Fake Account Book Review: Lauren Oyler Pokes Our Online Attitude

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fake accounts, the Vox Book Club pick for December, is a strange book. I think it’s very good; I don’t know if I particularly like it. It’s hard to talk about, apparently by design.

The debut novel by literary critic Lauren Oyler, fake accounts tells the story of an unnamed narrator who is already thinking about breaking up with her boyfriend, Felix, when she learns that he has a secret Instagram account full of conspiracy theories. Before she can complete the rift, Felix dies. The narrator responds by moving to Berlin and lying about herself to every person she meets, including a long string of internet dates. She eventually finds out that Felix faked his own death.

The central concern of fake accounts is social performance and the extent to which it is endemic to the Internet – particularly on social media, particularly among the social media areas in which members of New York-focused media (including Oyler and myself) spend their time. The narrator addresses us with a light-hearted and biting self-consciousness of her own attitude, which she judges, and the attitudes of other people, which she judges more.

Although she is a white woman living in Brooklyn, she explains, she “naturally” doesn’t identify as such, “because the description usually denotes someone’s selfish, lazy, and superficial understanding of complex topics such as racism and literature.” That the narrator is concerned that she, too, fits this description is hardly subtext; that she is absolutely certain that anyone she dislikes fits this description more than she does is not hidden at all.

The narrator experiences all her emotions under the stern gaze of terminal online cynicism. After learning of Felix’s death, she extensively analyzes which of her many mixed emotions are legitimate for her to actually feel, and which of them demonstrate that social media culture is ridiculously bland and inauthentic: while she “rejected sentimentality for sentimentality’ sake,” she also believes that, in contrast to a recent quasi-feminist trend on social media to express emotions loudly and with abandon, her current authentic emotional turmoil demonstrates that “feelings are nothing like a pink neon sign.” When she responds to Felix’s death by staging a series of fake characters in Berlin, she does so with a deep and writhing discomfort that her motivations are so obvious.

As a critic, Oyler is best known for her willingness to write a devastating takedown even of works beloved by the internet’s progressive millennials: Roxane Gay’s bad feminist (Oyler’s pan from 2014 is now out of reach), Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, the collection of essays by New York writer Jia Tolentino Trick Mirror. Oyler is not one to let pleasantness or admirable political commitments take over the importance of style, and she has no qualms about shouting out anything that seems hypocritical or feeble-minded.

In her review of Trick MirrorOyler is particularly relentless about Tolentino’s rhetorical ploy to position herself as a helpless and passive figure at the mercy of larger systems she cannot control, with no choice but to take classes at Pure Barre and buy lunch at Sweetgreen, for example, all because of capitalism and misogyny. “That, as we say on the internet, Just no appears to Tolentino as a theoretical option, but not a real one,” Oyler writes.

Oyler uses a similar framework when it comes to existence on the Internet. “When I post something on Twitter or Instagram, I offer a small part of myself for judgment, requesting recognition of my existence, even as I seem willing to empty myself into the crowd, at the mercy of his mercy” , she writes in that Trick Mirror rating. “A superficial self-erasing – look how pathetic I am, posting my stupid thoughts on this stupid platform so that people even dumber than me can use them without crediting me, all for an ounce of attention – camouflages the agency involved in my be present in the first place.”

What interests Oyler is not the systems that pressure individuals to get on the Internet, but the minds of the people who choose to go online. It’s certainly masochistic to be on the internet, she argues, but in BDSM aren’t the bottoms really in control?

The unnamed narrator of fake accounts, whose biography bears a clear resemblance to Oyler’s, seems to exist in a state similar to Oyler’s conception of Tolentino. She repeatedly tells us that she doesn’t like who she is online, that she likes herself less because she exists there, that she finds most of what she does online meaningless, but, well, there she is, day after day, poking again and on her phone again. She could certainly choose to “Just no” online, but this possibility doesn’t seem to cross her mind as an actual option.

Instead, as bright as the narrator wants to appear, she seems to hide her agency time and again. She, as her author put it, camouflages her agency with a superficial self-denial, pretending to be at the mercy of greater forces so that she can give in to her own worst impulses. If the internet kills it itself, this death was faked.

Share your opinion about fake accounts in the comments below, and make sure to RSVP to our upcoming live discussion event with Lauren Oyler and Patricia Lockwood. Meanwhile, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Discussion Questions

  1. Much of this novel is devoted to satirizing American literary fiction from the past 40 years, especially the novel in fragments. Next month we’ll get into more fragmentation when we talk about Patricia Lockwood’s No one is talking about this, but how do you notice here? Do you agree with Oyler’s narrator that the form is lazy and its similarity to Twitter unnecessary, or do you think it’s helpful?
  2. The novelist Brandon Taylor wrote a widely shared essay earlier this year that read both: fake accounts and No one is talking about this like gothic novels. “The Internet novel is a Gothic novel, both because it is preoccupied with a past to which it considers itself both superior and inferior,” Taylor writes, “and also because it is unable to shake off the feeling that by trying to destroy that past has instead become vulnerable to the darkest impulses of the culture it is trying to flee.” How does that strike you as a framework for reading this book?
  3. The emotional register of this novel is so, so strange. I find it hard to feel any emotion in relation to this book as it appears to be written with the specific purpose of thwarting any emotional response once there are signs of emergence. Do you feel the same? or does fake accounts do you move?
  4. Is using the internet a masochistic act? And if so, does it strike you as an attempt to take control?
  5. Felix stole the narrator’s tweet, and that’s part of the point. What’s the point?

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