Philip Roth famously wrote in 1961 that the increasing unreality of American life threatened to outrace the imagination of American fiction, and that there was little hope for novelists against a news cycle that, as he put it, stupefied, sickened and infuriated on a daily basis. This turned out to be false, but writers have had to work double-time to keep up with the culture. Indeed, many great novels in the second half of the 20th century dramatize this very inability to cope with the derangement of modern times. That writers would try to assimilate the insanity of the Trump-era into their work is thus a foregone conclusion. Many of these attempts are likely still in the works, but Lauren Oyler’s debut novel Fake Accounts takes one of the first real cracks at it.
We open with our unnamed narrator offering us an in-medias-res rationale for why she is breaking into her boyfriend’s phone. Female need-to-know is quickly excused, and we’re told that Felix (the boyfriend) has been placed under suspicion since he “revealed himself to be completely unrevealing.” And with good reason: Felix turns out to be a semi-popular conspiracy theorist on Instagram, whose posts approach the parodic (chemtrails, 9/11 demolition, Rothschilds photoshopped in with images of U.S. presidents). Rather than confront him, our narrator travels to Washington D.C. to attend the Women’s March, an event rife with ironies and scarce in epiphanies. Without giving too much away, she is unburdened of having to break up with Felix when she returns, and a few weeks later, books a ticket to Berlin, where she remains for the rest of the story, spending time on social media, spinning small frauds, falsifying her biography and adopting different histories for her one-time encounters with men she meets online.
In the same essay, Roth cited two distinctly preoccupied but equally afflicted novels, Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and William Styron’s Set This House on Fire, both about two young men who expatriate in order to opt-out of the American experiment. Oyler’s novel does the same thing, and ends with the same realization: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Social media has naturalized us all as citizens of a new digital world and has made it virtually impossible for us to exit its imperium. Fake Accounts interrogates the ways in which this new technology has distorted not just our relationships with each other (in an earlier timeline, the narrator looks up Felix’s profile to get to know him better, even though they’ve already met) but also our own self-image.
Like Leaving the Atocha Station (which is directly referenced at one point), Oyler’s novel follows a young, literary expat who moves to Europe with no clear mission, stays for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, and proceeds to develop a “nest of harmless lies,” the motives for which are never fully examined. Its narrative is a flattened bildungsroman, that is, a journey novel where the protagonist’s self-education or maturity is ultimately denied. Ostensibly a work of autofiction, it sometimes rises to the metafictional, as the narrator’s manipulations move on and off the page, and we are invited to imagine her as a close persona of Oyler herself. But this too is artifice, as Oyler, who is active on social media, willfully conflates the narrative persona with her online avatar.
After the initial discovery, which kickstarts the story, very little happens by way of drama (in fact, the middle section is cheekily titled “Nothing Happens”). The narrative is continuously digressive and contains copious asides on social media, archetypes of masculinity, the ironies of feminism and life in bourgeois Brooklyn. Like this passage, on the eve of the Women’s March:
I was overcome with the sense that I needed to go, and it did not feel good. The people at my yoga studio, which was on the more bourgeois side of my neighborhood, were primarily white women living in Brooklyn, and although I too was a white woman living in Brooklyn, I of course did not identify as such, since the description usually signified someone selfish, lazy, and in possession of superficial understandings of complex topics such as racism and literature. Besides working in the media (also a bad thing), the weekly seventy-five-minute session of possibly culturally appropriative contortion was the most white-woman-in-Brooklyn thing I did.
Oyler, a gifted critic in her own right, works well in this mode, and the novel is at its most incisive in these moments, which is to say, the times at which it reads the least like fiction. In that regard, the novel repeatedly tells better than it shows.
The narrative gathers momentum in the second half as it accumulates thematic material and becomes more metafictional. The narrator occasionally stops to address the reader, or an invisible chorus of ex-boyfriends, who chime in throughout the story. The strongest section, ironically, is one in which the narrator self-consciously plays on what she calls the “trendy” and “distinctly feminine” style of fragmented writing (a genre Oyler criticized in her review of Jenny Offill’s novel Weather) wherein the men from her dates are assigned Zodiac personalities, the narrator repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, and engages most transparently with the novel’s operations.
