Two Paths for the Extremely Online Novel

By Kate Knibbs

“Why would I want to make my book like Twitter?” the narrator of Lauren Oyler’s new novel, Fake Accounts, wonders. “If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter. You’d be surprised how much time you can spend on Twitter and still have some left over to write a book.”

Oyler knows about Twitter. She had her first big social media hit when she reviewed Roxane Gay’s best-selling essay collection Bad Feminist for the blog BookSlut in 2014. The review dripped with piss and vinegar; it starts out, “I have always hated Roxane Gay’s writing,” and it doesn’t let up from there. Oyler is a consistently entertaining critic. Even when you don’t agree with or understand her arguments, they’re amusing. Which is to say, she isn’t boring. (That’s the nicest thing anyone should say about criticism, by the way. A critic one agrees with all the time—a critic who makes perfect sense—cannot possibly be interesting.) As Oyler describes herself, she’s an honest skeptic in a blurber’s world, a swashbuckler lunging to pierce marketing hype. Writers worry about getting reviewed by her, and they should worry, which is exciting. High standards are a critic’s gift. Her first novel is surprising, then. It’s a book I’d expect her to flambé, had she not written it.

Fake Accounts is narrated by a blogger, unnamed but designed to loosely resemble Oyler (they share the same Twitter avatar and some basic biographical details), who relays the tale of her relationship with a prickly man named Felix, a charming, middling artist she meets when she’s on vacation in Berlin. Felix eventually moves back to the US, where they resume their relationship. The book follows the narrator’s move from Brooklyn to Berlin after discovering Felix’s duplicitous nature—he is secretly a semi-famous internet conspiracy theorist—and then, shortly after her discovery, hearing of his untimely death. In Germany, she drains her days making up fake personalities for dates she lands online and ruminating about her deceased boyfriend.

The narrator, whose day job requires rewriting the news with snarky jokes sprinkled in, laces her story with pithy social commentary, often targeting the easily targeted Brooklynite media class. (“I lived with a roommate in a rent-stabilized apartment in Bed-Stuy and wore shitty clothes even though I’d earned enough to buy oddly proportioned fancy ones,” she explains.) She brims with riffs that wouldn’t be out of place in Oyler’s criticism: opinions about astrology, moralism in contemporary literature, millennials who complain about their class position but nonetheless blithely order $13 cocktails. Zingers abound.

While capable of efficiently roasting her cohort, the narrator’s aim wavers when she tries to explain herself. She has an intensely prescriptive approach to her own personality; she is constantly telling us what kind of person she is, particularly in comparison to her peers. She goes to a pub crawl in Berlin, insisting she’s not the type of person who would do so. (Well then, why does she?) She attends the Women’s March, but takes pains to paint herself as less embarrassingly sincere than the pussy-hat wearers she troops alongside. She finds her fellow New Yorkers insipid for all sorts of reasons, including their fondness for the city where they live. (“I’d never really cared about New York the way other people did,” she explains.) She’s not a regular Brooklyn media white girl, she’s a cool Brooklyn media white girl. Just watch her move to Europe! You get the sense she’s been so busy acting out ideas of herself for an imagined audience that she has no idea who she is.

The way the internet warps self-perception is a timely topic, and Oyler captures how exhausting it is to be constantly encouraged to ponder the type of person you’d like to appear to be. Fake Accounts is an effective portrait of someone who is too caught up in the performance of self to actually know herself, let alone anyone else. But it’s a one-dimensional portrait. No texture. By focusing so closely on the unrelenting inwardness of a shallow thinker, the book succumbs to a stultifying myopia; the narrator moves to Berlin but skims over the surface of expatriate life with total disregard for German culture, like Emily from Emily in Paris’ bad-tempered cousin with a personality disorder. It’s not a dupe for the experience of scrolling through Twitter, as the narrator feared, but something even worse: getting stuck on the profile of a particularly grouchy forum user.