Last year, in the midst of a particularly harrowing time in my personal life, I booked a sixty-minute appointment at a “modern float therapy studio.” “Float therapy” is a form of prolonged sensory deprivation, in which you place your body in a sealed, dark, noiseless tank that contains a shallow pool of saltwater, perfectly calibrated to be the same density as your body so that you float effortlessly. The idea is that you shut out the outside world and are alone with your thoughts. I told a few people I was doing this beforehand. The reaction was, almost exclusively, “why would you want to be alone with your own thoughts?”
This sort of unmediated communion with the self remains, even in this time of our individual isolation in our respective homes, a terrifying prospect. As a popular meme goes, we want the rewards of being loved without the mortifying ordeal of being known — even by ourselves. And we have ample options — TV, the internet, social media — to help avoid that whole ordeal. I wanted to reject that. I was having a lot of thoughts, and I figured they could use my company.
In a recent New York Times magazine piece, Kyle Chayka describes the phenomenon of sensory deprivation at length. Chayka sees it not as a way to get closer to yourself but as an example of the cultural phenomenon of our growing desire for self-obliteration. “A little death, as a treat,” he calls it. The world around us can be so difficult to understand, so overwhelming, so addled with inputs, all of the time, that many of us have slid slowly but persistently toward nothingness as a reaction to the muchness.
Most of us have been so beaten down, our own humanity moved so far out of reach by forces economic, political, and social, that it can be easy to give in to the temptation to throw up our hands in the face of it all. Chayka’s analysis focuses primarily on how this affects our personal lives and what we consume, watch, buy, or listen to. But this penchant for nothingness has political consequences, too.
Fighting for the world we deserve, in a world that seems to never want to move, when the odds are stacked so high against us, when basic solutions to our problems (how about we just pay everyone to stay home during a pandemic, huh?) are consistently ignored by those in power — it comes to seem fruitless. And if we, as Chayka writes, “want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations, so that we won’t have anything left to lose,” in our personal lives, then it’s easy to do the same politically. It’s easier to make ourselves want nothing than accept that if we want more than nothing, we’re going to have to fight tooth and nail for it.
In a new novel, Lauren Oyler explores a negation of the self similar to what Chayka describes, carried out through the smoke screens of social media. Fake Accounts follows a few months in the life of a nameless, sardonic narrator who discovers her supposedly offline boyfriend Felix is in fact a well-known online conspiracy theorist. Upon discovering this, she decides to break up with him, then something else happens (no spoilers), and she decides to move to Berlin, where she met Felix in the first place. Then something else happens (no spoilers!!), revealing Felix to be even more of a con artist than she thought.
These inflection points are both necessary scaffolding for and almost inconsequential to the novel’s real substance, which is its ruthless depiction of the devastatingly alienated lives of downwardly mobile but not destitute “creative” millennials. Oyler skillfully does what she sets out to do: diagnose a subset of a generation that is terminally online, painfully lonely, performatively political, and full of pathological liars. Any potential remedies, or even an explicit prognosis, are nowhere to be found; neither Oyler nor our narrator is interested in providing them. Fake Accounts is a hyper self-aware, self-conscious account of the life of a woman who can see her and others’ problems in high relief but is, mostly, uninterested in solving them.
I wish this book didn’t exist. Not because it’s bad — quite the opposite. Oyler is a talented prose stylist, darkly funny at times, biting, clever. Her narrator’s observations of the world are crystal-clear and true. But it’s a dark, lonely, alienated world where our narrator lives — and which has produced this novel. I wish it weren’t so.
lol nothing matters
Fake Accounts is at times so mercilessly accurate in its depiction of the casual duplicity facilitated and encouraged by the internet as to be nauseating. Oyler portrays people whose efforts to perform their lives overtake their actually living them, at least with any sense of honesty to themselves and those around them.
The novel opens with a scene of the narrator deciding to snoop through her boyfriend’s phone. But before we get there, Oyler incisively captures the existential and political bleakness we’ve all been mired in since Trump’s election in 2016, the same landscape that nudges the subject in Chayka’s critique toward obliteration.
“Consensus was the world was ending,” Oyler writes.
It was and still is my official position, if you were to ask me at a party or something, that the popular turn to fatalism could be attributed to self-aggrandizement and an ignorance of history, history being characterized by the population’s quickness to declare apocalypse finally imminent despite its permanently delayed arrival. We don’t want to die, but we also don’t want to do anything challenging, such as what living requires.
From the jump, our narrator seems to have given in to the feeling that, in the grand scheme of things, nothing really matters. She also doesn’t seem to care about much in the small scheme of things, like her boyfriend’s boundaries or privacy. In the middle of the night, she snoops through his phone. There, she finds that even though he has been telling her that he doesn’t use social media, he not only has an Instagram account, but is in fact the person behind a well-known account called @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_, where he spreads the type of photographs-webbed-together-with-red-string conspiracy theories that feed real-life groups like QAnon.
