Review: Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

Editor Thomas Mar Wee reviews Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts.

In the opening pages of Fake Accounts, the recent debut novel by Lauren Oyler, who is better known as a critic, the narrator describes her intentions (and the novel’s intentions) in telling the story of the dissolution of her relationship with a man named Felix who, she discovers, has been secretly operating an extremely popular conspiracy theory account. The narrative is structured in six parts and plays out roughly over the course of the beginning of Donald Trump’s Presidency.

The narrator believes, as she states, that she is the most interesting character in this story, a belief that reflects both the narrator’s self-obsessive personality and alludes, slyly, to the inherently self-obsessive nature of writing a story about oneself. She goes on to say that she is writing this story in order to better understand herself and also in order to “enchant an audience, promote certain principles I feel are lacking in contemporary literature, and interpret events both world-historical and interpersonal.” This is a bold agenda for any novel, especially a debut. And it means that we are perhaps inclined, as we read, to place the novel under greater scrutiny than usual. We are invited to hold the novel to the demands it sets for itself and especially to its promise to rectify some of the purported defects of contemporary literature.

Debut novels, especially by critics, invite a certain amount of (perhaps undue) criticism. They are a tempting target for other critics, especially if the author is known for being devastating in their critiques of other people’s writing. As someone who went into reading Fake Accounts unfamiliar with Oyler’s criticism and who has a soft-spot for debut novels, I am perhaps more predisposed to searching for moments of promise and potential in Fake Accounts rather than to relishing places where the novel and its author fail to meet the daunting standards they have sets for themselves.

However, if I had to evaluate Fake Accounts on its own criteria, I would say that it occasionally entertains while not quite managing to enchant, and that it successfully melds the world-historical and the interpersonal in the way that it captures a larger historical moment through the observations of its protagonist. Whether it succeeds in rectifying the ills of contemporary literature remains a matter of debate, one that is predicated on an agreement about the merits or deficiencies of contemporary fiction in the first place.

There is perhaps an argument to be made that the novel sets itself up for failure. Only the very best novels manage to be simultaneously enchanting, grand and personal in their scope, all while reinventing literary trends. One can, I believe, appreciate the moxie of a novel’s ambition while still remaining skeptical about whether it ultimately succeeds in its aims. Time will tell how this novel will be remembered within the history of early 21st-century literature. What can be said about Fake Accounts at this point in time is that it appears more to reflect the trends and attitudes of contemporary literature rather than subverting them.

Although not unique to them, the kind of relentless hyperawareness and self-analysis characterized by the novel’s narrator seems particularly endemic to the Millennial and Gen-Z generations. This wry, cynical, slightly disinterested, critical tone combined with varying degrees of self-awareness seems indicative of many of the novels that have emerged over the years out of a loose cohort of Millennial writers (the narrators of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation come to mind in particular).

Oyler, who self-identifies as a Millennial,  has written a white, Millennial-aged female narrator who seems to be representative of a particularly contemporary form of Internet-addled self-awareness and self-obsession. The narrator, who blogs for a Buzzfeed-esque website, is plagued by a hyperactive pattern of thinking which she at one point refers to as the “neurotic minute-taker of my thoughts.” In grand terms, this attitude of constant criticism of others and the self, of constant risk assessment and the mental tallying of scores, and of a sense of life as something lived under the constant threat of public scrutiny, could be called the malaise of our postmodern condition. In humbler terms, the narrator’s attitude will be intimately familiar to anyone raised on the Internet or who spends too much time online.

This novel’s strength at accurately reflecting the common thought patterns of a generation bred on social-media-fueled self-scrutiny is also often its downfall. The experience of reading Fake Accounts is one of recognition and tedium. Reading Fake Accounts, I was reminded of another novel that similarly attempted, through the neuroses of its narrator, to reflect a certain cultural moment—in this instance, 20th century modernity filtered through the lens of existentialism. I am referring, of course, to Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, considered his major success as a novelist and the only novel of his that most people still bother to read today.

In both novels, I was impressed by the author’s ability to report the experience of living in a particular cultural moment and by their accurate portrayal of the interior psychological states of their protagonists. Both novels feature a protagonist, who by their very ordinariness, becomes in some way representative of the social conditions of their milieu. For both novels, however, the reading experience was as frustrating and claustrophobic as it was illuminating.    

The strength of Oyler’s writing comes primarily from her apt observations. Like a novelist of manners, she is highly attuned to the different ways people perform in social situations, both online and offline. When there is comedy in this novel, it is observational. Perhaps due to her background as a critic and culture writer, her prose lends itself to aphorism. There is a satisfying flash of recognition in reading Oyler’s narrator describe a specific emotion, personality type, behavior, or way of interacting online that is familiar to us but seldom described.

This strength quickly becomes, when repeated throughout the novel, tiresome. The tedium of Fake Accounts comes in part from its bloated structure, frequently bland descriptions, flat characterization, as well as its questionable tendency to report events and conversation indirectly. The protagonist’s inability to escape the deluge of her thoughts, coupled with the narration’s lack of compelling description, ultimately results in a novel that feels trapped within itself.

In the spirit of being generous, this tedium may be more the result of the novel’s exhausting subject matter than the result of its faults or failings. It is often tiring and redundant, even nauseating, to read a portrait of the historical moment one is living in, even if that portrait is a faithful one. If, as Stendhal famously said, the novel is a mirror on a high road reflecting life back at us, perhaps there are some experiences that simply don’t benefit from being thrown back on a contemporary reader. The mirror may be spotless, but we may be tired of seeing ourselves and our current moment reflected back at us.

A person’s experience reading Oyler’s Fake Accounts will likely be predetermined by what they look for in the books they read. Recently, I find that I need to be thoroughly convinced to read a contemporary novel that only offers, at most, an accurate reflection of our times. I find it exhausting enough just to live through our alienating, late-capitalist, postmodern Internet Age, and this has led me more often to seek out books that either report a novel experience, offer a perspective that is different from my own, or suggest alternatives to present circumstances.

In many ways, Fake Accounts is a faithful mirror. It presents a believable, if extremely unlikable narrator with all-too familiar neuroses. It reflects our hypermodern condition of perpetual estrangement, paranoia, and anxiety. A reader will likely find many eerily resonant moments in this novel. The question becomes as to whether the world that this novel reflects is one a reader wants to spend any more time in. Perhaps this will be one of those books that is deemed mediocre upon its initial publication, but years later, when future readers are curious to see what life was like during this period in history, it will gain relevance and stature for its accurate portrayal of our tedious historical moment.  

Fake Accounts / Lauren Oyler / Catapult, 02/2021 – $26 (Hardcover)