A bite worse than her bark: Lauren Oyler’s ‘Fake Accounts’

By Madeleine Gray

The American critic’s debut novel captures the experience of living on and through the internet

If you own a duvet from Bed Threads, follow a literary Instagram account and think that Broad City is about your life, chances are that in 2019 you bought (and probably snapped a selfie while reading) Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. I too have done all of these things: there is no judgement here.

Trick Mirror comprises nine ostensibly hyper self-aware autobiographical essays that follow Tolentino’s feminist reasoning through a quagmire of neoliberal double-binds: drugs, the wedding industry, the goal of “optimisation”, the creation of identity on the internet – these are all targets for much serious Tolentinian thought. Trick Mirror received widespread critical acclaim, and its bright, easily identifiable front cover ensured that its readers could recognise each other in public, sharing the smug smiles of self-appointed high culture denizens. 

If you, like me, experience a dark kind of pleasure in reading the truly unhinged comment sections that inevitably accompany all totally uncontroversial Buzzfeed listicles, then you might also have predicted the following: soon enough, a review came out that gleefully ripped into Tolentino’s book, essentially condemning it as pseudo-woke, navel-gazing trash. The author of this absolutely biting, Twitter-viral hatchet job was a fellow female millennial: the critic Lauren Oyler.

I do not agree with all of Oyler’s criticisms, but I’ll admit that there is something gluttonously delicious about reading a review in which one smart person just devours another smart person in front of you. Oyler’s main gripe with Tolentino was that Trick Mirror is an exercise in “hysterical criticism”. According to Oyler, critics who write “hysterically” are not self-centred “because they write about themselves, which writers have always done, but because they can make any observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings, though it should be the other way round”. Hysterical critics, decries Oyler, rely on the performance of politically correct earnestness in order that they might camouflage their own relative privilege as well as the lack of rigour that their thinking often entails.

Now Lauren Oyler has written her own book, a novel called Fake Accounts, which is an incisive meta-commentary on almost all of the topics for which Oyler lampooned Tolentino for not doing a good enough job of explicating.

Fake Accounts’ impending publication generated much hype in the insular community of online literary comment, because how often do you get to see if your critical nemesis could actually do your job better than you? One imagines (I imagine) Tolentino hovering at her MacBook with bated breath, ready to strike with malicious precision should it happen that Fake Accounts is anything less than brilliant. 

It will be small comfort for Tolentino that Oyler’s novel is really quite good.

Oyler’s nameless female protagonist lives in New York where she blogs for a Jezebel-esque feminist website and ambivalently ponders her own relative moral depravity within the ecosystem of late capitalist, feminist content production. The protagonist’s self-aware and sardonic considerations are amusingly voiced in the same smart but snarky voice she mocks:

Once I developed my tone, a rote, pseudo-intellectual dismissiveness that could be applied to any topic so long as the worst political implications (ideally, the thing being discussed was bad for women) were spelled out by the end of the article, I wrote fast, and I accumulated a modest but respectable number of Twitter followers, in the mid four figures.

The “action” of the novel is kicked into gear when the narrator discovers that her boyfriend, Felix, is secretly moonlighting as an alt-right conspiracy theorist online. She considers breaking up with him immediately, but “I wasn’t sure that was the absolute best way to play my hand, and I wanted to play my hand in the absolute best way.” As such, she puts off taking action and instead accompanies a bunch of women to the Women’s March in Washington D.C. Trump has just been elected, and the white women of Brooklyn are mobilising: “Though we could always do more or do better, there was a sense that our embarrassment of privileges could be set aside to focus on the task at hand, though what that task was I wasn’t really sure.” While in D.C., our protagonist receives news that her boyfriend has unceremoniously died. Fuming, she now has the intellectually and emotionally confusing task of mourning for a boyfriend she was meaning to dump anyway, because he was lying to her (and to the world) the whole time they were together.

What to do now, she wonders? She and Felix met in Berlin, so obviously she should move to Berlin. This is the kind of nuanced logic the protagonist applies to most of her life decisions. One does wonder whether she might fare better applying her adroit cultural analyses to her own wants and needs, but this would make for less entertaining reading, and this alienation from self via hyper-attentiveness is also kind of the novel’s central theme, so. Now renting a room in an apartment in hipster Neukölln, our gal proceeds to wander around and do nothing very much for the rest of the novel, bar scrolling through her Twitter feed and going on lots of Tinder dates during which she invents fake personalities for herself. At the novel’s end there is a twist that made me think, Oh yeah – smart, which perhaps sounds like a denigratory reaction from me, but it truly isn’t: it is the kind of affectless but clever twist completely in keeping with the ethos of this novel.

If you are looking for emotional resonance, character depth and a captivating plot, Oyler’s book will not give you these things. However, if you are after a novel that actually does a decent job of bringing to fiction the experience of living on and through the internet, with all the barbed implications and cognitive dissonances that online identity creation involves, then this book might be for you.

Rarely have I seen so many of my own worst tendencies re political “engagement” spelled out on the page. Oyler is concerned with buzzwords, with the interplay of attentiveness, attunement and apathy: how much does our online witness to the never-ending development of political discourse actually do for “the world”? Further, how does living so much online affect our ability to accurately judge or – a task far more difficult – understand other people? If every person is a series of surfaces to be analysed, is it even possible to ever break through?

Jia Tolentino suggested that self-analysis within the current moment often comes to nothing more than a bunch of misleading selfies taken in the warped reflection of a trick mirror. The final line of Oyler’s novel pretty much spells out her take on this, cold comfort though it may be: “That’s part of the point.”

Madeleine Gray

Madeleine Gray is a writer and critic from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The MonthlyThe Saturday Paper, the TLS and The Lifted Brow.


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