Even as she’s describing this breach of privacy in detail, our narrator seems unconcerned with helping us understand either her motivations to snoop or her reaction to the discovery. Her alienation from herself creates an opaque wall through which our inquiries into her motives cannot pass.
Sometimes, she creates these walls purposefully. At the outset of an online dating stint after moving to Berlin, she sets up a contrived, semi-ironic OkCupid profile where she says her favorite movies are Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (an on-the-nose choice, she concedes) and, tongue-in-cheekily, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. She goes on a date with a self-proclaimed “Relationship Anarchist” whom, because he asks her what other Bergman films she likes, she ends up calling Bergman.
Oyler perfectly captures the deflating reality of dating on the Internet, wherein women often have no choice but to put on an act of aloofness lest we seem too eager and invite unwanted, even scary advances. She also captures the difficulties of dating while the internet exists at all, when the temptation to online stalk and the possibility of being stalked yourself are nearly inescapable.
Reading these depictions, I flashed back to the time I guessed, correctly, that someone I was falling in love with had Googled me. I was immediately seized by fear that they were creating a composite of me that included a picture of me receiving a scholarship from Peyton Manning at age eighteen. I had no say in how this person perceived me and feared that, in fact, how they perceived me had everything to do with them and whatever happened to pop up on the first page or two of the Google search — and nothing to do with me.
During these dating scenes, Oyler creates a jarring juxtaposition. Our narrator, purportedly, goes on these dates looking to find some kind of connection, and it’s here where we actually find her most sharply retreating and mendacious. The effect is jolting and accurate to real life: we often feel most alone when we’re actively looking for connection but cannot find it.
The date with Bergman the Relationship Anarchist is mostly a tedious explication of Relationship Anarchism, which as he describes it involves “letting other people flow through you” with “no commitment.” In other words, it’s about consuming what romantic partners have to offer him, grappling only with the aspects of them he deems of interest at a given time, then casting them aside when they are no longer useful. He is someone who wants to have everything and to commit to nothing and therefore winds up having nothing.
It’s the logical conclusion of relationships mediated by social media and dating apps, wherein we make and interact with profiles that highlight certain qualities and minimize others and reduce our desires to itemized lists that include things like “loves coffee” and “wants adventure,” easily transforming potential partners into objects for ticking off boxes, rather than people with whom to share a life.
The dangers of this mediated mode of relating go beyond purposeful misrepresentation or accidental misinterpretation. Eventually, the personas we construct — which are based on what we think people want to see, what will be palatable, what will get a stranger to swipe right on our dating profile — end up unmooring us from our actual selves. Projections, tied to or rooted in our selves as they might be, exist outside of us. We are alone as we create them, alone as we present them to the world, and alone as we watch the world interact not with us, but with our invented doppelgängers. As our narrator spends time inventing myriad personas on dating apps, we witness her grow distant from herself, as though she were watching a stranger do things that, for some reason, affect her.
More Diverting Than Interesting
Of course, even as they build brands based on “connection,” social media companies’ business model rests on our alienation. They have plenty of incentives to keep us atomized and for their products to make us feel more, not less alone, so that when we use them, we end up frustrated — yet coming back for more.
This alienation from the self is reinforced by Oyler’s prose. Like many first novels, Fake Accounts is rife with literary references, both explicit in the text and implicit in the style, and Oyler mostly pulls them off. In the book’s most self-conscious and extended referential moment, our narrator critiques at length what she calls a “fragmented” writing style, used by authors like Samantha Hunt and Jenny Offill, though neither are mentioned by name.
Then, in a sudden turn, she tries on this truncated style and critiques herself as she goes along. In this section, the narrator watches herself write and seems to find the exercise, like most everything else in her life, more diverting than genuinely interesting. In addition to style, she also tries on personalities based on astrological signs as she continues dating through OkCupid. Style matches substance here, Oyler’s dexterity as a writer perfectly distilled.
Even though our narrator never asks herself why she’s doing all this trying-on, she’s hyper self-aware. The catch is that it makes absolutely no difference in her life. Her self-awareness is a tool not for solving any issues or improving her life in any way, but rather for projecting a certain image of herself to others.
The overwhelming feeling that our narrator is divorced from her essential self persists throughout the novel — with two exceptions. A sex scene during the fragmented narration portion of the novel shows our narrator reading a book until she is subtly interrupted by a finger (whose, we never learn) tickling her foot. She describes the ensuing action in sensitive, honest detail. It’s the first time she seems able to frankly communicate an experience without shrouding it in multiple protective layers of irony — no witty commentary, no biting jokes, just facts. She seems to be enjoying herself and this moment, and, unlike throughout the rest of the novel, she can articulate why. The scene comes as a relief: a brief respite from the pressure in the rest of the novel to perceive the narrator as she wants us to, not as she is. The act of pure, mutual connection with someone else results in a vivid candor our narrator is incapable of in nearly every other scene, when she keeps others at arm’s length.
