Lauren Oyler is viral and vicious. A critic with a reputation for pulling no punches, she is known for delivering refreshingly sane judgments of overhyped, commercially successful books. She is not alone in her ruthlessness — there are a number of critics who are at least equally ferocious about deflating promotional balloons, among them Merve Emre and Christian Lorentzen — but she is the hater who makes the greatest waves on the internet. She specialises in skewering vapid writing that takes its cues from social media, and her 2020 take-down of Jia Tolentino’s popular essay collection was shared so many times that the London Review of Books website crashed in the aftermath. When asked in a recent profile about her enviable fearlessness, she replied: ‘We’re all adults here.’
Now, Oyler has taken the brave step of writing her own novel. Fake Accounts is narrated by a blogger who discovers that her boyfriend has been surreptitiously peddling conspiracy theories on an anonymous
Instagram account. When he dies (or appears to), she is left to meditate on the unknowability of his (and everyone’s) motives. The book has a plot, but barely: the inevitably Brooklyn-based protagonist spends too much time online, flees to Berlin on a whim, and lies about her life. Mostly, she dissects, digests and digresses, often with wit and intelligence.
Devotees of Oyler’s criticism want and expect Fake Accounts to be extraordinary. But we are all adults here — and the fact is, like so many hotly anticipated debuts, it is only OK. It has more stylistic heft than
a lot of wispy contemporary fiction. It is funny and unsentimental. It boasts several moving moments when the narrator’s carefully constructed façade threatens to fracture, as when she recalls some not-quite-traumatising but not-quite-consensual sex. And, mercifully, it is not written in fragments, a gimmick that Oyler mocks in one clever (if punishingly long) section, insisting: ‘If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.’
But a series of savage aperçus do not add up to a satisfying novel. Fake Accounts never ultimately transcends the caustic register of Twitter. Its narrator regards her boyfriend with ‘growing ambivalence’ and her acquaintances with open disdain; she has ‘never really cared about New York’, and she seems unenthused by Berlin. Sixteen times she reports that various things, ranging from ‘time passing’ to ‘parents’, don’t matter. In interviews, Oyler has called for ‘maximalism’ in fiction. Fake Accounts has long, winding sentences, but its commitments and convictions are minimal.
Some measure of performative indifference makes good sense in a book about self-curation as a means of self-protection. But a thematic preoccupation with fraudulence can only provide so much cover for writing that is so exhaustingly eager to establish its own invulnerability. Besides, defensive gambits of this sort are already such a staple in alienated contemporary writing by the likes of Ben Lerner and Teju Cole that they are beginning to grate.
Of course, I am not saying that thereis no place for negativity, much less amI casting aspersions on Oyler’s many forcefully justified hatreds. What I’m saying is that hating, however eloquent, is only half the battle. That it is so often cast as the whole of the enterprise is the fault of a warped incentive structure. A pan of the hot book of the season reliably occasions more retweets than, for instance, Oyler’s comparatively underappreciated essays on cult authors such as Shirley Hazzard. But isn’t the point of being Lauren Oyler to get beyond what the system and its algorithmic accoutrements reward?
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