A danger for the debut novelist who makes her name writing combative book reviews is that, when it’s time to step into the arena, her targets’ friends, fans and flatterers will line up to throw rocks. Lauren Oyler, a critically active young American, comes bearing a reputation for shanking celebrated millennials in the likes of the New Yorker, LRB and Guardian. Her antipathy towards the “moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction” – a consistent pulse in her essays and reviews – seemed promising with regard to the fiction she was gearing up to produce. Rumours that her novel concerned a young woman’s relationship with a man from the wrong side of the internet led me, wishfully, to envision a foray into online cultures usually shadow banned from fiction’s ideologically monochromatic mainstream.
Fake Accounts is not that book (closer to it would be Hari Kunzru’s superb Red Pill). What it is, instead, is an unexpectedly playful portrait of a spiky, sceptical young woman grappling with questions of selfhood, narcissism and duplicity in the social media imperium. The seemingly Oyler-like narrator – more on her in a moment – does fall for a guy who, she discovers, secretly maintains a popular Instagram account pushing inane conspiracy theories. But that’s as far as it goes in terms of behind-enemy-lines internet incursions. The boyfriend’s second life is a MacGuffin that allows Oyler’s narrator to expatiate on her true theme: the amount of time she spends on her phone, and how bad this makes her feel.
The unnamed author-narrator (for convenience, let’s call her “Lauryn”) is a recognisable type you imagine lurking at the back of literary events in Brooklyn, beady eyed with judgmental envy, hot to skewer the scene in a merciless autofiction that will elevate her on stage for the next event. She works as a content hack, speed-writing smug and sassy articles for a website that sounds a lot like Vice (deftly ridiculed over a few tight pages). On holiday in Berlin she falls in love with a fellow American, Felix. In time he turns out to be quite dull and she decides to ditch him, becoming only a little more curious when she discovers his shitposting alter ego.
But this is a self-involved novel, for self-involved readers in a self-involved age, and really, it’s about her. Lauryn is an uglified child of her feminist times. During sex, she makes herself come “on principle”; one-night stands and relationships are competitions she strives to “win” (even a blowjob is described as a “battle”). She resents her mother and “online feminism” for making her paranoid, is “relentlessly negative”, takes pains not to seem maternal, cheats on all her boyfriends, and wonders if the sexism of every man she sleeps with is “overt or merely residual”. So far, so dutifully unlikable a protagonist as feminist assertion. But – and here’s where the moral non-obviousness begins to show, and with it the sense that Oyler is bringing something new to the crowded, millennial-woman-figuring-herself-out table – she knows that power has irrevocably shifted, and “a man discussing feminism had few options but to become a toothless sycophant, and even then he’d be ruthlessly mocked or treated with scepticism”. She later twists the knife in these “male feminists” for their “pseudo-righteous box-ticking”.
In the wake of not so much a tragedy as an ostensibly sad event about which she has mixed and complex feelings, Lauryn quits her job and returns to Berlin. There, she divides her time between scrolling on Twitter and scrolling on OKCupid. On a series of dates she invents different stories about herself – doing the online self-myth thing IRL. In a novel seeking to capture the psychic textures of our moment, much hangs on what the author can do with the limited dramatic materials of clicking, liking, swiping, following, and so on. Oyler’s observations on social media’s everyday abjection tell us little we don’t already know (“We were all self-centred together, supporting each other as we propped up the social media companies”), but they’re aphoristically sharp, never uninteresting.
Lauryn recognises herself as “a somewhat retrograde cynic, a toxic presence” threatened with obsolescence in a new order of sincerity and hysterical empathy. Set pieces such as attending the Women’s March against Trump amusingly dissect the narcissism of social justice grievance hierarchies (even “a young black activist” gets no free pass here) – and the results are not entirely caustic.
One section is parodically written in the “trendy” fragmentary style of Jenny Offill, Maggie Nelson and their ilk, which, Lauryn is told, is “distinctly feminine”. The assurance and light comic touch suggest that Oyler can withstand any would-be revenge critics. Also that, with the sexual regime change in literary tastes now an established fact, and the limping male novelist scarcely worth satirising, the ladies are about to start ripping chunks out of one another.
• Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler is published by Fourth Estate (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply