Use Your Elusion

Fake Accounts BY Lauren Oyler. New York: Catapult Books. 272 pages. $23.

The cover of Fake Accounts

The unnamed narrator of Lauren Oyler’s debut novel is an ex-blogger. She delivers hard truths about what she reads online: popular tweets and think-pieces alike are “aimed not at clawing for some difficult specificity but at reaffirming a widespread but superficial understanding.” Fake Accounts details her pivot to clawing, and to fiction; she is writing a semiautobiographical novel of hyperspecific circumstances, having recently discovered that her boyfriend, Felix, peddles anti-Semitic conspiracy theories via Instagram. Soon after, he dies. She gets the news at the Women’s March in Washington, DC, where she’s been biding her time at the dawn of the Trump era, figuring out the “absolute best way” to reveal her knowledge before dumping Felix. She cries for several minutes on a friend’s spare IKEA bed before reassessing: “Was there something to be sad about?”

Her boyfriend is dead and her enemies are in power. (Per tradition, she considers bangs, then thinks better of it.) But the real tragedy is that she’s lost the upper hand. She had wanted to subject Felix to withering remarks and make him explain himself. She wanted to break up with him, yes, but first she wanted to understand him. Now, she feels guilty relief at not having to sift through the personality flaws of a man who “never cohered into anything resembling a character.”

Still, she relocates to Berlin, the city where they first met. It sinks in that she’s alone and stuck with herself—a bad roommate who can’t cook and has no intention of learning German. Her native register is contemptuous, declarative, and conveys what she calls “relentless negativity.” She likes the sound of her own voice as much as she distrusts it, which makes Fake Accounts entertaining even when the narrator is in a rut. Unemployed, friendless, and ostensibly grieving, she spends her first weeks abroad inside, looking at Twitter. But being in a different time zone than her friends, and enemies, makes tweeting less fun: “What I missed, now, in bed in Berlin, was not the attention but the pursuit of it, having even a pathetic project to distract me from the slowly passing minutes.” Eventually, she finds two new passions: online dating and telling lies. It’s a ready pairing, and it wakes her up inside enough to find a part-time job and befriend a perky writer from LA whose plot-heavy style she finds misguided.

As she fills in her OkCupid profile, our narrator’s thoughts turn to childhood, and her own aesthetic sensibility. She’s in eighth grade, writing enthusiastic responses to “specific prompts” from English class in a pink and orange striped notebook, “fascinating myself with ideas I couldn’t believe I was having, the person I became once I started to explain myself, the voice that emerged from thoughts and feelings. This was who I was!” The content of these thoughts and feelings is not given, perhaps lost to time—only the sense of writerly recognition remains. This early state of grace shows just how far the narrator has fallen; she is now set on the inverse, on becoming “a person whose voice determined her thoughts and feelings.” In other words, she’ll now speak without thinking, as opposed to thinking out loud. Working backward to craft an “alluringly evasive” dating persona requires cunning that her juvenile jottings did not. She perfects her tone online, and plans to continually revise her personality (along with her occupation and biographical details) at will over tapas with her many forthcoming suitors. The way she sees it, this “deception would not be selfish, cruelly manipulative of innocents looking for love, but a rebellion against an entire mode of thinking, which was not really thinking at all, just accepting whatever was advertised to you.” She’s intent on dramatizing that personal advertisements lie as much as regular ones.

The online-dating section also stages a rebellion on a formal level. For thirty-nine long pages, the narrator openly parodies the pithy, aphoristic manner of contemporary fragmentary novelists like Jenny Offill or Olivia Laing—whose style she disdains for implying “utmost meaning” in its gaps. She considers this a literary shortcut but readily adopts it, noting, “What’s amazing about this structure is that you can just dump any material you have in here and leave it up to the reader to connect it to the rest of the work.” Elsewhere, she likes things spelled out, dots connected. But now we’re speed-dating, flirting with all the men and disparate ideas our narrator cares to entertain without really getting to know them. It’s not hard to follow the breadcrumbs here: our increasingly “impermeable and unwilling” narrator is turning into her ex. She’s also looking more like her maker. Oyler’s regular readers will have already noticed that the narrator’s Twitter avatar matches Oyler’s own. But it’s in this section—where the novel is meant to illustrate the deficiencies of other novels—that the critic and her narrator are most plainly in cahoots.

