Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. Catapult, 2021. $26.00, 265 pages.
Though Fake Accounts is Lauren Oyler’s first novel, she’s no literary unknown. Her criticism and essays appear regularly in the few remaining outlets that publish negative reviews, and she’s gained a reputation for the scathing pan, diverging from consensus on books by popular authors, including Roxane Gay, Jenny Offill, and Jia Tolentino. Even when I disagree, I value Oyler’s defense of literature as an art, guided by her strong moral sense of what literary fiction should do.
Fake Accounts tests Oyler’s critical theories and deviates from trends she’s derided in her writing and in interviews. The novel isn’t a page-turning thriller or a “joylessly sellable plot,” nor does it lend itself to book-club questions or adaptation into a television series. It’s a realist work of fiction whose value lies outside of its ability to be optioned—one that will, because of how it’s told, endure as an artifact of American life under Trump. Oyler examines the grotesque realities of years of lies and gaslighting, of doomscrolling and distortion and stunted attention, filtered through a single point of view—or, as she’s written about the novelistic perspective, “a mind that may be hyperaware of its time but is not actually trapped in it.”
The novel’s opening uses the vague premonitory dread of the pre-COVID era as a backdrop for the inciting incident: a young woman’s discovery that her boyfriend is an anonymous online conspiracy theorist. When she doesn’t immediately confront him, the story adopts a parallel avoidance, detouring into a lengthy backstory of the couple’s meeting, returning to present action only to find the narrator impulsively leaving New York to attend the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.
From there, the plot meanders from its initial premise in directions I won’t reveal, and the setting shifts to Berlin. The original interpersonal conflict fades, replaced with the “aimless despair” and “twitchy, frantic boredom” of new-city isolation as the narrator is tethered to devices that deliver updates from an unrelenting news cycle (115, 117). At one point, her attention is so hijacked by the onslaught of contextless information that the story pauses as she scrolls:
I clicked on articles to open more tabs that remained there to jilt my attention… One new email, spam. Some huge percentage of Americans couldn’t find Syria on a map; an unfamiliar account I didn’t remember following said, “it’s surprising there aren’t more climate deniers among the Hillary fans, as they’ve all been frigid for the last twenty years”; a familiar account I thought I’d unfollowed said, “stop trying to make Brexit happen”; a review of The Idiot(the one by Elif Batuman) promised “revivifying pointlessness”… A spam email. I perused more profiles. I was getting a twinge in my lower back, never bothering to find a comfortable position because I always assumed I’d be getting out of bed any minute. (155-6)
While many novelists try to avoid dating their work with technological references, Oyler takes the opposite approach, crafting a narrator who’s so conscious of ephemerality that she can’t describe a phone’s fingerprint sensor without remarking on its imminent obsolescence. In its willingness to tackle the internet’s addictive lure despite the rapid pace of change, Fake Accounts is a spiritual cousin of recent nonfiction like Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley (which Oyler reviewed favorably) and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, but working in fiction allows Oyler to capitalize on the novel’s unique capabilities. She crafts a captivating first-person voice that’s a natural perspective for a generation who grew up reading blogs and social-media posts, and it’s this witty, idiosyncratic voice that propels the story, through numerous digressions, asides, and moments of stopped time that allow for deeper examination of a life lived online.
Not coincidentally, this voice is similar to Oyler’s. As the story progresses, we learn the narrator is a tall, white female blogger who lives in New York, then Berlin, with a Twitter photo “in which my hair completely covers my eyes and nose,” like Oyler’s own avatar (119). Not just Easter eggs for the Very Online, these details wink at autofiction, a trend Oyler has covered. In Bookforum, she argues that “presenting the author as what he is” may be “the most moral approach to novel writing…it is also the least ‘fake and embarrassing,’ to use Rachel Cusk’s description of traditional fiction.” In this view, using an approximation of one’s self is more honest than inventing a stand-in and assigning a fake name.
