by Emma Baker
I was meant to review the highly anticipated debut novel from Lauren Oyler, a young writer who had established herself as one of the most brazen, no-mercy critics of her milieu. In the weeks preceding its release, Fake Accounts had generated what felt like an abnormal amount of literary-world chatter. It seemed that Oyler’s fiery persona had done the book’s marketing on its own. This was of course fine, but for a novel so explicitly concerned with the ethical and functional limits of one’s persona, the resultant media fixation on Oyler-as-Symbol seemed a bit, well, on the nose.
I sat at my tiny desk in Brooklyn and considered how I ought to approach such a high-stakes review, particularly as I was aware that a zillion other girls were also sitting down at their tiny desks in Brooklyn, trying to insert themselves into the conversation. But it was hard to focus on the task at hand. I kept getting distracted by the story’s many parallels with my own life, and while it was certainly impressive that Oyler had furnished this world with such raw, unsparing exactness, I had hoped to do more than just vouch for the book’s accuracy. This anxiety mounted, and soon enough I began wondering whether the novel was actually very good, or if I simply enjoyed watching the main character round the corner of Bedford and Lafayette, given that the intersection was only a few minutes’ walk from my own apartment.
Perhaps I should just start with the plot: It’s 2016 in Brooklyn, and a bored young woman observes that her relationship has run its course. Our nameless (though far from selfless) anti-heroine rifles through her boyfriend’s phone in search of something damning; in place of the expected evidence of infidelity, she discovers that he’s been maintaining an online alter ego as a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist. She hatches a plan to confront him upon her return from the Women’s March in D.C., but unfortunately, her snare is thwarted by his sudden, accidental death. Being now pushed over the limit of bearable ennui, she quits her job writing listicles for a feminist website and moves to Berlin, less intent on “finding” herself than on forfeiting her entire existence.
Really, though, the plot was kind of irrelevant—less a force of narrative momentum than a vessel through which Oyler could situate her protagonist in a particular cultural moment. The character had become a bit of a trope in recent literature (the similarly unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Candace of Ling Ma’s Severance): an always online, perpetually paranoid yet disaffected young woman for whom style always trumped plot, chiefly because in her own life, style had proven itself to be a more prudent investment. After all, aesthetics had completely ravished politics. Oyler’s character, for instance, dreaded attending the Women’s March “not because [she] was ideologically opposed to the march, but because it seemed there would be a lot of pink, which as a form of control signaled to [her] a lack of rigor.” How one appeared largely took precedence over what one did, and so, self-conscious to the point of complete self-absorption, we were now highly incentivized to lie—or at least to obscure the line between fact and fiction.
This was precisely what Oyler had done in the novel, most obviously by writing in the first person. It was a striking choice, not only for the immediacy it commanded, but also because it made the barrier between author and character—already so thin—all the more feeble. Initially, the resemblance between Oyler and her protagonist (in everything from their shared Berlin forays to their identical Twitter avatars) felt maddeningly arch, but by the end of the book the cheeky half-confessions were so overt that they lost their power to provoke.
The critics couldn’t get enough of Oyler’s expertly deployed devices: the breaking of the fourth wall, the “Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends” (why was everyone using this same phrase? I wondered), the spoofing of the feminized fragmented style by reproducing said feminized fragmented style. Oyler was also a very good sentence writer—snappy, tight, percussive—and so confident in her use of online verbiage that somehow the tedious jargon seemed platform-native to the novel. All of the flourishes were so explicit that it felt silly to even note them; in fact, they seemed to do the literary analysis themselves. The issue, then, wasn’t in Oyler’s craft but in her voice. However deliberate, it distracted from the story, as each stylistic element served to too-loudly refract and further reinstate her Big Themes (deceit, performance, loneliness, boredom) until it was impossible to separate content from form—which, it occurred to me, was kind of the whole point.