In one other instance of human rapprochement, she argues with an American acquaintance in Berlin about whether a straight white man could ever understand her experience of being sexually assaulted:
She asked how could I say I was a straight white man when a straight white man would never be able to understand what I had experienced? Did I not feel oppressed by the perpetrator’s disregard for my personhood? I said well . . . I didn’t know how to say this without being offensive, and I just wanted to be clear that I wouldn’t say this in the context of a policy conversation when I was trying to convince a conservative audience of something, but I didn’t really think about it much. She looked like she didn’t believe me. I said, What? Am I supposed to lie? How does sacrificing my personality help me prove my personhood? I had to believe it was possible for straight white men to approximately understand what I had experienced. A man having sex with me when I have told him not to is not that hard to understand.
The narrator expresses a belief in people’s ability to empathize and defends her own personhood against the pressure to lie about something. It’s completely unlike the cynical, detached, and lying narrator of most of the rest of the novel. She’s awake and ready to fight for her right to have a personality that chafes against a mainstream feminism she finds stifling.
Notably, this scene contains one of the novel’s few instances of quoted dialogue. We get to see and hear Nell, the American acquaintance, as herself, not merely as her words filtered through the narrator; it’s as though standing up for her own humanity makes our narrator more able to recognize and respect others’ — even those of Nell, who she seems to think is an idiot. And even though Fake Accounts gives us the overwhelming sense that our narrator tries on personas and lies because she doesn’t really know what she wants or who she wants to be, here we see her trying on earnestness. It’s a breath of fresh air, both because she’s being more honest and because she grapples with politics in a way that, up until this point, Oyler successfully set her up to avoid.
She seems nervous, hedging, perhaps even afraid to have an opinion that isn’t already sanctioned by her corner of the internet, but she goes through with it, anyway. It’s unclear whether we’re meant to read this brief flash of courage as a signal of Oyler’s own hope that the narrator could one day exit the cage of herself, or whether it’s merely a blip. I am uncomfortable hanging between those two poles, and maybe that’s Oyler’s point.
But I found myself cheering for our narrator to finally commit to something, anything, if for no other reason than even if she committed to the wrong thing, she might wind up learning something from the experience. Perhaps this is one of the novel’s most devastating aspects: in floating through the world at a distance, never standing up for anything, our narrator consumes the world around her but rarely learns from it.
For most of the novel, the deep cleave between self and projected persona, and her ensuing incapacity to get in touch with herself, makes our narrator just as incapable of communing with other people. When we project a false image of ourselves enough times, hide behind alter egos, never fully showing ourselves, how could we go back to simple vulnerability ever again? In our narrator’s world, that’s too hard.
There Must Be a Way Out
Neither the novel nor its characters are explicitly political, though many of them, including the narrator, dabble in political activities and conversations and keep up on current events. But there are certainly political implications to the book’s central concerns with dishonesty and digital communication.
We talk a lot on the Left about being online: the perils, the advantages, the drawbacks, the opportunities. We can’t deny that the internet has been good for us. In 2015, Jacobin reading groups mostly organized via Facebook served as an entry point into left politics for future Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members. Social media has allowed millions of people to be exposed to leftist ideas who would never have been exposed to them otherwise.
But the internet has also created a left subculture that too often revolves around the beefs between two online personalities or petty sniping between comrades. Online, we interact with, to use Oyler’s word, not really other people, but “composites” — hardly the kind of substantive interactions that can sustain a collective project to transform the world.
That project depends on our ability to recognize and defend each other’s humanity. While we might consider some lies casual, almost inconsequential, the alienation so clearly experienced by Oyler’s characters demonstrates that they’re all insidious. When we lie, we deny other people the chance to see us and perceive us, to understand us for themselves, to make up their own minds. And we deny ourselves a chance to be seen and understood. To lie is to deny humanity — first others’ and then our own.
This is, ultimately, what Chayka describes: a widespread denial of our humanity, a contemporary tendency to stop wanting, to stop expecting, to just survive. Our project of winning a world based in solidarity requires the exact opposite, which is much harder to do: to see the world in its fullness — the devastation, the misery, the darkness, alongside all its potential for beauty, for love, for happiness. We have to see the former if we’re going to fight against it, and we have to see the latter so we know we have something to fight for.
It’s a leap of faith: What if we allow ourselves to actually want it, and then we don’t get it? It’s easier to obliterate, to negate any desire than to feel the sharp pull of want. Chayka gets at this: “No one seems to want anything; there is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up.” That wish is the reality lived by Oyler’s narrator, who is so ambivalent about what happens to her that she moves through the world not as herself, but as personas she invents.
But desire is inescapably human. And desire — for our fullest lives, for everything we know belongs to us — is at the core of the socialist movement. Sometimes the world does feel like too much. Sometimes nothingness calls our name. But in the moments when I feel the temptation to self-obliterate or to create my own fake accounts, I find the ability to self-preserve in the knowledge that I’m part of a movement that’s much bigger than me. Though neither Oyler nor her narrator seems interested in solutions, I refuse to believe there’s no way out of our alienation she so accurately describes.