Novel Fake Accounts takes on internet lies and how we scam ourselves
The fiction debut by Lauren Oyler, the formidable literary critic known for taking down your faves, wants you to know you’re not a pawn of late-capitalist techno-dystopia.
By Pete Voelker
It’s not often that you know a lot about exactly what an author thinks a novel should be before their fiction debut hits the shelves. So, the hype around Lauren Oyler’s fiction debut, Fake Accounts, is more than understandable given her reputation as a literary critic capable of producing some of the most unsparing takes in the industry. As one writer put it, she’s “saying all the quiet bits out loud.”
Oyler’s criticism can be abstruse in its individual points, but it is clear in intent. It’s not done for the sake of provocation -- she gives a lot of time and careful thought to the books she writes about, and the authors’ intentions. Her analysis always makes a wider point about what’s going on in the culture, and often manages to do something quite unlikely -- cause a book review to go viral. The first obvious question to ask Lauren, who when I speak to her via video is in Ithaca, New York, waiting to be allowed back into Berlin where she lives part-time, is about reading her own reviews. The answer is that she would like to be so bored of talking about her novel that she won’t bother. “But realistically, will I read them? Probably? Obviously, the hope is that everyone will say it's the most brilliant book ever and there's simply nothing bad that can be said about it, though we wanted to really badly, we simply couldn't.” So far, that has mostly been the case, with just a couple of exceptions.
Most are in agreement that Fake Accounts successfully renders the slippery horror of recent history. But it does more than that. Beginning just prior to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential inauguration, the novel is an incisive satire that takes aim at notions of personal authenticity, the unfocused desperation and desire wound up in being very online, and the blame we lay on social media for our current malaise. It scoffs at the posturing of mainstream feminism (an easy target) as it exists in ugh, men tweets, and debates the value in the optics of protesting, among other topics angrily and ironically tossed about on social media. All of this is done with an unrelenting rigour that invites the same from the reader, with questions that flip back on themselves.
The amount of things that we see makes us feel that we see everything.
The narrator, an unnamed white woman in her twenties who works in media, is grappling with the tumult of the time, but mostly, when we first meet her, she’s grappling with the concept of her long-term boyfriend, Felix, a cryptic character opaque in his innermost thoughts and motivations. Consequently, she does what any reasonable person would do when faced with this situation, and snoops through his phone. She finds no answers, only stranger questions still, as she discovers his secret Instagram account, one peddling conspiracy theories of the kind that have helped Trump to power, and with a decent following of believers. While deciding how to confront her soon-to-be-ex -- she says she no longer likes him -- she receives a call informing her that he has just died.
It’s then that the narrator starts to blithely create her own deceptions, spinning lies in both her personal and professional lives. In the end (semi-spoiler alert), she discovers that Felix took control of his own persona in the most complete way possible (I’ll avoid giving away how exactly). Ensuring that the plot remained believable was, Lauren says, a fun challenge. She thinks that despite most of our lives being easily trackable online, it would be possible to disappear, and not even by going to great lengths. “You could say [Felix] does use technology to his advantage, even though the conventional wisdom would be that, oh you couldn't do that now because everybody would figure it out online. But it’s that sort of collective certainty which is very easily manipulated.”
Conspiracy theorists create collective certainties for an increasingly large segment of the population, preying on a need for meaning and structure, and providing somewhere to lay blame for the state of things. But the rest of us, the book suggests, are in thrall to our own collective certainties. We believe that what we do matters most of the time, and that other people are simultaneously always watching us, judging us, and thinking about us and what we do. This is not a new human development, but it has of course been intensely heightened by social media, which has played into our compulsive need to be seen and heard by making it much easier to access an audience at any time. Every image and opinion we share conjures our spectators and their imagined considerations of us. We know a throwaway comment could blow up in a good way or a bad way, or perhaps worse, be ignored, leaving us both craving and a little concerned about attention.
