Fake Accounts Does What Literature Is Supposed to Do

Most novels today allow little room for moral ambiguity and take great pains to avoid even considering the inner lives and motivations of people whose politics we find abhorrent. Thankfully, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts doesn’t.

The paint-by-numbers approach to morality now so common to cultural products flattens, if not outright ruins, many novels. (Ivan Rigamonti / Flickr)

Many critics do not care for the plot of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, panning the debut novel as a mere vehicle for the author’s commentary and opining. “Not bad as social commentary. Not that great as a story,” says Kirkus Reviews. “An experiment in sustained snark, far more interested in critiquing than depicting or dramatising,” says the New Statesman, and, also, “Cold and — even worse — boring.”

This criticism has some merit. The plot is meandering and often tedious (cheeky fourth-wall-breaking admissions of which don’t make the pages turn any more easily), and much of the novel reads like memoir or even cultural criticism. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Oyler rose to prominence as a literary critic, both loved and hated for her cutting takedowns of celebrated writers.

It is apparently impossible for anyone to review Fake Accounts without mentioning how enticing it might be to take down a writer so known for her unsparing takedowns. But that hasn’t stopped many reviewers from praising the novel for its incisive commentary on the often-toxic role social media plays in modern life. Some either don’t mind the plot or are at least more willing to give her a pass on it (or are perhaps, unlike Oyler but like so many other people who review books, unwilling to actually critique them).

The novel opens with an unnamed narrator — whose life shares enough overt similarities to Oyler’s to place this within the realm of autofiction — snooping on her boyfriend’s phone and discovering that he, Felix, moonlights as an online conspiracy theorist with several popular social media accounts. This comes as a shock, both because he claimed to have quit social media and also because he seemed to hold vaguely liberal/left political views that, like hers, are at odds with the conspiratorial paranoia he posts under the username THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_.

The narrator seems at first less upset by the deceit than she is delighted for a convenient and noble excuse to end the relationship. Though she claims to be free from any responsibility to make sense of Felix and his deceit, she spends the rest of the novel doing just that.

Felix haunts the novel, literally and figuratively, as she is soon informed that he has died in a freak bicycle accident before she has the chance to confront him about her discovery. The novel’s central mystery thus operates in the background while she does other things: attending the 2017 Women’s March; quitting her NYC media job to live in Berlin (which is also where she and Felix met); toying with men in a series of online dates in which she assumes false identities of her own; working as a nanny; trying to secure various immigration documents; and always, always, reflecting upon the world and her place in it. Writing for the Guardian, Rob Doyle went so far as to call Felix’s double life “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.”

Treating the question of Felix’s motivations as irrelevant when the narrator spends the entire novel contemplating them feels dismissive and wrong. In conversation with the New York Times, Oyler described her novel as an exploration of the “various modes of deceit or lying or misdirection, and the ways we deceive each other in various ways, both on the internet and off.” Felix is part of that exploration.

One can take issue with how the author handles theme and plot, but to dismiss the central question of the novel entirely isn’t taking it seriously on its own terms. The question of why Felix does what he does is, to borrow his own words, “part of the point.”

A Sympathizing Victim

There is no way to discuss Felix’s role in the novel without looking at the climax and resolution. So, be warned, major spoilers ahead.

In a late twist that the slowest of readers can see coming the very moment it is set up, we learn that Felix has not actually died in a bicycle accident while the narrator is away at the Women’s March in DC. This, too, is a lie, one far too obvious for such a sharp narrator to accept so credulously from a known serial liar. Oyler clumsily papers over this inconsistency by having the narrator reflect on her own naivety after the big reveal, but it feels contrived.

The cover of Fake Accounts, by Lauren Oyler.

So, too, does much of the climax. Felix has not only faked his death to her but also to his coworkers and perhaps everyone else that may or may not be in his life. When he reappears unannounced at a company party, the performance goes viral online and gets back to the narrator at just the right moment, giving her yet another deceit to make sense of.

By providing no easy nor definitive explanation, the novel invites us to consider Felix’s motivations along with the narrator. She runs through a series of possibilities and ultimately decides that Felix faked his own death as some kind of fucked-up performance art meant to mock social media while simultaneously driving traffic to a new artist’s website and Instagram account opened under (what we can only assume is) his real name. She wonders if the conspiracy theory accounts are somehow connected to this performance and, only half-jokingly, if this is all somehow about her.

