Can a Novel Really Capture the Spirit of the Internet?

Can a Novel Really Capture the Spirit of the Internet?

Can a Novel Really Capture the Spirit of the Internet?

Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and the limits of literary fiction’s obsession with life online.


Over a century ago, E.M. Forster wrote his memorable phrase “Only connect!” into Howards End, reemphasizing it as the novel’s epigraph. The phrase might seem quaint or even corrupted today, when most “connecting” is done online—you could plausibly see the words as ad copy in your feed, selling you a phone or a new mattress—but its terse ambiguity poses a question: What is connection, really? Is it something that fiction has a unique power to cultivate? “Only connect” is not a critic’s phrase, although Forster was a good one; instead, it’s a moral imperative, a plea. A beautiful but fuzzy thought, it expresses the difficulty and the fragility of building relationships, both between people and in a person’s inner life. If we could explain how to do it, it would be easy; the phrase safeguards the hope that connection might extend as far as our power to imagine it. As the novel’s protagonist says to herself just after her insight, “Live in fragments no longer.”

Lauren Oyler, an incisive critic whose work has appeared in a laundry list of major publications, is a prominent inhabitant of our hyper-connected world, an influential tweeter and forthright diarist of her Internet habit, and an unsparing reviewer of millennial contemporaries such as Jia Tolentino and Sally Rooney. In a recent essay for Bookforum, Oyler outlined what she sees as one shortcoming in contemporary fiction: a fixation on the morality of fictional characters, a readerly imposition that results in a literary landscape where “most books are judged on everything except aesthetic terms.” Apparently, contemporary fiction’s desire to teach us how to behave—you could call it “virtue signaling”—is bringing it down. It’s hard not to read a critic’s novel as a corrective to her critique, and Oyler’s debut, Fake Accounts, is resolute in its indifference to do-gooding. What the author thinks the novel should be doing instead, however, is less clear. With formidable defenses of irony and sarcasm, the novel’s pugilistic voice is determined to never be caught off guard.

Consider the opening, which teases the idea that the book might have something to say about the global crises that loom over our personal lives:

Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon, if not by exponential environmental catastrophe then by some combination of nuclear war, the American two-party system, patriarchy, white supremacy, gentrification, globalization, data breaches, and social media. People looked sad, on the subway, in the bars; decisions were questioned, opinions rearranged. The same grave epiphany was dragged around everywhere: we were transitioning from an only retrospectively easy past to an inarguably more difficult future; we were, it could no longer be denied, unstoppably bad.

The finality of this arch cynicism is arresting, but perhaps a bit too easy. The narrator immediately excuses herself from having to feel invested in these issues, the implication seeming to be that the reader secretly would rather not think about these things either. The novel, written during the Trump era’s invasion of our attentions, expresses a desire to be released back into private drama, scorning the self-importance of believing that reading the news and tweeting about it is a political act. It’s an understandable mood, and not every book has to be an overt political statement, especially when we’re so often being sold something on the sly, but the degree of emphasis placed on this refusal seems overzealous, a poster’s hedge against being seen as too sincere.

The novel’s initial premise is compelling: The nameless narrator—a Brooklynite writer for a women’s publication suspiciously like Vice Media’s now-defunct Broadly—decides to snoop through the phone of her boyfriend Felix. She discovers that he runs a popular conspiracy-theorist Instagram account, complete with blurry 9/11 images and feverish posts about the Rothschild banking empire. Is Felix’s account genuine? A strange art project? The narrator can’t quite tell, but the relationship is already on the outs, and she relishes her superior intel in the passive-aggressive journey toward breakup. It’s the novel’s most controlled scene, a meticulous rendering of a small transgression’s pleasures and of our hypersensitive, almost sensual interaction with the device that holds our secrets: “The manual camera, the color wheel, the maps, the better version of maps, the clock that displayed a real ticking digital timepiece, two ways to call a taxi, the weather partly cloudy yet always bright blue, the notepad.”

