Speaking at an event in 2016, Sally Rooney said: “I don’t know how I could possibly make literary the time I waste on Facebook. It’s possible that a really good writer could actually make that very interesting. But for me, the endless scroll […] it’s really difficult to elevate that to something beautiful.” We have been waiting for the novel that makes literary the endless scroll. With Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, we may have found it. It’s a brilliant comic novel about the ways in which the internet muddles all of our interior rivers while at the same time polluting the seas of the outer world, and about how these processes might be one and the same thing. Arriving in the same month as Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, it might just help to usher in the Age of Actually Good Novels About the Internet – and not a moment too soon.
The narrator of Fake Accounts is female, millennial, Brooklyn-based, admitting to an “embarrassment of privileges”, avowedly “teetering […] on the border between likeable and loathsome”. She is very aware of her status as the narrator of a novel. Sections are called things like “Beginning” or “Middle (Something Happens)”. There is an imagined audience of ex-boyfriends. I’m making it sound cutesily postmodern, or emptily parodic, but it’s neither.
For one thing, it’s very funny. There are two sex scenes (each labelled “Sex Scene”); in one of them, mid-blowjob, the narrator writes: “I became sad.” Meeting a project manager: “I asked about project management as if I did not know it was totally bullshit.” Also, the descriptive prose is casually great. On Berlin: “The light turned everything an eerie slate, no matter the time of day, like it had always just rained, or you had just cried.”
Plotwise, the book is about what happens when the narrator, spying on her boyfriend Felix’s phone, discovers his secret life as an online conspiracy theorist. Shortly thereafter, Felix dies in a cycling accident. It’s 2016: Trump, pussy hats, the Resistance. The narrator moves to Berlin, where she cultivates fake accounts of her own, this time on dating websites. She makes up new identities (filling out “the eugenicist sidebar about my height, body type, eye colour, ethnicity”), and tries them out on dates with men. This might teach her (and us) about herself and her place in the world, or it might not. What does it mean, to give a fake account of yourself? Is there any difference between doing it online and doing it IRL? Felix’s death has caused scarcely a blip on the radar screen of the narrator’s self-analysis – and yet something is definitely up.
Fake Accounts is Oyler’s first novel; hitherto she has been known as the sort of combative literary critic whom writers hate and readers love. Her perceptiveness and bracing disregard for the niceties of literary politicking hark back to the criticism of Elizabeth Hardwick or Mary McCarthy. She is a gifted cultural analyst, and her debut novel is, among other things, a fascinating work of cultural analysis. Every sentence tells. In a Berlin bookshop, the narrator meets an artist from Los Angeles called Nell, who describes her “artistic concerns” as “refraction”. A jab at hipster pretension? Partly, but refraction is Oyler’s artistic concern, too. She’s writing about the strange, refractory continuity between IRL and online that marks the present moment: the way we ping-pong between offline and online experience; how these two worlds bleed into one another, and shape our interior lives, even as we shape our exterior lives using online tools.
Fake Accounts is built on the insight that, in the online era, all projects of interpretation (of the self, of the world, of the motives of other people) exhaust themselves almost instantly, leaving only irresolvable ambiguity behind. There are too many takes. There are too many fake accounts. “I’m always proposing too many possibilities,” the narrator says, “which makes it seem like I’m lying.” This is, of course, precisely the effect produced by hot-take culture. Because every event now immediately germinates, via social media, into a trackless jungle of hot takes, no true insight is possible, and everything ends up feeling like a bait-and-switch. As Oyler knows, this is also frequently how consciousness can feel now. What does it mean when the self is the web is the world? Are the accounts we give of ourselves to ourselves in this context ever really “real”?
A final plot twist shoves us abruptly outside this closed loop, and presents us with a world that is ever more (to borrow a phrase from Joseph Conrad) an “enigmatical spectacle”. Fake Accounts is a novel about the enigmatical spectacle of our extremely online world that is itself both enigmatic and spectacular – a dark comedy about a dark time, and a prismatically intelligent work of art.
• Kevin Power’s new novel, White City, will be published by Scribner in April. Fake Accounts is published by HarperCollins (£12.99). To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.