None of this quite makes sense, especially given how little she — as well as we — really know about Felix. The novel ends with him approaching her outside a Berlin café several weeks later. Having already sent him a long, angry email, to which he gave only a laconic troll of a reply, she simply comments that he stole one of her old tweets for a caption on one of his new Instagram posts (“i’m a pretty girl and i’m always late!!”). Towering over her in a way that she interprets as indecipherable though reads as menacing, Felix replies that this was part of the point.

The novel ends here abruptly. Though this is ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying, we have confirmation that Felix at least intends for her to believe that the “performances” targeted her maliciously.

The stolen caption, coupled with an image of Felix making a pouty duck face, reads like mockery of the kind of “typical, typical, typical” young liberal woman that might, in the narrator’s words, “insult you in bed and call it feminist.” The narrator, like Oyler’s cultural criticism, is generally skeptical of this toxic, hypocritical brand of liberalism. The novel opens with a striking distillation of the new liberal consensus that, on the eve of the Trump administration, “the world was ending, or would begin to end soon, if not by exponential environmental catastrophe then by some combination of nuclear war, the American two-party system, patriarchy, white supremacy, gentrification, globalization, data breaches, and social media.”

The narrator claims not to “believe all of this, necessarily,” and she often speaks irreverently of the more absurd pieties of liberal/left identity politics. She flees the Women’s March in a panic, later worrying she will appear in photos “captured from a bad angle and contributing to some nebulous statement I didn’t necessarily agree with.” Such moments are where the narrator’s social commentary feels freshest. That social media is, paradoxically, alienating, as unpleasant as it is addictive — these things are true, but perhaps too obvious to warrant being shoehorned into fiction in the style of criticism. The narrator and Oyler are most interesting when challenging the hardened convictions of the kind of learned, probably liberal person who might actually read their book.

These perspectives set the narrator apart from women like Nell, a talentless writer she meets for writing workshops, who seems naive and uninformed even before admitting that she has stopped following the news since she already has “all the right opinions” and knows “what’s bad and what’s good.” But while the narrator disparages such people and holds them at arm’s length, she fundamentally operates in the same world. She has been working as a culture blogger in liberal outrage media, pumping out the kind of vapid articles that assure the Nells of the world that they have the right opinions. That the narrator is aware of her own hypocrisy isn’t exactly a virtue.

Perhaps the most daring thing that Fake Accounts attempts is an exploration of how we, people on the broad left with all the good opinions and correct positions, might be helping drive the behavior of online trolls and other reactionaries. The novel certainly doesn’t side with Felix, but it does ask us to consider his motivations and how the behavior of others might mirror, incite, and, if not justify, at least explain his own.

The narrator often sympathizes with Felix. Upon discovering his conspiracy theory accounts, she decides that “his manipulative insincerity was a fair response to the way the world was.” She even wonders whether “the negative change in his behavior and attitude might indeed be, at least a little bit, the fault of my influence, something I ignited.” She unconvincingly assures herself, with a winky self-awareness that softens her culpability, that “a comparison between his manipulative experiment and the laid-back acceptance with which I occupied my distasteful position as a cultural producer could only be made in bad faith.”

The Anti-Villain

Transgression for its own sake does not make for good art, but an oppressive fear of transgression has produced much bad art in recent years. “The moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction — and of most movies, art, music, television, politics and internet culture,” to use Oyler’s words, is the only possible product of a culture with so little allowance for moral ambiguity, where there are only good opinions and bad ones, and exploring the complexity of many moral issues is sus, if not effectively verboten.

Exploring contradictions and complexities and taking different perspectives seriously is arguably the whole point of literary fiction. The paint-by-numbers approach to morality now so common to cultural products flattens, if not outright ruins, many novels.

Consider another recent novel with several superficial and thematic similarities to Fake Accounts, Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, which also involves an American writer who visits Berlin, this time for a writing fellowship, where he also has a chance encounter with a right-wing provocateur.

The cover of Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru.