Felix’s secret is a wellspring of questions: How do the most unlikely people become radicalized? How is it that we fail to truly know those closest to us, despite our best intentions? There’s plenty to explore, but Oyler decides to sidestep these subjects entirely.A few pages later, the narrator receives a phone call telling her that Felix has died in a bike accident while the narrator is attending the 2017 Women’s March (an event she spends a great deal of time dismissing). The majority of the novel’s remainder will be spent on permanent vacation in Berlin, clearing bureaucratic hurdles, feverishly browsing the Internet, and halfheartedly trying to meet someone new. This rejection of a potentially good story issues the challenge that will come to organize the book: If you presume to care, you will quickly be disabused of that notion.

In the same Bookforum essay, Oyler points to an exit strategy from pervasive moralizing: “The novels that are most engaged with, and critical of, this new paradigm are those deemed autofiction.” Authors like Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and Karl Ove Knausgård are the models—they write about life as it comes to them and they stay self-aware even in their most pompous moments. Oyler adds that their books “rarely feature much in the way of plot or structure, suggesting that they’re more transcriptions of their authors’ lives than good-faith attempts at impressing or entertaining a reader.” This tenuous suggestion lies at the heart of Oyler’s own fictional project. Certainly, these authors simulate the texture of everyday experience—they work to make even the boring interesting, to paraphrase James Wood’s oft-repeated Knausgård maxim—but this isn’t the same as writing a book that has no intention of facing a reader.

Each of the authors she cites uses techniques that separate their books from mere transcription. But more importantly, the reader gains intimate knowledge of these people, shares in their vulnerabilities, even if the character is an authorial surrogate. Each is capable of deep feeling, finding ways to reach out from the mundane and grasp new registers of experience. There is risk in letting yourself be understood, and Oyler does not take this risk. Fake Accounts takes up autofiction’s stylistics—the patter of the quotidian, a tendency towards essayistic digression—but the unifying idea of “fakeness” results in an aesthetics of withholding. It’s not so much that the narrator is “unlikable,” which is not exactly uncommon and something the protagonist freely admits, as it is that she is unknown. Being held constantly at arm’s length might be justified as a formal experiment, but if so, the result is curiously safe.

Skimming the surface, however, can be enjoyable. Oyler is an excellent observer of social types and cultural mores, and can be very funny, like when she’s riffing on small talk’s hypocrisies: “The creative New Yorker scoffs…his performance against the cocktail-party question ‘So what do you do?’ lasting at least three times as long as a normal response would. Don’t ask me what I do; ask me who I am! the New Yorker cries, hoping to make it big as soon as possible so that he can forget about such arbitrary distinctions.” The narrator is constantly noticing (e.g., the English of Germans is good, even as they say it’s bad), as if the novel could be sustained by one long cascade of observational comedy, but the moments where she discloses anything are vanishingly rare. The acute sensitivity for those distinctions bleeds into defensiveness, as if there is a fear of being caught with an earnest thought.

The squashing of Felix prompts some tepid soul-searching (a brief, shocked crying spell is the emotional maximum), but the narrator’s experience is defined by the inability to feel what others think she should feel. The idea that grief is perversely mediated by public display is a promising subject, but it becomes another item passed over without modulation. Comparing mourning a boyfriend’s death to buying expensive beef jerky is definitely funny, but if the narrator can’t eventually muster a significant interest in her own life, it raises the question of why anyone else should be interested either.

Once the red-herring boyfriend is ditched (the conspiracy account is never really explained, or even reflected on particularly deeply), Oyler’s premiere subject is revealed to be dating. The novel’s most noticeable shift is a lengthy series of wacky Berlin OKCupid dates, in which the narrator concocts a series of identities based on astrological signs (acupuncturist, PhD student…), leaving her matches mostly confused. This turn to fabulism feels exhausting: What is intended as a virtuosic performance of shape-shifting results in a lengthy series of false starts. Maybe this frenzy is a way of showing the loneliness of the narrator, caught in the absurdity of the algorithm’s sorting by “height, body type, eye color, ethnicity, languages spoken, at what level (??), religion, education, use of controlled substances, and diet.” Maybe becoming a fake is a method of resistance, of beating an absurd system at its own game. And yet, responding to the conditions of falsity with ironic emptiness still feels very empty. Some other recent novels that explore the aimlessness and disconnection of the cultural worker—Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation comes to mind—tend to have pain running under them like an electric current. By contrast, Oyler’s protagonist is more likely to fob you off with a smirk.

Somewhere into the 10th or 11th date, you begin to wish that this amoral character might get up to something more wicked than lightly pranking a series of Internet men. It begins to make an odd kind of sense that even Felix remains mostly an empty silhouette—he’s nice, he’s smart, he’s annoyingly down-to-earth—because the novel places little to no importance in representing other consciousnesses. The result is something like Rachel Cusk’s Outline novels if the narrator never listened to anyone else’s story. The solipsism is the joke, yes, but it still feels like an abandonment of something that might have made the novel more complex, or simply provided some relief.

As the actual events of the novel fizzle, Oyler supplements with direct communications to the reader—after all, she’s a critic, and there’s an essayistic streak that works to feed you broad-stroke cultural analysis (though with enough sarcasm to make sure you won’t take it too seriously):

People often say my generation values authenticity. Reluctantly I will admit to being a member of my generation. 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, because of the unspoiled period that stretched from our birth to the moment our parents had the screeching dial-up installed, the ways in which we casually commit fakery ourselves.

This certainly looks like a thesis statement, but what, exactly, is “authenticity” here? Is it really something that previous generations valued less or more than today? It has the contours of a thought—but is it really? Elsewhere in the novel the narrator facetiously refers to her sense of irony as a “marginalized identity,” but this claim of exceptional status feels dubious: Like “authenticity,” “irony” becomes a catchall, a buzzword to hide away a more difficult exploration.

One could situate this aggressive fakery in another literary tradition of deflection, one that stretches back to Melville’s The Confidence-Man and Gaddis’s The Recognitions, but Fake Accounts doesn’t really feel at home in that company. Those earlier novels turned away completely from what they judged to be a debased society, offering a Bartlebian refusal, come what may. As Oyler’s novel closes, there’s an attempt to play to the crowd, with the narrator confessing the difficulty of maintaining a “knowing tone” and offering what feels like an attempt at self-deprecation: “This is boring. I know.” The complaint against the conditions of capitalist manipulation and social control remains the same, but there’s a note of defeat here, concluding that nothing better is on offer. It’s in moments like this that there might be a use for a politics, in the broadest possible sense: something better to strive for, even if it doesn’t yet exist.

What’s left to sustain a work of fiction if a novelist doesn’t want to appear to care about anything? The Internet, apparently. The narrator’s Berlin episode is blended with a description of what it’s like to be terminally online, which is by turns accurate, claustrophobic, and frustrating. The account of the narrator’s browsing habits is impressively precise (inside-baseball sleuthing on an anonymous lit-set Twitter account, how-to blogs about how to acquire a Berlin apartment), but in accumulation it comes to feel punishing. Oyler’s mouthpiece has more essaying to do on the question of whether such behavior is “real life”:

I had to finally admit that Twitter was not a distraction from reality but representative of it, a projection of the human drives and preoccupations that with free time and publishing platforms had been allowed to multiply and evolve. The superficiality this encouraged—pithiness and oversimplification were rewarded—felt appropriate not merely because it mimicked the way most of us choose to move through life but also because it had compounded those aspects of life that felt so desperate and precipitous.

Surely social media is one form of reality, but what is the role of the novel in establishing this? It’s a stunted form of realism to replicate only degraded communication, insisting that experiencing more isn’t possible. Fake Accounts feeds on reflecting the zeitgeist, as if picture-perfect recognition could be automatically converted into insight. Perhaps so (“I am a camera” and all that), but if the takeaway is that Twitter rewards simplification and that people, online or off, aren’t exactly who they seem to be, it seems like those points could be gotten across rather more quickly.

There’s some irony that a novel so concerned with not selling us another personality or commodity (who can tell the difference these days?) expends its energy in wringing out the online discourse for one more serotonin bump of mutual recognition. Although the narrator is incredibly intelligent, it’s striking that she has almost no features that might be considered idiosyncratic, even in terms of tastes or opinions—nothing exists that hasn’t been finely calibrated to slot into the existing discourse. Even Harriet the Spy, touched on in one of the novel’s rare glimpses of the personal, was already written about by Tolentino. Capturing the spirit of the Internet has become an obsession of recent literary fiction, with authors fearing their voices will be lost in the din and feeling the pressure of relevance hovering over them. Oyler’s novel does it more successfully than most, but somehow that success feels like failure at the same time, a novel so determined to anticipate its criticisms that it, in effect, outsmarts itself.

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