Reviewed: Lauren Oyler, Fake Accounts, Catapult
Hassan messaged me in February. I was in Berlin, he was in Melbourne. He had read an excerpt of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and, being a little tipsy, suggested that we review it together. It was a book about moving to Berlin, which was something I had done and Hassan was determined never to do. We thought this might mean we’d bring different frames of reference to the review. From the title, we assumed that the book would have interesting things to say about identity and pretence; we set out to write this review in the form of roleplay, taking on and exaggerating the other’s perspective. Instead, we found ourselves disappointingly of one mind, the questions of identity and location ultimately moot. We had other things to talk about.
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It’s a sexist tendency to assume autobiographical overlap between a woman writer and her protagonists, which is no doubt why Oyler has given her unnamed narrator the same Twitter profile photo that she has in real life, a shared history as purveyors in the hot-take economy of the mid 2010s, and a life also lived between NYC and Berlin. But elsewhere in Fake Accounts, Oyler’s narrator lampoons exactly this kind of ‘semi-autobiographical novel’, poking fun at the way it mines interactions for content (‘material to later mock’). This type of reader-baiting—with a trope or an idea quickly followed by a knowing finger-wag at the critique forming in the reader’s mind—is the predominant experience of reading this book.
With these gotchas, Oyler relishes in the reader’s imagined discomfort, and this sense of uncertainty is perhaps the entire point of the exercise: whereas other authors blur the boundary between autobiography and fiction to reach for an affective representation of their ‘truth’ (see Stone Butch Blues; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous; Zami: A New Spelling of My Name; the entire autofiction genre), Oyler’s goal is to undermine the idea that we could access someone’s ‘truth’, even our own. To do so requires sincerity and Fake Accounts reads as denial that there could be any such thing.
One difference between the protagonist and the author is that the former does not have the latter’s storied history in literary criticism. Oyler has a reputation as an eviscerating reviewer, (in)famous for her takedowns of literary darlings Sally Rooney and Jia Tolentino, and her disdain for ‘moralising’ autofiction in the vein of Rachel Cusk. Oyler is acutely aware of the playing field, and is a good critic by virtue of this knowledge. But this means she is constantly on the defensive in her own writing. What makes her an excellent critic is what makes Fake Accounts a bad novel—Oyler is far too aware of all possible critiques and seems intent on avoiding them.
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Fake Accounts sets us behind the eyes of an unnamed young woman who views the world with suspicion but absolutely no curiosity. In every encounter, she assesses the world on a spectrum of Normal to Not Normal (moving overseas after difficult news ‘exist[s] on the spectrum of normal behaviours’; the narrator is of ‘a normal age to have children’; an individual’s lips are ‘of normal plumpness’). If something is Not Normal, she disengages. This is evident from the get-go: she looks through her boyfriend Felix’s phone in search of an excuse to dump him, and finds that he’s running a popular conspiracy account on Instagram (decidedly Not Normal behaviour). Why? She doesn’t care—she’s found her excuse. But prevented from dumping him by news of his death, she moves to Berlin, where they first met.
Nothing much happens in Berlin: she walks around (taking very little note of her surroundings), takes up a job she doesn’t care much about (nannying some German toddlers, which again is mostly walking), and develops a habit of lying to strangers. Considerable time is also spent whining about the intricacies of the German visa system and her eventual trip to the Ausländerbehörde (Immigration Office) before the novel comes to an abrupt, yet predictable end.
• • •
We’ve been struggling with this book for months, with very little to show for it. It’s not typical for either of us to approach a novel with a view to combat, but the text’s slippery defensiveness positions us as attackers. We find ourselves compelled to understand what is being defended and what we’re supposed to be attacking. Similarly, we’re left feeling as if the joke’s on us for even trying. In Fake Accounts, every characterisation and supposedly external perspective is attributed to the narrator and stems from her slippery and irony-poisoned world view; critiquing it is akin to shadowboxing.
Here’s an example: on an acquaintance’s decision to stop following the news, the narrator quips, ‘There seemed to be two options for engaging with the world: desperate close-reading or planned obsolescence.’ Fake Accounts is littered with snappy observations like these, but they don’t hold up to sustained engagement (i.e. ‘desperate close-reading’). Planned obsolescence does not seem an applicable metaphor to describe the opting-out that the media-weary undertake (what new version of themselves would they purchase, earlier than necessary?). But it does sound good. This kind of empty rhetoric is the closest our narrator gets to having conviction; elsewhere, opinions are undercut with prevarication: ‘I didn’t believe all of this, necessarily’, ‘some nebulous statement I didn’t necessarily agree with’, ‘that’s not something I want to suggest about Felix, at least not entirely’.
