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The Internet is Always On

by Lucy Thynne

Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler, Fourth Estate, 2020.

Crudo, Olivia Laing, Picador, 2018.

'Generation Why?', from Feel Free, Zadie Smith, Penguin, 2018.

Is the internet bad for us? Is it bad for the novel? Zadie Smith often wonders this. The unofficial figurehead for social media absentees, she is very much not online, frequently stating in interviews that having a Twitter account would threaten her writing process. Her essay, ‘Generation Why?’, is part film review of The Social Network (David Fincher’s 2010 masterpiece which dramatises the birth of Facebook), part musing on the ethics and motivations of social media users. She is cautious in her writing, characteristically humble; there is always the sense that she wants to understand. But her opinion of Facebook is resolute: ‘like many a nerd before him,’ she says of the film, ‘Zuckerberg is too hyped on the idea that he’s in heaven to notice he’s in Hell’.

The internet is the world of Fake Accounts, if not the plot. Literary critic Lauren Oyler’s debut was published by Fourth Estate in February earlier this year and follows a series of events that unravel from the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration. When our unnamed narrator snoops on her boyfriend Felix’s phone, she discovers — despite his claims that he hates social media — that he is frequently posting conspiracy theories on an alt-right Instagram account. She is disturbed, but reasons that she was about to leave him anyway — but then, a few days later, he is killed in a road accident. The result: a thousand pounds gifted from his mother and a crisis that the narrator does not articulate, but which we can easily intuit. How do you grieve a person you did not even know? And how do you find a sense of self in the real world, one that is not the ‘fake account’ we so often present?

The week before reading Fake Accounts, like many people, I had moved back in with my parents. University term was cancelled for the second time since the summer and I was in my childhood bedroom, the same place where seven years ago, my phone’s home screen had started to fill. Where, as a 13-year-old equipped with a smartphone, a bedroom was no longer an island. Why? As Zadie Smith condenses, social networking apps sate our desire to be liked. Perhaps starting with the naivety of WhatsApp, and then Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter. In the years since creating these accounts, I have deleted the apps and re-downloaded them again with the oscillation of a yo-yo dieter — or more accurately, an addict in continual relapse. I’m referring to the competing obsessions of Generation Z: the need to be part of a conversation, the need to be productive. Oyler gives this self-flagellation a body. I knew I was in the right setting to be reading Fake Accounts.

Oyler is impressive. She is 30 and has had reviews published in The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and Vice. Last year, her thorough 5,000-word takedown of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror generated so much traffic that it temporarily crashed the LRB’s website. Her evidence of bugbears may be nitty and selective, but the quotations she draws on always demonstrate a deeply careful reading. From her reputation, she has built an audience who perhaps would not have previously read a book review. She dislikes writing that is ‘spare’ — namely Sally Rooney’s — and blames MFA creative writing programmes for an overuse of similes and an increasing population of bad fiction. Writers such as Anna Wiener have described the stomach-plummeting sensation in seeing Oyler’s by-line for a review of their own book. She does not mind the label ‘bitch’, and has previously taken it as a compliment.

The narrator in Fake Accounts distils the same cynical, sharp-witted tone of Oyler’s criticism. Convincing, distractable; her ‘energy’ is ‘chaotic’ in internet speak — meaning unpredictable and erratic. Armed with the £1,000 from her boyfriend’s mother, she moves to Berlin and begins creating fake accounts of her own on dating websites, where she performs various personalities. Filling out ‘the eugenicist sidebar about my height, body type, eye colour, ethnicity’, she embarks on different dates with men, wonders if things would have worked out if she’d presented a realistic version of herself, assures us that nothing is wrong, and then makes us ask: how much are our offline worlds shaped by our online ones? And which is more real? Between chatting to dates online, our narrator’s thumb reverts constantly, stubbornly, back to Twitter.

And how exactingly Oyler writes of that internet procrastination, the claustrophobia of being confined to one’s head and then the agoraphobia of roaming around online. ‘I tried constructing hopeful analogues to the past to account for the time I wasted online, to convince myself that my drive to collect useless knowledge about strangers and acquaintances was not a new condition,’ the narrator says. An intern in her office asks her to film her doing some push-ups, to post the video on Instagram ‘so she could show off without having to show off herself’. She stays up late, ‘portalling around from one social media account to the next’. These scenes are recognisable, if not in ourselves then at least in others. I thought of how a few years earlier, I had loved Twitter for the way I could build myself an echo chamber, sit within it and hear my opinions reverberate around me. If the best fiction is that which verbalises a hidden emotion, a thought or part of yourself that you have been unable to put words to before, Oyler delivers this on a regular basis. It’s those intimate moments between author and reader that Zadie Smith calls her ‘I feel this, do you?’ essay technique. Yes, Oyler — painfully — I feel a lot of this. When I finish reading Fake Accounts, I have underlined the book in multiple places. The sense of identification is alluring, addictive.