The style of Fake Accounts is meant to resemble a piece of gossip exchanged between the narrator and the reader, and it often reads like it. The language rarely elevates itself above the colloquial, and the novel is crowded with lazy phrases: buildings in Europe are described as “grandly European looking,” clubs are “stalwartly dingy,” the light is “greenish” in “trashy” pubs; people are described as “very tall,” or having “long curly hair,” or being “downright hot”; a bus’s WiFi connection is “spotty” and a meditation session at the end of a yoga class is “antsy.” There is also a fair amount of awkward, adverbial prose (“mouths happily shocked open,” “sexily crooked mouth,” “hugged awkwardly goodbye,”) and prefabricated phrases (“tearing me up,” “spring in my step” and “kicking…to the curb” all appear in a single paragraph). This would be inexcusable for any novelist, but it’s worth mentioning, especially given that Oyler has rightfully indicted other writers for the use of cliché in their work. Indeed, these clichés appear to be the only things in Fake Accounts that aren’t installed self-consciously, or ironically. In one case, we are even given a sample of clearly mixed imagery, which the narrator then excuses:
Everything was terrible, life a series of vindictive matryoshka dolls revealing smaller and more personal horrors until finally you got to the last one, which was you, a tiny pathetic wooden toy that a baby could choke on and die. A clumsy metaphor, maybe, but I was distressed.
What is the benefit of this? Why allow a piece of bad writing to enter your novel and then point out that it’s bad? There are design reasons for this, of course: Oyler’s approach is less a narrative sleight of hand and more that of a magician pointing out how she’s doing the trick. But this flattens the effect, and more often than not, the novel’s self-consciousness is employed to shore up what appear to be its conscious weaknesses.
Depending on how one looks at it, self-consciousness is either a bug or a feature in contemporary fiction. Either way, it’s almost impossible to avoid. In that sense, it’s not so much a stylistic choice as it is the condition under which fiction is being written now, and thus it needs to be wielded with care. Unlike the self-consciousness of David Foster Wallace, where the search for sincerity is tormented by spiraling ironies and moral double-binds, or Adam in Atocha Station, who uses it as a deflection from his own failures at self-knowledge –the self-consciousness of Fake Accounts is a device for a narrator who knows she’s being watched. It allows her to explain away her actions and provide lame justifications for them. The effect is a relentless back-and-forth, this-or-that interiority that is dramatically exhausting:
An angling of eye told me he received this as obnoxious, even portentous of a dreadfully long night ahead, so I recalibrated my thinking, always better at working with something than nothing: I could prove wrong the idea that I was about to become a pesky drag, and I would ultimately seem even less annoying than I might have if I’d seemed totally not-annoying at the start. In fact, I reasoned, I had made myself an underdog, the best kind of dog a person can be. I could now come back from behind and emerge victorious.
A commitment to showcasing a narrator’s self-consciousness this entirely leaves little room for dramatic irony. Readers need to be able to see around a character in order for tension to develop between them and the actuality of their world. But here our narrator’s self-consciousness is so monopolizing that almost nothing goes untouched by it, and we rarely feel like we know something she doesn’t. There are a few moments when our narrator reveals herself to be fairly unrevealing, but these ironies are often underwhelming. For instance, after taking us through pages of tortuous pseudo-reasonings, we get glib, resolving statements like: “…I was also clearly having some kind of psychological problem…” or, “maybe I was using it to distract myself from a problem or issue in my life…”
These moments nonetheless cut to the heart of the novel’s underlying theme: that self-consciousness is a trait that is easily mimicked but rarely earned. More still, self-consciousness is not always virtuous, exonerating, and good for its own sake; it can be specious, empty, and in the end, a dam to one’s own understanding. And in the age of social media, which is ever ready to rob us of opportunities for self-investigation, chances for true self-consciousness are replaced by shallow intellectual exhibitionism: it is self-involvement masquerading as self-criticism. Oyler manages a clear and articulate explication of this, but only glancingly:
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… the ways in which we casually commit fakery ourselves. We are also uniquely unwilling to let this self-awareness stop us. I had thought, then, before accountability became a word everyone used, that explaining oneself and one’s motives was an appropriate addendum to an apology, that an explanation was almost better than an apology, because an explanation gave you something to do beyond accept or reject; it allowed you to understand.
The rest of the time, any true insight is avoided. The notion of “earned self-consciousness” is profound, but it leaves Oyler with a difficult task. Part of the problem is that mimesis requires restraint – it has to be both the thing it describes while also being above it. The challenge, therefore, is how to write about wasteful self-consciousness without the effort itself becoming wasteful? This is a needle every novelist has to thread. And again, the warning issued by Roth over half a century ago was not just about the threat contemporary reality posed to the imagination, but the extent to which the imagination would have to work in order to adapt and emulate that reality. Fake Accounts ultimately delivers on its themes, but it does so with bloated devotion, the result being that the novel often suffers from the very afflictions it attempts to diagram.
by Lauren Oyler
Catapult; 272 p.