But that doesn’t mean the story isn’t fake. From the beginning, Fake Accounts underscores the fabricated nature of its own account, a narrativization that’s not reflective of the author’s lived experience (an irritating assumption of some modern readers, lamented by writers like Jami Attenberg, Kristen Roupenian, and Jamie Quatro). Oyler replaces traditional chapters with sections that mimic novel structure: Beginning, Backstory, Middle (Something Happens), Middle (Nothing Happens), Climax, End. By scaffolding the story with this echo of Freytag’s Triangle, she foregrounds the artifice of fiction, a genre in pursuit of emotional truth that can never escape its own fakery, like a self-referential ad that’s still trying to sell something. As an elder Millennial, I’m intimately familiar with this convention, and the narrator admits:
People often say my generation values authenticity. Reluctantly I will admit to being a member of my generation. If we value authenticity it’s because we’ve been bombarded since our impressionable preteen years with fakery but at the same time are uniquely able to recognize, because of the unspoiled period that stretched from our birth to the moment our parents had the screeching dial-up installed, the ways in which we casually commit fakery ourselves. We are also uniquely unwilling to let this self-awareness stop us. (45)
Along with a postmodern structure that announces itself, the book’s narrator joins a metafictional lineage dating back to Tristram Shandy in her awareness that she’s telling a story. As the backstory unfolds, she begins to address the reader: “The story of how we met is funny, enough that it may help answer one of the questions you probably have so far: Why was I with him? Keep in mind that right now, at the outset of this paragraph, I don’t completely know the answer…” (21). The tone remains conversational, occasionally pointing out the reader’s total dependence: “By this point I’d made it home and now you have no idea what the route from my yoga studio to my apartment looks like because I was looking at my phone for the entire walk.” (64) Even while recognizing her lack of awareness, she strives to be self-aware—so much so that she gives voice to her critics through frequent interjections from an imagined chorus. “The ex-boyfriends say this is because I don’t like nice guys,” she writes, “but they would say that. They should really just sit back and enjoy their coming vindication” (249).
As the narrator relays her story, she experiments with how to tell it, with varying degrees of success. In Middle (Nothing Happens), she parodies literary fragmentation, scorning it as a “trendy style [that] was melodramatic, insinuating meaning where there was only hollow prose, and in its attempts to reflect the world as a sequence of distinct and clearly formed ideas, it ran counter to how reality actually worked” (164)—a sentence that could have appeared in Oyler’s pan of Jenny Offill’s Weather. She slices her “novel” into disconnected snippets, much like a Twitter feed, which she says this style attempts to replicate. “What’s amazing about this structure,” she marvels, “is that you can just dump any material you have in here and leave it up to the reader to connect it to the rest of the work.”
As someone who appreciates this style (and a former student of Offill’s), I found the exercise petty. When executed well, fragmentation involves some degree of poetic compression, something that would benefit Fake Accounts in its long-winded moments, like the tedious sentence in which the narrator alphabetically lists 90+ countries on a posted sign. Still, there’s something fascinating about a storyteller who’s so confident in the realist superiority of her narrative approach that she will torpedo her own story to convince the reader. I kept following this voice because of how authentically it seemed to rise from the particular preoccupations of Oyler herself—or rather, my cobbled-together perceptions of a person I don’t actually know. It’s the same problematic dynamic that fuels social media, where we consume stories that confirm our worldview regardless of their accuracy and build elaborate mental constructs of other people’s lives from the curated fragments they selectively share. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to participate in the delusion.
Miraculously, Fake Accounts addresses current events and themes without feeling dated, a rare document of the Trump era that will be worth revisiting. Even under a new president, we remain captive in a political and media landscape mired by illusion, continuing to sacrifice the precious resource of our attention to the detriment of our social fabric. A novelist can’t change our behavior, but she can help us begin to see it.
Colleen Rothman lives in New Orleans, where she edits Nurture: A Literary Journal.