Even the opening line—‘Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon’—drips with equivocating metanoia. For a character who expresses such thoughts as ‘This was consistent with other things he did’, Oyler’s narrator displays an astonishing absence of coherent characterisation. She regularly flip-flops in the span of a few pages: when she brushes off a Black activist’s suggestion that white women should read up on the history of white supremacy before diving headlong into movements, she claims that such recommendations could not be made ‘from any real desire to educate except inasmuch as educating others allows one to exist on a higher plane’. That this comes shortly after ‘I couldn’t find a way to pin down getting educated as a bad thing’ may be read as a swipe against liberal hypocrisy, but who can say? These prevarications become get-out-of-jail-free cards, making criticism a charade.
This is the trouble with reading Fake Accounts: everything might be intentional, or it might not. There is so much equivocation, pre-emptive self-defence and intellectually dishonest sophistry that it’s impossible for the reader to engage critically with any aspect of the book. Oyler uses the narrator as a human shield, such that no artistic decision, bad take, careless formulation or inconsistent characterisation can be traced back to the author. The question of ‘normality’ is relevant here too: by referencing ‘normality’ without further specification, she occludes the fact that norms are always culturally specific. Although Oyler doesn’t say it, ‘normal’ for her narrator (and for her) is inextricable from the white NYC literary context she writes out of.
Two things result from this. First, it fortifies the bubble the narrator lives in while maintaining Oyler’s plausible deniability about being the same kind of writer as her frequent targets—it’s the narrator who is limited, not her! Never mind that the book doesn’t step beyond that bubble either. Second, the narrator’s profound lack of curiosity renders everything that falls outside the scope of ‘normal’ unworthy of anything beyond a caustic remark, resulting in a book full of prickly but ultimately superficial representations of both people and places.
To Oyler’s narrator, the outside world barely exists—it is a thing moved through. This suggests a nod to the literary tradition of flânerie, aimless strolling typically performed by an affluent (white, male) urbanite who bears witness to the world through their wandering. In this, our narrator is something of an anti-flâneur: as she walks through Berlin, she bears witness to some aspects of the city, offering a detached critique of the bloated cultural space Berlin takes up in the contemporary imagination. However, she refuses to engage sincerely with its physicality, to take pleasure in it, or to see herself as a participant. On Berghain, she is simultaneously a tour guide (‘the former power plant that now housed the best club in the world, bounced by a notoriously scrupulous and face-tattooed doorman’) and a snob, superior to the ‘bright-eyed money-spending tourists and self-righteous expats’ who frequent the club. Even though she is a tourist-cusp-expat herself, the narrator stands offside from both groups by taxonomising their relationships to the implications of the place.
The map of Berlin in Fake Accounts is a discursive one. We get a specific sense of the social function of certain places (Berghain, the Turkish markets, ‘the Weserstrasse’), and what people think it means to visit or know about them, but very little idea of how these places look or feel. There is no texture to this Berlin. That could be intentional—our narrator explains earlier: ‘I’d made it home and now you have no idea what the route from my yoga studio to my apartment looks like because I was staring at my phone for the entire walk.’ Even when she isn’t carrying her smartphone, there doesn’t seem to be a difference in the atmosphere of the places she inhabits.
This extends to the digital realm: although the book has been widely described as an ‘internet novel’, insofar as the internet appears, it’s restricted to social media, which is catalogued and critiqued in much the same way as physical space is—as an object of suspicion, not enquiry. Three pages are spent describing Instagram’s interface and casting judgement on the accounts Felix follows (‘uncultivated’, ‘crude cartoons’), only for the section to end with the bafflingly incurious declaration that Felix is ‘a person of impossible complexity whose motivations I was now liberated from trying to untangle’. Elsewhere, the narrator is happy to ‘untangle’ the complex motivations of people she barely knows, but inevitably reduces them to the common complaints of inauthenticity or stupidity. The reader is led to conclude that the internet is essentially bad and this badness is referenced in all the typical ways: shallow engagement, performative politics, excessive self-curation and an unrelenting impulse to refresh.
