Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. 267 Pages. 2021, Catapult Press.
Fake Accounts, critic Lauren Oyler’s debut novel, is a tough book to recommend. It chronicles an unnamed young woman trying (and failing) to overcome the aftermath of a—let’s call it unorthodox—breakup. A thin premise for a novel, yes, but Oyler layers intrigue to lend it heft. Her boyfriend Felix operates an Instagram account that propagated conspiracy theories among a small but still disconcerting amount of followers. When she discovers this secret, the relationship must end.
For most authors, this would constitute a short story, never a novel, but Oyler’s protagonist relishes in postponing the inevitable like a modern Holden Caulfield, another fictional character who teeters “between likable and loathsome.” In the ever-widening space between making a decision and facing its consequences, she peppers her narrative with snappy screeds against the hypocrisies and pretensions of the millennial generation. Don’t worry; this is not a curmudgeon’s old, wrinkly fist shaken at the young. “Reluctantly, I will admit to being a member of my generation,” she confesses. Not only does this out her as a millennial, it outs her in the most millennial way imaginable.
In good millennial form, she attends a lot of protests but doesn’t feel too passionately about any of them. Her sudden, mid-breakup trip to the Women’s March in Washington D.C. sounds like a feminist rebellion against a deceitful boyfriend but reads like an angsty, fruitless search for said rebellion. “At work, that Monday, I told everyone who tried to make small talk with me that I had decided to go to the Women’s March,” she writes, “‘I’m a good person now,’ I said, dispensing peanut butter M&M’s from the peanut butter M&M dispenser in the kitchen. ‘I’m also eating a healthy breakfast.’” Snide self-deprecation characterizes her prose. A group of feminists gives her a ride from New York City to D.C. At a rest stop, they discuss Hillary Clinton’s disadvantages in the 2016 election, but when she butts in to broach, “the intersections of class with race and gender and sexuality,” she must cut herself short “to make sure they didn’t abandon me at the Travel Plaza.”
If she possesses a fiery passion for anything, it would be for nuance. She works as a blogger, a profession which sacrifices subtlety for views, likes, and web traffic. It is a tragic fate since any accurate BuzzFeed personality quiz would undoubtedly peg her as a gadfly who thrives in the kind of productive debate that is all but extinct online. She describes her medium-small readership as a “youngish audience that assumed it was smarter than it was […] It wanted to learn things that it could trick itself into believing it had always known, so you had to write as if you were like everyone else, and as if everyone else were decently intelligent.” Protesting against her audience’s demands, she writes in fluent, pages-long paragraphs of microscopic detail. Her endless digressions, internet research rabbitholes, and meticulous parsing through social media feeds are the ultimate revolt against a cultural milieu that prizes concision over complexity, political correctness over correctness, half-truths over truth.
By focusing so much on granular details, however, not much occurs in terms of plot. Oyler would be the first to admit this. She creatively titles the middle section of her book “Middle” and accurately subtitles it “Nothing Happens.” What ensues is about a hundred pages of deflection as she fools online date after online date into thinking she’s someone she’s not. After the breakup’s surprising conclusion, our protagonist quits her job and moves to Berlin, recklessly pursuing a fresh start in the city where she and Felix first met. “What is the point of being middle-class in the twenty-first century if you can’t do things whimsically?” she asks. Again, this sounds like a feminist assertion of independence but reads, by her own admittance, like a “bourgeois-white-person narrative.” The trials and travails of a white, straight, middle-class, college-educated, American woman applying for visa status in Germany occupy a mammoth portion of the book. The only thing more boring than filling out such paperwork is reading about a fictional character filling out that paperwork.
The fresh start Berlin promised quickly sours. She ambles through beer gardens, tourist-y bars, and book clubs in search of . . . what? Love? Her numerous online dates end nowhere because she delights too much in concocting personas online. A career? The only job she lands is working as a nanny for a well-to-do straight couple. Cultural immersion? She doesn’t even attempt to learn German. Before you dismiss her as too insufferable to endure, let me paraphrase your high school English teacher’s defense of Holden Caulfield: everything you hate about Oyler’s protagonist is everything your friends hate about you. When you relate to her, it should hurt a little bit. So read these parts closely.
The book culminates in the closest thing to a plot twist a book with no plot can manage. The real twist happens before the reader even realizes it. She becomes exactly what Felix became: an online troll who favors fakery over reality, who deceives random strangers for their own amusement, suffering no consequences.
But of course, there is no such thing as an action without consequences. By faking so many identities, she constructed a self that she can’t admit is herself, demolishing the border between the digital world and the “real world,” a border that was never there to begin with. Read this book as the diagnosis of a malaise. In her protagonist, Oyler epitomizes an entire generation’s pathology: vapid self-centeredness, a bias towards convenient truths, and way too much time on Twitter.