It has more stylistic heft than a lot of wispy contemporary fiction. It is funny and unsentimental. It boasts several moving moments when the narrator’s carefully constructed façade threatens to fracture, as when she recalls some not-quite-traumatising but not-quite-consensual sex. And, mercifully, it is not written in fragments, a gimmick that Oyler mocks in one clever (if punishingly long) section, insisting: ‘If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.’
In a novel seeking to capture the psychic textures of our moment, much hangs on what the author can do with the limited dramatic materials of clicking, liking, swiping, following, and so on. Oyler’s observations on social media’s everyday abjection tell us little we don’t already know (“We were all self-centred together, supporting each other as we propped up the social media companies”), but they’re aphoristically sharp, never uninteresting... One section is parodically written in the “trendy” fragmentary style of Jenny Offill, Maggie Nelson and their ilk, which, Lauryn is told, is “distinctly feminine”. The assurance and light comic touch suggest that Oyler can withstand any would-be revenge critics. Also that, with the sexual regime change in literary tastes now an established fact, and the limping male novelist scarcely worth satirising, the ladies are about to start ripping chunks out of one another.
The point here, for all the humour, is that contemporary novels should loosen up. Forget prose à la Rooney, all poise: our minds have been seared by burnout, and snapped by the internet. Fake Accounts may be free of Emotional Truths, but it is lit with intelligence, and though its self-references can start to cloy – there’s a thin line between smart and too-cute – its fight against cod-sincerity is rare in fiction today. Most novels aim to satisfy us, Oyler says, but is satisfaction what we want?
Though the novel loses a little of its steam towards the end, Oyler’s voice is always clear and assured, and her observations sharp. Fake Accounts establishes her not only as an important literary voice but an attentive reader of contemporary literature, unafraid to challenge prevailing tastes.
Fake Accounts is Oyler’s first novel; hitherto she has been known as the sort of combative literary critic whom writers hate and readers love. Her perceptiveness and bracing disregard for the niceties of literary politicking hark back to the criticism of Elizabeth Hardwick or Mary McCarthy. She is a gifted cultural analyst, and her debut novel is, among other things, a fascinating work of cultural analysis... Fake Accounts is a novel about the enigmatical spectacle of our extremely online world that is itself both enigmatic and spectacular – a dark comedy about a dark time, and a prismatically intelligent work of art.
Oyler’s narration is ruminative and essayistic — this is palpably a novel written by a critic — but the story ticks along nicely. At several points her narrator turns knowingly to the reader and discusses her craft. In one such aside she asks: “Why would I want to make my book like Twitter? If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.”
Worrying about falling in love, Oyler has her heroine reflect that “I just can’t stand the thought of seeming irrationally carried away by emotion and unable to freestyle my way back to the calm waters of reason”. Fake Accounts suffers from the same anxiety. The novel, like Oyler’s criticism, is thoughtful, inquiring and independent-minded. But, unlike criticism, a novel must have something at stake emotionally. It may seem stupider to feel than it is to think, but in some ways it is braver. Literature must risk this brave stupidity. This, at least, is something that Sally Rooney and Jia Tolentino know.
It’s not only the supercilious tone and ironic verbosity that makes the reader feel like she’s being mocked, it’s also the glacial pace of the book. Much of it is taken up with the narrator printing out visa application forms and working out which order to place the forms in a ring binder. Once the visa forms have been described, we move on to the health insurance forms. It’s like a bad pastiche of Karl Ove Knausgaard. The more she bores us, the more you can feel Oyler smirking, relishing her effect. It’s supposed to be artless! That’s the whole point. It’s an imitation of social media shallowness.
In contemporary New York, the unnamed narrator suspects her boyfriend Felix of cheating and snoops through his phone looking for clues. Finding a hidden social media icon, she discovers he is not a cheat per se, but has a secret second identity online as a conspiracy theorist. While at the post-Trump inauguration Women's March, she receives a strange phone call about Felix which leads her to Berlin, and her own cycle of deception. A thought-provoking, occasionally very funny, read about how to maintain a sense of self in an age of online (and offline) fakery.