Scattered, Purposeless and Cold

Lauren Oyler, Fake Accounts

4th Estate, 272pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780008366520

reviewed by Nicholas Harris

When the presiding critic of English letters, James Wood, is particularly exercised by a novel, he writes a parody. Most memorably, Zadie Smith in 2000 and Paul Auster in 2009 received this treatment, a ruthless paragraph lampooning the former’s ‘hysterical realism’ and the latter’s metafictional banality. Upon finishing Fake Accounts, I wondered if Lauren Oyler had attempted something similar at book length. Though not yet any challenger to Wood, Oyler is certainly cooler than him, at least in a world where crashing the LRB website turns you into James Dean.

Oyler’s takedowns of modish sacred cows (Jia Tolentino, Jenny Offill, Roxane Gay) have made her probably the most-read critic of her generation. And though not just a straightforward parody, her debut novel finds 40 pages for a pastiche of Offill’s fragmented prose style as well as for subtler imitations of Karl Ove Knausgard’s obsession with the quotidian and the current trend for self-aware autofiction. Like the reviewer she is, she has produced a novel that reads substantially like a long critique, both of contemporary fiction but also contemporary life.

The book is set in the early years of the Trump administration and is narrated by an unnamed protagonist much like a younger Oyler (a Brooklyn-based woman who blogs for a fashionable online platform). Snooping on her boyfriend Felix’s phone one night, she discovers he is secretly an alt-right conspiracy theorist. This premise, which takes 15 pages to establish, is one of many Knausgardian passages where detail shades into longueur; on the phone, we hear about the ‘manual camera, the color wheel, the maps, the better version of maps, the clock that displayed a real ticking digital timepiece, two ways to call a taxi, the weather partly cloudy yet always bright blue, the notepad’. But in a way it makes sense — phones and the internet are ultimately the most vivid presences in the book.

After finding the Instagram account where Felix posts memes about September 11th and all the other usual suspects, she intends to break up with him. But before she has a chance, he is killed in a bike accident. To process her grief and with the help of a monetary donation from Felix’s grieving mother, she decides to travel to Berlin. This was where she had first met Felix, him an artist who also worked for a company which arranged bar crawls for tourists and her one of the tourists who went along. Once there, again looking for something to do, she begins online dating, though she lies about her personality and background to each man she meets, a trick Felix apparently also played when meeting strangers. And that, aside from a tedious account of getting hold of a German visa, is it.

Yet of course it isn’t, because the strengths of this book lie in its essayistic detours and critical digressions. These events simply serve to hammer home the internet’s capacity for deception. If there is a theme, it is the personal desensitisation that is a consequence of this, though writing that I can already feel Oyler, or her snarky protagonist, yawning over my shoulder. As she writes: ‘People often say my generation values authenticity. Reluctantly I will admit to being a member of my generation.’

She is very good on the relentlessness of social media and I doubt any other writer could make phone scrolling as compelling: ‘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.”’

This skittish style is for me a better representation of online life than then the fragmented writing which Oyler parodies, a way of bypassing what Ryan Ruby recently called the ‘formal mirroring problem’. The writing has been accused of emotionlessness, but that seems to assume that interpersonal feeling is the only thing that qualifies as emotion. In fact, by keeping with more or less straight first-person narration, Oyler does show us what it feels like to be constantly online: scattered, purposeless and, yes, cold to real people and the world around. It is certainly how it feels to me.

Though parts of the plot are boring, the writing never is, and recalls Ben Lerner’s long sentences and his rhythmical deployment of commas and semicolons. Oyler’s sense of prosody and unabashed erudition are welcome in an era when plain writing is often equated with sincerity. Also like Ben Lerner she has a gift for zeitgeist-skewering apercus: ‘I’ve been wondering if sex can be ironic. I think at the end of the day probably not, as much as we would like it to be.’ And she is equally willing to be bald and funny when calling a spade a spade: ‘a man discussing feminism had few options but to become a toothless sycophant, and even then he’d be ruthlessly mocked or treated with scepticism’. Compare that to Connell in Normal People and his anodyne admiration for The Golden Notebook!

Indelicacy is one reply to the histrionic — to borrow her own phrase from the Jia Tolentino review — ‘moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction’. But is it the future of the novel? What Fake Accounts is most successfully is a rejoinder to Oyler’s fellow writers, and a good one. Engage, she is telling them, with the human consequences of the internet rather than turning it into an opportunity for tinkertoy formal tricks. Be wary of ‘neatness’ of content or structure (her main contention with Sally Rooney’s Normal People). Embrace the lack of sodality and agency in human life. Do not equate satire or comedy with insincerity.

But parody and critique do not a novel make, not on their own anyway. The resolution of the Felix conundrum is miserably dissatisfying and feels like yet another rebuttal of how a more melodramatic (but also more genuine) writer would handle it. ‘Surely her protagonist’s internet-begotten coldness would be thrown into greatest relief if forced to undergo some genuine emotional pain?’, I wanted to say. But Oyler is yawning over my shoulder again: the didactic last words of the novel are ‘That’s part of the point.’

Nicholas Harris is a freelance writer. In 2019 he was the runner-up for the BBC Student Critic Award. He also writes for Prospect.