That’s not to say that Fake Accounts’ in-person interactions are any richer. Characters orbiting the narrator serve as foils to her: a housemate, the organiser of a writers’ group, the men she goes on dates with; everyone exists as an opportunity for her to lob scathing generalisations. The closest thing we get to another perspective is a Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends who interject metacommentary that pre-empts the reader: ‘OK, get to the point, my ex-boyfriends are saying from the audience, not unkindly but not kindly either.’ But these, too, are projections on the part of the narrator, who is deeply invested in pre-empting other people’s thoughts.
This feels like Oyler’s main purpose: to forestall the reader and poke fun at the tropes and expectations of modern novels (and at readers for having expectations in the first place). What this book feels like, more than anything, is an exercise in trolling. This is something she alludes to in a 2021 Bookforum essay titled ‘U Mad?’: ‘But personas and fake identities, the foundation of the internet troll’s repertoire, are form and content in fiction, and they can also be used to disorient the reader until he falls into the trap of conflating authors with their characters.’ The self-defensive posturing in Fake Accounts is not, then, limited to the text itself but extends into its paratexts, sending readers scrambling after their impressions so as not to be gullible enough to fall into the trap.
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Oyler is at pains to emphasise that what we have in our hands is a novel. From the wry section headings (‘Beginning’, ‘Middle (Something Happens)’, ‘Climax’, and so on) to the narrator’s references to writing a book (which is sometimes not this book and other times is this book), Fake Accounts is replete with self-aware metacommentary. Oyler even extends her reviewer’s critique of fragmentary novels (such as Jenny Offill’s Weather) into her own book: ‘What’s amazing about this structure is that you can just dump any material you have in here and leave it up to the reader to connect it to the rest of the work.’ This appears in a 40-page exercise in fragmentation, ostensibly undertaken to ‘better understand’ the form, but it ultimately comes across as a crutch—it’s an incredibly easy way to write a disconnected series of OkCupid dates.
To be generous, these reminders could be Oyler writing in a Brechtian mode, giving us Epic Theatre on the page: the audience is not provided much opportunity to identify emotionally with either the characters or the plot and is constantly reminded that what they’re experiencing is not real. But Epic Theatre requires much more, and while Fake Accounts hits some notes, it misses others entirely. For example, one of Brecht’s key principles, Verfremdungseffekt (‘estrangement effect’), strips a work of its self-evident or familiar nature through distancing techniques, bringing the audience’s attention to the fact of performance (e.g. through metacommentary, breaking the fourth wall, exposing the set—all techniques that Oyler employs). Brecht’s goal is to force his audience to think critically about the work, to be jolted into real-world action; Oyler, it seems, just wants us to shrug along with her.
Whether or not we do, however, is beside the point. Oyler’s pre-constructed reader, like the narrator’s ex-boyfriends, functions as an opportunity for projection, seeming to say: ‘We all do this, don’t we? Doesn’t it feel good to admit it?’ In a rare moment of insight, the narrator even says, ‘I try to assume everyone is working with an inventory of emotions identical to mine.’ But there is a difference between acknowledging that you are just like everyone else and believing that everyone else is just like you. The former recognises that your thoughts and feelings are not unique to you, and the latter reduces other people to a projection of yourself. Oyler and her narrator seem to believe the latter.
For readers who don’t, Fake Accounts has a flattening effect—its pessimistic and totalising world view leaves little room for anything else. The reader walks away feeling themselves, their relationships and their reality diminished. Because the book avoids saying anything interesting or meaningful about being in the world, because it is full of self-defensiveness and cheap decoys, because it reduces the reader to a reflection of the narrator, it ultimately fails to inspire critical engagement or self-reflection. This is not to say that literature must be inspirational, or morally instructive; it need not even be formally adventurous or interesting. But if none of these things, what are we left with? Oyler’s narrator might have an answer: ‘Something recognisable, if not memorable.’ •
Hassan Kalam Abul is a writer, editor, and artist working on unceded Wurundjeri lands. His work is concerned with digitality, feelings, and relationship to place. See more at <www.hassan.soy>
Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, editor and critic. She is the recipient of the 2021 Kat Muscat Fellowship and a 2020 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship.