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Fake Accounts

Lauren Oyler’s debut novel of millennialist self-regard ‘reads like a dispatch directly from the bowels of Internet Hell’

by
Kat Rosenfield
February 09, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

In the age of social media, the highest compliment to a work of art is to endow it with a gaze of its own: “I felt seen” is the online shorthand for describing a book, a movie, an essay, even a tweet that rang a hidden bell somewhere deep within your psyche. A book that makes you feel seen might validate something you have long felt to be true, or it might scrape back the layer of earth that covers a truth you would have preferred to keep buried. Being seen is a profound but not necessarily comfortable experience, an empathic response dialed up to maximum intensity. It is more than relatable: You are the art, and the art is you.

Of course, the books that make us feel seen do not actually see us. What feels like a gaze is really a mirror, a glimpse of your own reflection peeking out from within the prose. Whether the reflection is flattering is beside the point: In a world where people look mostly at their phones instead of each other, in which our moods and expressions are hidden from each other beneath our socially mandated protective masks, what a relief to be visible to someone, to confirm that you are definitely here. (Conversely, the books that do not make us feel seen present a terrifying alternative: The online shorthand for that experience is, “This book erased my existence.”)

Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts should make a certain subset of people feel extremely seen. The book, Oyler’s debut novel, centers on a millennial writer—if not a thinly veiled proxy for the author herself, then one consciously designed to provoke those comparisons. Like Oyler, who wrote for Broadly before it was subsumed back into the larger Vice News organization in 2019, the main character is employed at a website where she repackages the day’s news in “world ends, women hardest hit” mode; like Oyler, she splits her time between New York and Berlin. Her voice, too, is familiar, at least for anyone who already follows Oyler’s essays and literary criticism (and of course, her excellent Twitter account.)

The novel begins in 2017, with the protagonist discovering that her boyfriend, Felix, who claims to be a social media skeptic, is secretly the owner of a wildly popular internet conspiracy theory account. Her plans to break up with him (for this reason, but not only this reason) are thwarted when he dies in a bicycle accident while she’s out of town at the Washington, D.C., women’s march, an event that triggers the narrator’s descent into a spiral of unhappy self-reinvention. First, she quits her job and flies to Berlin. Then, she spends the next several months retracing the early days of her relationship with Felix, lying to everyone she meets, and thinking in well-trod circles about sex, feminism, identity, and the ironies of deception.

If you’ve ever spent hours clicking from timeline to timeline in an attempt to unravel the mystery of some subtweety intramedia beef where everyone is mad at someone without ever explicitly saying who or why, reading ‘Fake Accounts’ approximates this experience.

Fake Accounts reads like a dispatch directly from the bowels of Internet Hell, one that will be familiar to an intended audience who already spends too much time there. For those (like me) who enjoy reading fiction because it offers an escape from this world, this is an unsettling experience. The afternoon I spent reading Fake Accounts left me with that same half-asleep hollow-eyed feeling that comes from doomscrolling for hours through the brain droppings of strangers. If you’ve ever spent hours clicking from timeline to timeline in an attempt to unravel the mystery of some subtweety intramedia beef where everyone is mad at someone without ever explicitly saying who or why, reading Fake Accounts approximates this experience.

The meat of Fake Accounts is a behind-the-scenes, under-the-hood look at the intellectual machinery that takes a human life at one end and produces mincemeat moments at the other, sized for dissemination and consumption on social media. In a section that also doubles as a needling criticism-by-mimicry of the contemporary trend of fragmented narration in novels, the narrator invents an astrology-based collection of fake identities and methodically inflicts them on a series of unwitting OkCupid dates. There are shades of American Psycho in this performative trickery, which made me briefly wonder if the men might be bound for a more interesting fate than just finding themselves bored and confused, but this is not that kind of book; it is just the kind of book that makes you yearn for a sharp turn, an unexpected twist, anything that might break the story free of its claustrophobic perspective.

Oyler’s protagonist embodies a particular sort of solipsism: She’s the kind of person who imagines herself as a character in her own life, a member of the class of hyperconnected, highly educated, media-literate discourse drivers that is endlessly fascinated with itself. Fake Accounts has already appeared on many of this year’s “most anticipated books” lists, and of course it has: It is the kind of book that the people who write these lists can see themselves in.

“People often say my generation values authenticity,” Oyler’s narrator writes. “Reluctantly I will admit to being a member of my generation.” With similar reluctance, I will admit to being exactly the kind of extremely online millennial narcissist for whom this book was intended. This world and its characters are deeply familiar to me: In addition to more elevated literary influences (including an imagined, intrusive Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends who periodically appear to question the narrator’s reliability), Fake Accounts is rife with ripped-from-the-hashtags plotlines or characters. If I didn’t always know exactly what was being parodied, the dynamics, the drama, and the dialogue were still deeply familiar. But rather than marinating enjoyably in the sense of feeling seen, I found myself thinking about the millions of people who are knowingly, intentionally excluded from understanding this story at all.

Oyler, who is a uniquely savvy and observant social critic, has made a fascinating choice in writing a story whose existence says as much about the present cultural moment as does its actual text. This is the age of too much content: subscription services, Substack newsletters and Patreon podcasts, a media diet tailored exactly to you and to your particular tastes. A creator can afford to make things that aren’t for everyone, or even most people, and might also be smart to do so. The audience for Fake Accounts is small, but enjoys disproportionate influence over the cultural discourse.

As a book reviewer herself, Lauren Oyler is notorious for saying the unspeakable, and is often brave in a way that most media types only pretend to be. She is particularly good at poking the popular thing that everyone is raving about, sliding a fingernail under the edge and then ripping it up to show the guts, the brain, the heart—or, more often, to show that it doesn’t have one. Fake Accounts, with its starred reviews and prerelease buzz and public approval from the internet’s cultural luminaries, is exactly the type of book she’d eviscerate, if she hadn’t written it herself.

Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.

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