Maybe it’s because Philip Roth’s long-awaited biography is finally due out next month, or maybe because the novel in question here is so hyper-fixated on the particular experience of living in the post-end times, where everything appears long dead yet refuses to go away, that I found myself thinking often of Roth’s prediction about the death of the novel while reading Lauren Oyler’s debut Fake Accounts. In a few decades novel writing will more or less disappear, Roth believed, and novel reading will fade with it, the select few who still occupy their time with dead letters forming something like an esoteric cult.
There seems to be an implicit awareness, if not acceptance, of the implications of this hypothesis in some of the better offerings of contemporary fiction. If the novel is on the way out with the rest of everything, there’s really no way to ignore this obstinate reality when putting in an honest day’s labor into writing one. The fact that you’re holding this physical object in your hands, or reading it off your computer, and immersing yourself in an invented world has become too obvious to ignore for an age that is constantly trying to shed itself of illusions, make up for lost time, and confront all of the world’s long-ignored problems. The amount of sincerity that is necessary—or possible—to bring into this arrangement may be up for debate, but the fact of self-awareness seems incontrovertible. To proceed otherwise would be like seeing an old friend after all these years and ignoring the tube down their throat that hooks them up to the beeping machine keeping them alive.
I bring up Roth not just because his rather bleak hypothesis about the future of the novel strikes a resonant chord in approaching Fake Accounts, but also because Oyler, first as a critic and now as a novelist, seems to go about writing, both her fiction and her reflections on others’, by treading close to this path, the one Roth was first led to by Chekhov: art as the proper presentation of the problem. Her ability to analyze exactly that and lay it out bare in a way that cuts through the layers of discourse surrounding art in the internet age, complicating our understanding of the thing itself, has made her well known as one of the most clear-headed critics of contemporary fiction.
Many, myself included, first became aware of Oyler’s criticism through a punishingly frank review of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, a collection of essays that quickly became a bestseller during the post-2016 wave of alarmist liberalism, a time when everyone was looking for just the right person to diagnose the era’s anxiety and tell us how to correctly process guilt about being in some way complicit in the whole ordeal (by which I mean Trump’s election). Hysterical criticism was how she defined it, this particular style of personal essay where the writer performs a sense of moral righteousness for the community she’s writing for as a veil to obscure a more superficial understanding of the world rooted in vanity—an alarmism affected through a sense of self-awareness that is purely performative.
But then, in Fake Accounts, Oyler is quick to establish a picture of the world in which social media has made everyone vain and performing one’s own anxieties online has become the norm. In just a couple of compact paragraphs, the opening of the novel sets up a picture of the post-2016 world where suddenly the swearing in of a new president sees everyone embracing the doom perspective: that all action is futile given our certain ruin—or at least performing this embrace. “The end of the world would let us have our cake and eat it too,” Oyler’s unnamed narrator writes. Once you buy into this era in history’s inspired fatalism you don’t have to feel so bad about your morally dubious behaviors or lack of commitment to take decisive action because, hey, the world’s ending, what can you do? For the narrator, while pointing out the obvious hypocrisy of this logic, she uses it to justify going through her boyfriend’s phone late one night.
Instead of Hunter Biden–style nudes and erotic texts she finds his burner Instagram account, a page highly popular among alt-right communities for its conspiracy theory meme peddling. A little unsure what exactly to feel about this revelation—but certainly some combination of shocked and offended and confused as to what exactly is the right amount of outrage to grant to these feelings within the larger context of political hailstorms in January of 2017—upon returning to New York after putting in an obligatory appearance at the post-inaugural Women’s March protest in D.C., she decides that the only thing to do is break up.
But then tragedy strikes, or some version of it: the narrator receives a phone call from her boyfriend’s mother letting her know that he died in a sudden bike accident over the weekend. Now in the strange position of dealing with the grief of a boyfriend who she had already mentally broken up with, and who, as she admits to herself, was in some sense dead to her due to the recent revelations of his online fraud, the narrator decides to use the unexpectedness of this life event to escape from her life in New York and move to Berlin, the site of their relationship’s original meet cute.
To those around her, the sudden loss of a loved one appears like a genuine excuse for drastic change, an attempt to start over. But the narrator’s real motivations always seem to be elsewhere than within the stated facts; her wry sense of self-awareness is hyperacute, but, as far as her motivations are concerned, she always stops short of stating things directly. One of the closest instances she provides to her real motivations comes in response to a friend who asks her why she doesn’t just do something more practical, like get a new job and invest her savings. Her response: “Probably because I’ve been quietly preparing to flee the country and write a novel [NOT this one].” Is that the real reason? The answer seems to be yes and no. Too aware of the cliché of it, the answer can’t be yes. Too aware of the fact that she’s already writing a novel—the one you’re reading—the answer can’t be no.
Living in New York as a twenty-something year old employed in the media, in a role that is not exactly creative but somewhat adjacent to it, the kind of unspoken, tacit assumption seems to be that there is always some larger personal project stewing in the background—a novel, a play, a film, etc.—which is what sustains one’s ability to submit to the alienating world of corporatism and the bastardization of one’s craft. Oyler’s narrator embodies this well: she works for a somewhat respectable media outlet, also left unnamed, that hires her to pump out a certain quota of articles each day. It’s the sort of job that is close enough to what she wants to do (write), but obviously so opposite in aim to what she wants to do with it (produce writing that is read for its own merits rather than designed to generate clicks and ad revenue) that she’s not even sure if she can respectably call herself a writer.
Her brain, seeped in a particular variety of ironic detachment born from years of employment in a job that forces her to write from a place that is closer to the company’s perspective on the world, hyper-influenced by the state of discourse online, than her own seems to prevent her from allowing her honest motivations to come to the fore. Her problem is that she wants to write a novel, but struggles to do so, because the world is a bad place and her position as a reluctant member of an empire in its death throes forces her to be all too aware of her existence merely occupying one of the many prefabricated subject positions that capital has to offer—and, well, it’s hard with the larger realities of life always bearing down. But that can’t be the problem, because that would be a little too unselfconsciously melodramatic to present as the main problem in the year 2021 while trying to keep an awareness of the state of the world’s doom in balance.
If leading an “authentic” life in this stage of late capitalism is impossible, how does one lead an authentic fake life? The discovery of her boyfriend’s hidden second life online and all the narrative that follows seems to pivot around an exploration in fakery, both in narrative content and form. During the middle section of the book, titled “The Middle (nothing happens),” in which the narrator finds herself aimlessly employed as a babysitter in Berlin, she listens to a podcast interview with a female novelist who has just published a novel written in short, fragmented sections—which the author identifies as a very feminine genre of novel writing—and the narrator takes the opportunity to reflect upon how much she dislikes the style, how it appears to her as a mask to hide otherwise hollow writing. To demonstrate her issues with it, the novel itself takes on the form of a fragmentary novel; the narrator embodies the stylings she despises, an experimental flair that will allow her to reflect upon her issues with the style and refashion the aimlessness of her life in a new form. She applies the discarded forms of the novel to her own life to better see herself through the distortion, to better understand the form of the novel that she both is and is not writing as the narrative progresses.
There’s something of the ethos of a Beckett for the social media age in Oyler’s treatment of narrative voice in Fake Accounts. “I can’t go on. I must go on,” she seems to say—with life in America under the fake TV president, with social media and all of its inherent fraudulence, with art and its inability to capture life as it’s really lived now. In Fake Accounts everything might be ruined, but it’s a rare reminder that the novel need not be.