Exposing the deceptive, self-aggrandising absurdity of online life

Ron Charles

THE WASHINGTON POST – In Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, an inveterate liar reveals the humiliating truth about our social media age. The deceptive posing, the withering irony, the infinitely cloned political outrage – it’s all splayed out here in this witty novel that captures a certain species of Internet life better than any other book I’ve read. A century ago New York City got Edith Wharton; now the World Wide Web gets Lauren Oyler. We’re even.

The unnamed narrator of Fake Accounts is full of intellectual superiority and self-loathing, teetering “on the border between likable and loathsome”. As a White woman in Brooklyn, she refuses to identify as a White woman in Brooklyn because, she says, “the description usually signified someone selfish, lazy, and in possession of superficial understandings of complex topics such as racism and literature” – in other words, someone just like her.

That disarming candor extends throughout the novel, which is delivered in the cool, confidential tone of a narrator who anticipates every charge against her. Each scathing criticism she delivers twists into a mortifying admission. “To be clear,” she tells us at one point, “I know this is boring.” Indeed, the longest section is subtitled: Nothing Happens. Fake Accounts isn’t just a comedy of manners, it’s a literary snake that eats its own tail.

At the opening, the narrator snoops through her partner’s iPhone looking for evidence of infidelity. She confesses, “I resented my mother and online feminism for making me so paranoid.” Although she determines that her boyfriend, Felix, hasn’t strayed, she discovers something more exciting: Felix maintains a secret online life as a conspiracy theorist. Tens of thousands of people follow his paranoid postings about 9/11, the Jews, the deadly radiation of cell phones.

This sounds like the freaky opening of a thriller – a naive young woman caught in the deceptions of a man she thought she knew! – but Oyler veers off in another direction. “Instead of outrage or hurt feelings,” the narrator says, “I felt suddenly, magically free.” She’d been wanting to break up with Felix anyhow; here was the perfect guilt-free excuse. Now she could “approach the endeavour with the calm dignity befitting the partner of a person who needs help”.

Such synthetic authenticity is the signature manoeuvre of this young woman who speaks to us in long careening sentences that hit pedestrians on both sides of the road. She’s obsessed with crafting a persona in a way that renders her equally candid and shameless. “A journalist, sort of”, she is a product and a producer of Internet culture. She works as a blogger for one of those insipid online publications where she pounds out two or three articles a day for an audience that wanted “to learn things that it could trick itself into believing it had always known”. The key, she notes, is to develop “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”. In these moments – and there are many – Oyler seems to have gathered the despairing 3am thoughts of a whole class of media professionals and published them.

There is a plot here, though it’s somewhat incidental to the book’s success, which rests on the narrator’s deadpan skewering of everything from podcasts to Instagram feminism to online dating. Fake Accounts is particularly sharp when it comes to the trite, self-aggrandising liberalism that arose along with Donald Trump. “For a few months,” the narrator notes, “the political catastrophe seemed so dire that one’s music and movie preferences were no longer considered the ultimate markers of one’s moral fitness to fight fascism, which became, incredibly, a buzzword; though we could always do more or do better, there was a sense that our embarrassment of privileges could be set aside to focus on the task at hand, though what that task was I wasn’t really sure.”

Among the tiny group of people concerned with such things, Oyler is known as a fearsome literary critic (she once dismantled one of my reviews in the Nation), but Fake Accounts should bring her the vastly larger audience she deserves. Her utter disregard for being liked is nowhere more evident than when the novel shifts into a 40-page parody of those trendy women’s novels written in short sections and aphoristic sentences, “insinuating utmost meaning where there was only hollow prose”.

Oyler would seem to be taking direct aim at Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel, No One Is Talking About This, which is written in exactly that form. But these two brilliant novels, both published this month, are not adversaries so much as collaborators in a coincidental critique of our Internet-attenuated lives.

Lockwood’s unnamed protagonist became famous for posting the question, “Can a dog be twins?” That inane koan launched her globe-spanning career as a social media star. What follows is a series of isolated moments about a woman who is both a creature and a critic of the Web.

No One Is Talking About This refers to the Internet as “the portal”, which is all part of its effort to disorient us enough to see how bizarre modern life has become. The narrator, raised “to a certain airy prominence”, lives in a surreal fusion with social media. “She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than half-way,” Lockwood writes. “Why did the portal feel so private, when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?” Such are the abiding mysteries of experience engineered by a few weird billionaires in Silicon Valley. “This did not feel like real life, exactly,” she says, “but nowadays what did?”

The short sections that pour across these pages – most not much longer than a couple of tweets – offer a tour of our collective consciousness, the great cacophony of images and voices that catch the virtual world’s attention:

“She lay every morning under an avalanche of details, blissed, pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying her foundation with a hard-boiled egg, a shiba inu in Japan leaping from paw to paw to greet its own owner, ghostly pale women posting pictures of their bruises – the world pressing closer and closer, the spiderweb of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk.”

You can hear in these moments Lockwood’s experience as a poet. She’s a master of startling concision when highlighting the absurdities we’ve grown too lazy to notice. “Every day,” she writes, “their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.”

Despite her novel’s wit, there’s something almost brutal about the relentless way Lockwood draws us, eyes pried open, through the social media morass we’ve grown accustomed to: Steeped in the unfiltered flow of manicure advice, torture videos, ferret selfies, traffic accidents, birthday-cake disasters and tornado sightings, we float in a state of blasé disregard and treacly sentimentality, knowing everything and nothing. “The mind we were in was obsessive, perseverant,” Lockwood writes. “It swam with superstition and half-remembered facts pertaining to how many spiders we ate a year and the rate at which dentists killed themselves.”

“How will we preserve it for the future,” the narrator wonders, “how it felt, to be a man around the turn of the century” posting photos of his genitals online. But it’s not just the obscenity of disgorging our bodies and feelings that Lockwood stresses; it’s the unspeakable degradation of calibrating our worth according to the accumulation of likes and retweets from strangers we call “friends”.

But then after soaring into the ether of this virtual world, No One Is Talking About This reminds us, “There is still a real life to be lived.” And with that, Lockwood severs the ethernet cables. The register of the novel shifts, and its cool absurdism evaporates in the heat of the most wrenching tragedy any family could endure.

I don’t want to say more, except to note that the story’s second half may be too much for some readers. It’s a vertiginous experience, gorgeously rendered but utterly devastating. I rattled around the house for days afterwards, shattered but grateful for the reminder that the ephemeral world we’ve constructed online is a shadow compared to the pain and affection we’re blessed to experience in real life.