtling system in which she opens the novel rests upon a habitual clever irony. But this irony is also what draws her further into its vortex, like the doubts of the man in Franz Kafka’s “The Emperor”:
A man doubted that the emperor was descended from the gods; he asserted that the emperor was our rightful sovereign, he did not doubt the emperor's divine mission (that was evident to him), it was only the divine descent that he doubted. This, naturally, did not cause much of a stir; when the surf flings a drop of water onto the land, that does not interfere with the eternal rolling of the sea, on the contrary, it is caused by it.
Unlike some of the targets of Oyler’s formidable criticism (Sally Rooney's protagonists, hysterical criticism, “necessary” art)—hyped, inevitable products of an “unstoppably bad” world—the things which the narrator of Fake Accounts treats with contempt or impatience are hardly touched by her, continuing as they do in their own stupidity, goodness, earnest, or truth. Her laughter is a product of the catastrophe itself which, having caused it, also cannot do without it.
Becky (PO '22) is an English and Computer Science major from Hong Kong.