At its core, Fake Accounts seemed to be one giant comment on self-awareness. The prose, the characters, and Oyler herself were always one beat ahead, hyper-cognizant of their own fallibility. Unfortunately, as the book suggested, such self-consciousness tended to yield not greater empathy and connection, but greater selfishness and alienation. And, furthermore, any bad behavior produced by a lack of awareness (cringe Instagram etiquette, gentrification, boasting about one’s therapy sessions) would not necessarily be righted by an abundance of it. As Oyler had written, “self-awareness seemed like the only personality trait that could not be learned, no matter how much it could be mimicked.” More often, the trait simply morphed into a more pernicious, equally paralyzing variant: guilt, followed by a litany of justifications that neither excused the conduct nor abated its consequences.
Irony was supposedly dead, and yet it somehow seeped into everything: our writing, our tweeting, our dating lives, even our workplace comportment. Perhaps self-deprecation had simply become so ambient that we were unable to resist unconsciously invoking it. Perhaps self-hate was so baked into the modern-day matrix that nothing—not even an exteriorized performance (be it online, on a Hinge date in Berlin, or in a novel)—could provide a reliable escape. But rather than attempting to combat the tendency toward irony with sincerity, Oyler had simply doubled down on it. Fake Accounts embodied the posture (and its attendant anxieties) to avoid having to examine its implications. Instead of animating a more compelling world beyond, she seemed to lock the reader in an all-knowing, taunting gaze: “Gotcha.”
In effect, I became distrustful of my own critiques, unsure whether Oyler was indeed being guarded and hypocritical, or simply commenting on guardedness and hypocrisy. (Either way, the relentless self-parody was a little grating.) So aware of its own multi-layered irony—and so engulfed in (and simultaneously annoyed by) its own in-joke-ness—the book seemed to anticipate and evade all criticism, lest the reader risk appearing out of the loop.
So while I found Fake Accounts to be a genius work of construction—Oyler’s command of language, novelistic structure, and sheer intellectual horsepower remained exemplary—the whole thing felt rather slippery. Perhaps, then, my gut-level frustration was due not to any sort of craft-level failing, but instead to a limit inherent to the genre. There were lots of low-hanging, moralistic critiques of autofiction I could point to: It was indulgent, it was defensive, it allowed the author to repel critique by claiming authority over (though not responsibility for) the narrative. But my problem was more personal. I felt too close to it. Oyler’s too-real rendering of the world only dug me deeper into reality, when all I wanted from art was to be taken out of it. (And, for that matter, her faithful adherence to this particular post-ironic affect felt kind of defeatist.) It wasn’t that I needed artists to provide moral assurance or direction—I’d prefer they didn’t—but that if I was going to read a piece of fiction, I expected it to function as a proper vice.
Just as I was starting to spiral, obsessing over the implications of Oyler’s incriminating self-as-society portrait, I reminded myself that Fake Accounts was, in the end, a book about her. If it was tempting to extrapolate, to pump instances of ambiguity full of worst-case-scenario symbolism, that just revealed my own paranoid need to metaphorize the world in order to make sense of it—much like, it occurred to me, Oyler’s protagonist herself. But, true to form, Oyler had likely planted this self-reflexive trick mirror, too. Any resistance to the hard truths she elucidated—not only about our lives and relationships, but also about the state of “artistic” pursuit—only further confirmed their poignancy.
So while it was comforting to read a character as smart and self-aware as I considered myself to be—none of the feigned perplexion, manipulative innocence, or dialed-up sass that was so available as a template for women (both in novels, and in life)—the book, in the end, did not allow me to transcend my own tiny desk. I understood that the genre likely only “failed” for those (like me) who bore some unconscious commitment to consuming art not as a lens but as a mirror; that my inability to review the book on its tactical literary merits was only evidence of my being hyper-consumed by the self-reflection I saw in it. Perhaps it was only fitting that I most recognized Oyler’s intelligence in her laid-bare justification for her character’s own pathetic self-mythologizing: “This kind of self-centeredness can be fortifying,” she stated flatly, “particularly when one is trying to pin down oneself.”
Get to know Emma better: @emmagigabytes.