Lauren Oyler’s ‘Fake Accounts’ Captures the Relentlessness of Online Life

Why read? For some time, intellectuals have answered this question by staring mistily into the distance, possibly while fondling copies of their own books, and invoking, in tremulous tones, something called “inwardness.”

“A novel worth reading is an education of the heart,” Susan Sontag said. “It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” Novels teach us “how to be alone,” Jonathan Franzen has written; they stoke, says Sven Birkerts, “the more reflective component of self.” That we possess inwardness at all is thanks to literature, Harold Bloom claimed, attributing the very conception of the inner life to Shakespeare.

Whether or not the conjuring of such inwardness is reading’s greatest pleasure for you, at the very least we might agree that inwardness is a necessary precondition for creating anything worth reading.

Or so I have believed. Here I sit, having just completed a novel that lines up these pieties and threatens to dispatch them with calm and ruthless efficiency.

Lauren Oyler’s first novel, “Fake Accounts,” is about many things: artifice, authenticity, being an American abroad, being an American at home. But it is most thoroughly and exuberantly about the hunched, clammy, lightly paranoid, entirely demented feeling of being “very online” — the relentlessness of performance required, the abdication of all inwardness, subtlety and good sense. Of sighing in full recognition of these charges and opening another tab.

It was a punishment for Dostoyevsky’s characters to be tormented by all those voices, internal and external; now we call it being connected. “So many people,” Oyler writes, “talking, mumbling, murmuring, muttering, suggesting, gently reminding, chiming in, jumping in, just wanting to add, just reminding, just asking, just wondering, just letting that sink in, just telling, just saying, just wanting to say, just screaming, just *whispering*, in all lowercase letters, in all caps, with punctuation, with no punctuation, with photos, with GIFs, with related links, Pay attention to me!”

This novel hinges on a disturbing discovery. The narrator, a blogger for a feminist website, has been dating the saintly, slightly inscrutable Felix. She pokes around on his phone one night while he’s sleeping and discovers his secret life on the internet as a hugely popular conspiracy theorist.

Their relationship had always been “porous and insecure.” For a while, she treasures this secret and the warm feeling of superiority over Felix. Or so she says; she’s guarded in front of the reader. “I just can’t stand the thought of seeming irrationally carried away by emotion and unable to freestyle my way back to the calm waters of reason,” she tells us. “I believe it hurts the feminist cause. And, worse, makes me personally look bad.”

You recognize that voice immediately — it’s a voice shaped by the internet: ironic, inexplicably defensive, “funny.” The narrator punctuates her jokes: “Ha ha, ha ha.”

Before she can confront Felix, she receives news that he has died. She moves to Berlin, where they met and where she writes the novel we are reading. If the dull, continuous roar of social media isn’t interruption enough for her, she imagines a Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends reading over her shoulder, criticizing and annotating her every line. She begins dating again but adopts different personas in a vaguely conceived social experiment: “My deception would not be selfish, cruelly manipulative of innocents looking for love, but a rebellion against an entire mode of thinking, which was not really thinking at all, just accepting whatever was advertised to you. Dare I say: It was political?”

That’s the plot, and it couldn’t matter less. It exists, one suspects, just to get the character to Berlin, and that for no palpable reason. We experience the book locked into the consciousness of the narrator, and that consciousness largely resides on — and has been shaped in response to — Twitter.

My favorite line: “Throughout my childhood I’d been warned that I’d grow up to spend a significant portion of my time doing something I could barely stand,” the narrator tells us, “but I’d been led to believe I would be paid for it.”

The novel has Points it would like to make — about self-mythologizing on the internet and in life, the overlap of the virtual and the actual; they are obvious and easily mapped. The riffs are its strongest aspects. Social media has lurked in the background of contemporary literary fiction, only occasionally becoming a plot point (Megha Majumdar’s “A Burning” is set in motion by a Facebook post). Sometimes it becomes the big boogeyman (Dave Eggers’s “The Circle”), but here it feels, finally, fully and thoroughly explored, with style and originality. Oyler writes well about flowing from platform to platform during a daylong conversation, about how staring at the internet can somehow be compulsion and reward.

Like the narrator, Oyler has worked in feminist media. She’s also written two books with Alyssa Mastromonaco, the former deputy chief of staff for operations under President Obama. But she’s best known for her scathing critiques of popular writers like Roxane Gay and Jia Tolentino.

There’s a particular move Oyler favors in her reviews. She likes to begin by quoting someone saying something stupid. “A guy I know, mid-30s, recently told me he’d never really considered having a kid until he listened to the audiobook of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle.’ I marveled at this display of male simplicity,” she writes at the start of a piece about Sheila Heti’s novel “Motherhood.” Her review of “Having and Being Had,” by Eula Biss, begins much the same way, with Oyler at a cafe, opening her laptop with its sticker: “NEVER WORK.” A woman (supposedly) chirps at her: “If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life!” In another interaction, which opens an essay about the word “necessary,” a woman laments about how little art seems to matter in the middle of a political emergency: “I can’t see how anyone justifies talking about books anymore.”

You can get away with this sort of thing in a review, if you want to — creating dramas in which you, the critic, get to burst in waving a little sword, setting the world right. But can this safe, self-certain, self-congratulatory voice sustain a novel? “Fake Accounts” is, essentially, many of these interactions strung together. Oyler’s characters are unapologetic foils, useful idiots babbling on about “wellness” and turmeric who allow our brilliant, irascible narrator to rant eloquently at familiar targets, like patronizing self-professed “male feminists,” bourgeois white women who insist they are oppressed.

Although the writer gestures to other contemporary novelists, to Ben Lerner and Elif Batuman — and in one excellent section to the film version of “Harriet the Spy” (she identifies with Harriet’s meanness) — the experience the novel most replicated for me was reading Twitter. The book isn’t written in little bursts or fragments (a form the narrator deplores, and parodies to good effect), but the tone is identical, that callow, quippy cleverness, the disdain. In her forthcoming book, “No One Is Talking About This,” Patricia Lockwood writes that the internet was once “the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually it had become the place where we sounded like each other.” This tone is leavened, by Oyler, with heaping knowingness: “My rent being so low that I am not going to tell you what it was, teetering as I am already on the border between likable and loathsome.”

On that knowingness: The novel’s sections are titled “Beginning,” “Middle (Nothing Happens),” “Climax,” “Ending.” If I were doing the same in this review, I might name this paragraph, “Yes, But,” to announce that little volta at the conclusion of a review in which the critic, after enumerating a book’s flaws, mystifyingly recommends it anyway. “Yes, but,” I say, for all its forceful and stylish prose, for Oyler’s signature denunciation of moral equivocation and imprecision in thought and language. “Yes, but” because I felt sharpened by it, grateful for its provocations.

In one scene we see the narrator filling out a dating profile. How to describe herself? She settles on “difficult but worth it.” I might describe this novel similarly — not difficult but maddening at times, too cautious, regrettably intent on replicating the very voice it critiques. But worth it, yes, especially if you’re up for a fight, to liven up whatever inwardness remains to you.

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