Why had the narrator ever dated Felix in the first place? Fake Accounts is framed as her attempt to find out:

Why was I with him? Keep in mind that right now, at the outset of this paragraph, I don’t completely know the answer—that this writing is as much an effort to better understand myself, the person I can’t help but feel is the most important figure in this narrative (if not, apologies, the most intriguing), as it is an effort to enchant an audience, promote certain principles I feel are lacking in contemporary literature, interpret events both world-historical and interpersonal (perhaps at the same time), etc.

Such direct discussion of the subtle art seems meant to remind readers of their own critical position—and looks like Oyler’s note-to-self to meet the standards she has set for other writers. In unsparing, often very funny book reviews, she specializes in commentary on literary trends and other pitfalls. In a recent diatribe against Jia Tolentino’s book Trick Mirror, published in the London Review of Books, Oyler notes the intellectual paucity of the contemporary personal essay, concluding: “What seems self-evident to me is that public writing is always at least a little bit self-interested, demanding, controlling and delusional, and that it’s the writer’s responsibility to add enough of something else to tip the scales away from herself.” The issue here, pertinent to the author statement above, is the direction of the inquiry: critics like Tolentino are, for Oyler, “self-centered—not because they write about themselves, which writers have always done, but because they can make any observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings, though it should be the other way around.” This is a plea for writers to see themselves first as subjects of the world and second as subjective thinkers. And it extends to the novel; in a recent interview, Oyler noted that Ben Lerner, famously a writer of autofiction, “isn’t solipsistic, he’s using himself to understand bigger things.”

Lauren Oyler.
Lauren Oyler. Photo: Pete Voelker

Oyler and her narrator, however, are more intent on amplifying existing misapprehensions to emphasize that reality is built on delusions. The narrator’s claim that she’d like to “better understand” herself is something of a fake-out. She doesn’t scrutinize her own intentions or how it feels to discover Felix’s “true nature” as forcefully as she probes the shallow depths of social media, dating, and “modern life.” She spins small, compulsive fictions after the idea that “manipulative insincerity was a fair response to the way the world was.” For this narrator, the doom and gloom made apparent by the Trump era amounts mainly to a change of atmosphere, and she is but a faithful barometer. Unlike herself, she suggests, “political people” rely on “tidy structural explanations” and “always have to have a narrative.” Rather than falsely pinpoint the origins of interpersonal or world-historical events, the narrator maps incidents of interest with the understanding that their aggregate shape will be “so diffuse as to be nonexistent.”

This preoccupation with complexity also gets at the novel’s fixation on scale: how it can confer—or deter—meaning. Oyler’s narrator recoils from the false clarity that comes with compressing big things (political movements, love, that special feeling of knowing What’s Happening) into smaller units (novels, tweets, photos). She’s skeptical of extrapolation, prizing precision and intricacy instead. She thinks writing, like her online-dating presence, should be “difficult but worth it.” This novel is pointedly convoluted in part because Oyler has set it up that way—her narrator’s two-part aspiration makes it hard to trust the process.

Is it worth it? Like the narrator trying to deduce how she feels about Felix by adopting his mendacious ways, Fake Accounts is in a position to make an example of itself. In trying to interpret this work, which is primarily concerned with interpretation, we could style ourselves after the man who prepared for a date with the narrator by reading everything she has ever published online, who “could have, if he’d wanted, come up with a theory” about her. This makes for conspiratorial reading: Oyler all but invites us to read the novel through the lens of her criticism. Sometimes that feels like an exercise, or a test, or a hunt. I won’t list all the times Oyler plays with the ruminative cliché about things that signify both “everything and nothing”; readers can decide for themselves whether they’re meant as satire. Looking for an overarching theory would put us in a category that Oyler has conveniently dismissed.

Fake Accounts closes with a hasty twist that undermines the narrator’s entire project. She sees this, in part, as a failure to close-read the now obvious evidence. Looking back, we can be certain only that her version of events is—to borrow a favorite, maddening formulation of hers—reliably unreliable. This caveat is nothing new. The actual surprises in Fake Accounts are the minor ones. You think you know someone—and then she enrolls in German lessons.

Lizzy Harding is Bookforum’s assistant editor and outreach associate.