Fake Accounts, the Vox Book Club pick for December, is an odd book. I think it’s very good; I don’t know that I particularly like it. It is difficult to talk about, apparently by design.
The debut novel of literary critic Lauren Oyler, Fake Accounts tells the story of an unnamed narrator who is already thinking about breaking up with her boyfriend, Felix, when she finds out that he runs a secret Instagram account full of conspiracy theories. Before she can accomplish the breakup, Felix dies. The narrator responds by moving to Berlin and lying about herself to every person she meets, including a long series of internet dates. Eventually, she learns that Felix faked his own death.
The central preoccupation of Fake Accounts is social performance and the extent to which it is endemic on the internet — particularly on social media, particularly among the social media spheres in which members of New York-centric media (including Oyler and myself) spend their time. The narrator addresses us with a breezy and caustic self-awareness of her own posturing, which she condemns, and the posturing of other people, which she condemns more.
Although she is a white woman living in Brooklyn, she explains, she “of course” does 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.” That the narrator worries that she meets this description too is only barely subtext; that she is absolutely certain that everyone she dislikes meets this description more than she does is not hidden at all.
The narrator experiences all of her emotions under the stern glare of terminally online cynicism. After learning of Felix’s death, she analyzes at length which of her many mixed emotions are legitimate for her to actually feel, as well as which of them demonstrate that the culture of social media is gauchely vapid and inauthentic: While she “rejected sentimentality for sentimentality’s sake,” she also feels that contrary to a recent quasi-feminist social media trend of expressing emotions loudly and with abandon, her current authentic emotional turmoil demonstrates that “feelings are nothing like a pink neon sign at all.” When she responds to Felix’s death by putting on a series of fake personas in Berlin, she does so with a deep and squirming discomfort that her motivations are so obvious.
As a critic, Oyler is most famous for her willingness to write a scathing takedown, even of works beloved by the progressive millennials of the internet: Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (Oyler’s 2014 pan is now inaccessible), Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror. Oyler is not one to let pleasantness or admirable political commitments override the importance of style, and she has no compunctions about calling out anything that strikes her as either hypocritical or weak-minded.
In her review of Trick Mirror, Oyler is particularly merciless on Tolentino’s rhetorical trick of positioning herself as a helpless and passive figure at the mercy of larger systems she cannot control, with no choice but to, for example, go to exercise classes at Pure Barre and buy lunch at Sweetgreen, all because of capitalism and misogyny. “That you can, as we say on the internet, just not occurs to Tolentino as a theoretical option but not an actual one,” Oyler writes.
Oyler uses a similar framework when it comes to the problem of existing on the internet. “When I post something on Twitter or Instagram, I offer a small part of myself up for judgment, requesting acknowledgment of my existence even as I seem to empty myself willingly into the crowd, putting myself at its mercy,” she writes in that Trick Mirror review. “A superficial self-effacement — look at how pathetic I am, posting my dumb thoughts on this dumb platform so that people even dumber than I am can use them without crediting me, all for a scrap of attention — camouflages the agency involved in my being there in the first place.”
What interests Oyler is not the systems that put pressure on individuals to push them onto the internet, but the minds of the people who choose to go online. It is surely masochistic to be on the internet, she argues, but in BDSM, aren’t the bottoms the ones who are really in control?
The unnamed narrator of Fake Accounts, whose biography bears a pointed resemblance to Oyler’s, appears to exist in a state similar to Oyler’s conception of Tolentino. She tells us repeatedly that she doesn’t like who she is online, that she thinks less of herself for existing there, that she considers most of what she does online pointless, but, well, there she is, day after day, poking again and again at her phone. Certainly she could choose to “just not” be online, but this possibility does not seem to occur to her as an actual option.
Instead, as clear-eyed as the narrator wants to appear, she seems to hide her agency, again and again. She is, as her author put it, camouflaging her agency with a superficial self-effacement, pretending to be at the mercy of larger forces so that she can give in to her own worst impulses. If the internet kills the self, this death was faked.
Share your thoughts on Fake Accounts in the comments section below, and be sure to RSVP for our upcoming live discussion event with Lauren Oyler and Patricia Lockwood. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.