In this case, the provocateur, Anton, who appears loosely based on Steve Bannon and other far-right figures, is a well-connected screenwriter who seeds his crime procedural Blue Lives with alt-right dog whistles and out-of-place monologues borrowed from neoreactionary philosophy. Our (again unnamed) narrator goes literally mad on his quest to understand Anton’s worldview and expose it for the “cynical operation of power” that it really is.

The two novels obviously have their parallels. But Felix is no Anton. While early promotion and media coverage of Fake Accounts has erroneously suggested that Felix is an alt-right conspiracy theorist, the narrator notes that “very few of the theories Felix posted had been inspired by the 2016 election . . . Trump had merely made existing conspiracies seem more viable.” THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_ trades in the classics: the “new world order,” secret societies, chemtrails, 9/11 trutherism, and other government cover-ups. The narrator refers to Felix as a fake conspiracy theorist, not just because he doesn’t believe in conspiracies, but because he is playing a role. The novel ultimately pushes against this interpretation and makes the case that the online personas we assume necessarily say something about who we really are, even if the accounts are fake.

This is also true of Anton, but the nature of his conspiracy theories renders him categorically different from Felix. Anton is firmly enmeshed within the alt-right and what the narrator calls “plain old-fashioned racism.” He surely doesn’t actually believe in conspiracy theories like Pizzagate or QAnon, but he definitely holds an anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic, illiberal worldview that inspires a real political project — made all the more real when the narrator spots him celebrating in a crowd of Donald Trump associates as the 2016 election is called on the television.

Though Red Pill is the better read in many ways, it lacks the complexity and moral ambiguity of Fake Accounts. This is largely because the novel never really considers Anton, not seriously. He is almost cartoonishly evil.

Of course, Steve Bannon and Roger Stone types are living proof that there are men both evil and cartoonish on the American right, but how much is there to say about them? As a literary subject, Anton is simply not that interesting, because we know exactly what to think of this horrible man with unquestionably terrible opinions and a wretched politics.

Finding himself unable to sufficiently reason against Anton’s dark, reactionary worldview, the narrator is shaken. But the reader is not, as the book never really asks us to undertake the same reckoning. Bordering on caricature, Anton is merely the catalyst for the narrator’s journey, not a subject of inquiry. The true subject of Red Pill is not reactionaries so much as complacent liberals who, like the narrator, have never before thought very hard about their own politics.

In Fake Accounts, by comparison, Oyler actually explores Felix’s motivations and the moral implications of his online (and offline) duplicity. Felix is as much the subject of the novel as its narrator.

Pulling Punches

Did Oyler craft Felix as a “fake” conspiracy theorist to avoid rendering him too simple of a subject? If so, that is probably a misstep. The problem with Red Pill isn’t that Anton holds despicable views, but rather that the novel never seriously explores them. There are real, honest-to-goodness neo-Nazis in the world. Morally complex literature can be written about them — but it would have to be prepared to explore them as thoroughly as Kunzru explores his narrator.

Fake Accounts takes the easy way out by exploring a fake conspiracy theorist, who seems dated and out of place in the Trump era, rather than a real one. The narrator must only contend with the “why” of a Felix, not an Anton, the latter of which would have raised the stakes of the novel. But it would also have forced Oyler to grapple with how people like her, the narrator, and Nell play into the hands of provocateurs on the alt-right.

If this is hedging on Oyler’s part, it’s hard to fault her too much. Implying that the broad left has played a role in the rise and success of the reactionary right is not a popular line of reasoning, as can be discerned from the hysteric reaction to Angela Nagle’s 2017 book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right, which was widely denounced for arguing that an excessively puritanical left was a boon for the alt-right.

Fear of transgression is, of course, no reason for a novel not to mine here — if anything, it’s a reason to do so. Oyler definitely flirts with this line of inquiry, to an extent, but Felix being an anachronistic conspiracy theorist allows the novel to skirt more uncomfortable or fraught territory that could have been more compelling and urgent.

Ultimately, Fake Accounts lacks the awing sense of mystery and transcendence one wants from literary fiction, but so do most novels. Oyler is still a novelist to watch. That may sound like an insincere bromide, the kind she herself might tear apart, but it’s not. She raises complicated moral questions and mostly eschews easy answers. That might seem like a low bar for literature, but it’s one that most contemporary fiction fails to clear. In the current climate, few novelists are even trying.