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What can the modern novel tell us about life in the age of the internet? | Books

These days, when I log on to Twitter, I increasingly find myself at a loss for words. I’m a writer and I’ve never been one to fear the tyranny of the white page. But that little blank box at the top of my news feed, the one that asks: “What’s happening?” – it gives me writer’s block. In other forms, the words are pouring out of me because what isn’t happening at the moment? But online, I’m paralysed. What is the point? I think. What is the fucking point?

This month, two novels confronting that question are released: Fake Accounts, by the critic Lauren Oyler, and No One Is Talking About This, by the writer and poet Patricia Lockwood. Both women are of broadly the same age as me, meaning they can also remember life before the internet. “If we value authenticity it’s because we’ve been bombarded since our impressionable preteen years with fakery but at the same time are uniquely able to recognise, because of the unspoiled period that stretched from our birth to the moment our parents had the screeching dial-up installed, the ways in which we casually commit fakery ourselves,” Oyler’s protagonist says.

And it is true, we do value authenticity; of a sort, anyway. It is an authenticity that at times feels as deliberately curated as everything else online: an emotional amplification that is calculated to resonate, a widowed penguin with its arm around another penguin. We know what we are supposed to feel, but what value is this “authenticity” in the middle of a global crisis? Suddenly the layers and layers of irony that we’ve built up, the specific, communal language that we’ve evolved, seem insufficient, especially in a maelstrom of “context collapse” – the flattening of multiple audiences into a single context. At least half of the people I used to talk to on Twitter have vanished into the ether, and I wonder about them, whether they’re like me, just staring at the box (“What’s happening? What’s happening?”) not knowing where to begin. Those who remain continue to worship the old gods of dumb humour and tasteless sardonicism, but it feels halfhearted and frightened, a string quartet playing Nearer, My God, to Thee as the ship goes down, dressed as Harambe.

“She went silent in the portal; she knew how it was. She knew that as you scrolled you averted your eyes from the ones who could not apply their lipstick within the lines, from the ones who were beginning to edge up into the mania, from the ones who were Horny …” Lockwood writes (her word for the internet is “the portal”). “But above all you averted your eyes from the ones who were in mad grief, whose mouths were open like caves with ancient paintings inside.”

Lauren Oyler in New York, January 2021
Lauren Oyler in New York, January 2021

In both of these novels, the protagonists are grappling with grief. In Fake Accounts, the protagonist has discovered that her boyfriend has a secret viral conspiracy theory account. Shortly afterwards he dies, and she decamps to Berlin in an attempt to process it, only to find herself scrolling through Twitter and embarking on a series of dates, each in the guise of a fake persona. The reader has little clue as to what she is feeling – the character suffers from a disturbing loss of affect, that is, a sort of depersonalised emotional flattening, and is steeped in so much cool-girl irony that it is hard to discern any sort of emotional core to her existence. This, Oyler seems to be saying, is what the internet has done to us. And if this is the case – if our brains have been rewired and our emotional responses transformed to such an extent – then the purpose and function of fiction has also, perhaps, changed.

For Oyler’s character, Twitter is “not a distraction from reality but representative of it, a projection of the human drives and preoccupations that with free time and publishing platforms had been allowed to multiply and evolve”. The superficiality of it mimics “the way most of us choose to move through life” and “compounds those aspects of life that felt so desperate and precipitous”.

I think I used to agree with Oyler, but now I have shifted more to Lockwood’s line of thinking: social media feels like real life, until something so unshakably IRL happens to you and your family that it no longer serves much of a purpose. In the case of Lockwood’s character, it is a family tragedy, which, without giving too much away, raises the sort of complex moral, religious and emotional questions that gut a person like a fish, leaving them marked forever.

It is, Lockwood has said, a novel that is about “being very inside the internet and then being very outside of it”. At one point, in the middle of this family crisis, her protagonist goes online “but everyone was having an enormous argument about whether they had ever thought the N-word, with some people professing that their minds blanked it out when they encountered it in a book, and she backed out again without a sound”.

I once read that the greatest crime a member of my generation can commit in the eyes of their peers is hypocrisy, but I have always privately believed it to be earnestness. Lockwood’s heroine comes to discover the paucity of online discourse when it is juxtaposed with genuine, heartwrenching grief, how paltry and inadequate it all feels when you’re stroking a loved one’s forehead as they have a seizure. I experienced grief early in my life and reading Lockwood’s novel made me wonder if this is why I’ve never felt quite at home online, like a child standing at the edge of the playground, one of those kids who cries at the drop of a hat.

Lockwood’s novel is a masterpiece partly because it shows us that, despite the internet, we are not so changed as we might believe. The grief we feel when a loved one suffers, or dies, is the same grief that the creators of those ancient cave paintings felt. Though agonising, it also stands as proof that we are still living. Now we are all experiencing a collective grief. It’s no wonder the internet feels weird, that no one really knows what to say any more.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were lockdown memes: people singing on balconies, or using dinosaur costumes as protective suits. “I wonder what that Italian guy is doing now,” my husband said yesterday. “If he’s still pretending to DJ on his gas hob all these months later.” Wherever he is, whatever has happened to him, I hope he’s OK.

• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist

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