Fake Accounts’ narrator is very self-aware, intensely analytical and above all, hyper-alert to the idea of being seen by others. In a metafictional move, she is writing the book about her experience, regularly invoking imagined responses from a chorus of ex-boyfriends to the things she is telling the reader about herself, sometimes using them to blur her motivations (“The ex-boyfriends are shaking their heads… now they too think I’m protesting too much.” ), while also working to make it appear that she is giving us the full, honest picture of herself. “There's this inherently unstable quality about her using [the ex-boyfriends] and relaying to the reader what they say… and who are they? It could be one her worst ex-boyfriends chiming in, or a really smart person you would take seriously, you don't really know,” says Lauren. Alongside this, the narrator is telling the reader at length about the details of all of her deceptions.
Felix is the counterweight to being very online. He is, as Lauren says, “enacting in a sort of ham-fisted way, a kind resistance to this tell-all confessional, look-at-me online persona. And I think that there are quite a lot of people who do resist that, and don't feel that it's an imperative. We just don't see them. The amount of things that we see makes us feel that we see everything, right? And so I was interested in imagining what's in the negative space.” What Felix gains from his frustrating detachment is what the narrator chooses to relinquish. “I had ceded my thoughts in exchange for becoming the focus of attention, and now I had less control over who I was to other people,” she writes. The haziness of who he is is both frustrating and compelling. He remains a mystery to the narrator, and yet for all her focus on describing herself, her understanding of a need for self-awareness is so acute that she can’t see beyond the construction of her own personas, remaining a question mark to even herself.
One of the things I was responding to, while I was writing the book is this aggressive assertion that everything in our lives is governed by these abstract forces.
Fake Accounts asks the question, what are the consequences of the lies we tell ourselves and others? What are the repercussions of creating our carefully cultivated personas, for not always being “authentic”. And the answer it offers, in opposition to many of the soul-searching articles populating the mediascape, is that maybe there aren’t any. While feeding lies to just about everyone she comes into contact with, the narrator imagines what might happen if she’s caught out. But even when she slips up, the person on the receiving end of the untruths seems largely unconcerned. “It was very important to me that neither she, nor Felix in the end, had really any consequences,” Lauren adds, “except widespread confusion and weird feelings.” In a sense, this is liberating, but it also underscores the feeling of unease that runs through the novel. The lack of consequence has more to do with our sense of disconnection, which can’t be easily explained away by our preoccupation with “sexy frameworks”.
“One of the things I was responding to, while I was writing the book, is this sort of aggressive, quite simplistic assertion that everything in our lives is governed by these abstract forces -- everything's capitalism, everything is patriarchy, everything's racism. And we're all pawns. And first of all, that does not make for a good work of art in any way. But also, it's just not true. It's theoretical, which is, you know, useful as theory. But I think that there's been this loss of understanding about what a theory is, and what a fact is, even on the left,” she continues.
The novel’s preoccupation with our current preoccupation with authenticity and persona abounds. But rather than moralising on the topic (which tends to encourage lazy collective certainty), what Fake Accounts suggests is that the frequency with which we behave illogically, weirdly, pointlessly, while trying to make sense of ourselves through the prisms of received wisdom, is just stifling our own agency. “Felix had been right. I had known since I found the account that his manipulative insincerity was a fair response to the way the world was,” the narrator tells us. Yes, social media can help to tease out the worst in us, but we cannot ignore that we are setting our own traps. The internet is completely terrible, and it’s also not that bad.
This isn’t a novel that sets out to uplift; it is, after all, a realist novel. The voice of the narrator, trapped as she is by her reflection, creates a feeling of claustrophobia that echoes the experience of contemporary existence. But it’s a book that is compelling in its determination to ask these questions without spoon-feeding the reader any easy, or comfortable answers. We’ll have to come with our own, which might be possible if we can look beyond the confines of today’s idea of self-awareness. Sometimes things don’t mean much but we try to give them weight, other times there are things that should mean more but we don’t see them because we think we see everything. “Who cared about him? No one,” the narrator asks of Felix. “Yet were we not all supposed to be at least a little important online?”