Welcome to Laundry List, yet another Wildchild column, which is essentially a list masquerading as an article. Call it a listicle, if you will. What is a laundry list exactly? It is defined as “a long or exhaustive list of people or things.” We’ve deliberately kept the column title vague so we can talk about anything that tickles our fancy. No refunds if the list is not long or exhaustive.
When Lauren Oyler tweeted the link to “Discovery,” the first section of her debut novel, Fake Accounts, I opened it and read the piece immediately in one sitting. I gladly ignored the fact that I was hunched over in the cramped backseat of a car, as well as my tendency to feel motion sick whenever I read in a moving vehicle. Save the title, I knew nothing about the book but I had faith that it was going to be a provocative piece of work. After all, Oyler is well known for being an incisive literary critic who writes thoughtful reviews and unsparing takedowns of beloved writers. As someone who searches for her reviews before (and after) reading “hyped” books like Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, I was excited to read something that is able to satisfy the toughest of critics: Oyler herself.
Just like Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Fake Accounts was written in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential win. Inspired by the “surreality of the Trump era”, the novel begins around the time of his inauguration and contends with political activism, especially when situated online. The premise of the novel is intriguing: a nameless narrator, an internet writer based in New York City, discovers that her boyfriend, Felix, is an influential online conspiracy theorist while snooping on his phone in hopes of exposing infidelity. After I finished reading the first section, I had only one thought in my mind, “What happens next?”
In the days that followed, I read every single interview, feature and review I could get my hands on because I am undeterred by spoilers and want to find out more about her writing process. While doing so, I did find out what happens next: Felix dies — interestingly enough, this is hardly a spoiler because he is a red herring, merely a catalyst for change — and she moves to Berlin, back where they first met. The narrator then assumes fake identities while online dating, and continues to lie about everything even when she is off the app. A plot twist awaits the reader, but it is one that I’m not privy to because I’ve yet to read the book in its entirety. What is clear is that Fake Accounts delves into artifice, self-mythologizing, and performing our personalities online and offline.
After the release of the novel, the media hype surrounding Oyler has been palpable. Here’s a list of the best articles, compiled mostly for my own bookkeeping:
“And why not? She says it hasn’t cost her any friends — or assignments. ‘I’m not afraid of being disliked by people that I already dislike,’ she shrugs. ‘People being mad at me is not the same as people not hiring me to do more writing.’”
“Oyler explains that she’s actually a perfectly nice person, and she wants to make clear that there are lots of things she does like: 80s metafiction and postwar British women writers, the Tatcha rice cleanser (“I hoped that maybe it just smelled really good, but I think it actually really ‘evens everything out’”), Lena Dunham’s recent essay on IVF in Harper’s (“which did the important work of having a rich woman admit, ‘I have been making choices and have been totally delusional while doing so’”), and dancing.”
“For the rest of the skeptical, the semicolon conveys a very specific kind of connection between ideas that is particularly useful now — it asserts a link where the reader might not necessarily see one while establishing the fragility of that link at the same time. The world is not accurately described through sets of declarations and mere pauses, without qualification or adjustment; occasionally we are lucky enough to see it many ways, at once.”
“Why are we like this – self-loathing, self-important, melodramatic, aware of what we’re doing but unwilling to alter our behaviour? Our job is neither hard nor essential; often it is allegedly our dream. If you had forever to write what you’re writing, it would be perfect, but you don’t have forever. (Maybe having forever is actually the dream?) What you have in its place is a more or less arbitrary stopping point that offers an excuse for not being perfect. Deadlines are an insult to philosophy, but an acknowledgment of life. Nevertheless, they aren’t supposed to be “real”. They do not mean what they say they mean. And how else would a writer define reality?”
Q: In a very funny scene, you describe the narrator’s laborious skin-care regimen, whose political and cultural ramifications she is deeply aware of, yet she partakes in it regardless. This ambivalence captures something essential about the difficulties of living in a world of endless consumer choice. What does this scene reveal about the narrator?
Oyler: First, it reveals that she’s a member of a certain demographic—she’s a skeptic but not an outsider or a conscientious objector. Second, it reveals that she cares about how she looks, and she knows that professing to care about how she looks is a fraught pursuit that could make her look bad, so she makes fun of herself for it, which is really just doubling down on the fact that she cares about how she looks. That’s important to know when attempting to determine her reliability as a narrator.
She’s also quoting little bits of Marx while she’s doing her skin-care routine—that’s what the interstitial mantras are—so we learn that she’s not so sentimental about either the personal or the political that she won’t make fun of either. To get the full force of the joke, it’s worth knowing what follows the line that goes “Great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment.” It’s from one of Marx’s letters, and the thought concludes: “Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex (the ugly ones included).”
Q: So is [the narrator’s boyfriend] Felix who he is online?
Oyler: I’ve come to accept that the way that you spend your time is the way that you spend your time. If I’m someone who’s going on serial OkCupid dates and lying to people [as the protagonist in the story does], that says something about me. It says that I think it’s interesting to do that to somebody, which is a statement. What you want to make that statement is open to interpretation.
Q: So then all of these people on Instagram who post and repost social justice infographics, what does that say about them? Is that who they are? Is it performative?
Oyler: What’s so hard to wrap your head around with this stuff is that you’ll often meet someone in person who’s really charming and lovely. And then you look at their tweets or their Instagram and you’re like, “This person sucks. I don’t ever want to be around this person again,” and it’s so hard to determine how much that should matter.
But with the infographic thing, I think it’s basic high school psychology: Everyone is doing this so I want to do it too because I want to seem like a good person. What’s interesting to me is this idea of you as an individual pooling yourself on social media and becoming part of this bigger thing. And what does that mean? And how do you live in that way?
Perhaps this article should end here but how can I exclude my favorite critical reviews of Fake Accounts, which helpfully attempt to situate the novel within a larger socio-cultural and literary context? As Oyler said in her profile with The Cut, “If you’re somebody that nobody’s criticizing, nobody’s taking you very seriously.”
by David Schurman Wallace for The Nation
“There is risk in letting yourself be understood, and Oyler does not take this risk. Fake Accounts takes up autofiction’s stylistics—the patter of the quotidian, a tendency towards essayistic digression—but the unifying idea of “fakeness” results in an aesthetics of withholding. It’s not so much that the narrator is “unlikable,” which is not exactly uncommon and something the protagonist freely admits, as it is that she is unknown. Being held constantly at arm’s length might be justified as a formal experiment, but if so, the result is curiously safe.”
by Scott Stern for The New Republic
“Oyler, a prolific critic and reviewer, has written a novel that is a pleasure to read and easy to inhale. The writing is brilliant, bringing to life a narrator with a penetrating gaze and a mordant, misanthropic voice. And yet Fake Accounts is a strange and difficult book, one in which the writer takes a dazzling premise and does little with it beyond making a string of wry comments. That this review is critical of Fake Accounts should be taken as a sign of my respect for the novel. I loved it. But even a great novel can also be fairly inexplicable.”
“Fake Accounts is a traditional novel about an untraditional subject, a bildungsroman with no growth, a hero’s journey with no hero and not much of a journey, a comedy of manners in a world in which the powerful are so spectacularly stupid that they’re essentially immune from satire. The narrator is hilarious. It’s just a shame that she says so much and means so little.”
Curiously, these reviews have the same effect that Oyler’s critiques have on me; I’m still going to read the novel the moment I can get my hands on it, I’ll just do so with greater discernment.
Feature photography by Landon Speers; collage by Sherryl Cheong