The novel has taken some time to catch up with the internet age. How best to write about something so ‘inherently tacky’, so ‘ephemeral’, Oyler asks in her interview with Elle. The compulsion that Twitter brings seems resistant to our preconceptions of what makes a “literary” subject, but it’s also a ‘very human’ compulsion, as Oyler points out. After an initial stalemate, however, the internet novel has charged into full force. To name a few: Rebecca Watson’s little scratch, published this year, where WhatsApp chats abound; Patricia Lockwoods recent No One Is Talking About This, which follows a social media influencer on the ‘portal’, and Olivia Laing’s 2018 triumph, Crudo. Crudo channels both Laing’s own personal voice and that of the renowned punk writer, Kathy Acker, into a narrator who spends most of her days on Twitter. After scrolling through a thread on the climate crisis, the voice tells us that ‘Kathy hated it, living at the end of the world, but then she couldn’t help but find it interesting, watching people herself included compulsively foul their nest’. Also written in the wake of Trump’s election, it is a bullet of a novel at just over 100 pages long; Laing leaves a lot more to be guessed between the spaces of the words rather than from the words themselves. She is, like Oyler, excruciatingly precise about being ‘very online’. But what else has it got to do with Fake Accounts?

For one thing, like Crudo, the book articulates the indulgence of a doomscroll — the funniness. It would be reductive to see the book’s comedy solely in its portrayal of the internet, though. It also works itself in through discussions of feminism, privilege, expats, relationships, and in some ways, coming of age. The narrator makes fun of ‘culturally appropriative’ and ‘spandexed’ white women in Brooklyn, friends whose minds are ‘narrowed by therapy’, millennials who claim they aren’t middle-class while ‘ordering another thirteen-dollar cocktail’. A chorus of ex-boyfriends feature, typically at the end of chapters, to comment on the narrator’s misgivings — a strange concept at first, given that they only seem to be there in relation to her. But it works, as a reminder of the narrator’s narcissism. Oyler weaves shrewdness into the narrative voice with the skill of the ‘witty friend’ we all know well; her needlework is risky, cutting, then pays off. Humour suits her.

The funniness of the book is so pleasurable that you almost forget its discomfort. ‘Consensus was the world was ending,’ the book begins, a dramatic summation of feelings following Trump’s election victory, but now with a charming tardiness that looks almost nostalgic in 2020’s shadow. There’s a slightly oracular look-in from Oyler here; I can almost hear her crying out Edgar’s famous line in King Lear: ‘the worst is not so long as we can say, “This is the worst”’. If ‘consensus’ was that 2016 was an apocalypse, I often wondered when reading the Fake Accounts what Oyler’s narrator would have made of a pandemic, whether she would have banana-breaded and Zoom-dated, whether a Twitter hole would provide the same comfort now that everyone was online, 24/7. My suspicion is not. Having that insight — that care and curiosity — into a narrator’s thought process long after I had finished reading is testament to Oyler’s deft, deft ability to create character.

But spending so much time in a narrator’s mind can be exhausting. The process of reading Fake Accounts felt akin to flicking through endless tabs on a phone, an internet rabbit-hole of the narrator’s brain with little “Wonderland” redemption on the other side — which is, obviously, the analogy Oyler is trying to make. Sentences wind, double, and triple over themselves as if to imitate the Zadie-Smithiness Oyler reveres; the narrator describes being the only person in the office who knows ‘how to use a semi-colon’, and the novel becomes the baggier for it. Reading should be hard work, but I’m not sure it should be this hard. The fatigue of reading the novel often made me think of Smith’s quote on the cover, where she states that Fake Accounts made her want to ‘retire from contemporary reality.’

It’s that kind of book that Oyler offers us, the kind that — for all its savvy charm — struggles to free itself from its own chains of doom and gloom. Perhaps in the third iteration of lockdown, already with a soaring screen time, escapism was needed. But I also think that Oyler’s view of the world — cold and lacking in hope — misses the mark. Her structure is cleverly metafictional, with sections named ‘Beginning’, ‘Middle (Something Happens)’, ‘Middle (Nothing Happens)’ and ‘Climax’, but at one point, the narrative dives into a 40-page series of fragments. The narrator has already critiqued this style as ‘hollow’ and ‘melodramatic’; it’s one intended to parody select female writers who are not directly named but sit buoyed beneath the surface. Think Jenny Offill, Maggie Nelson. ‘If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter,’ she says. Later, she admits halfway through: ‘I’m not very good at this structure. I keep going on too long.’

So crystallises the problem with Fake Accounts. For all the sense of poking fun, the critique is often heavy-handed and verbose. The idea that this fragmented, aphoristic style was made ‘trendy’ by Twitter is also short-sighted; it’s also emerged from poetry, and my guess is, from writers with increasingly little time to devote to their craft in a capitalist-orientated world — writers like Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro, who have spoken about gleaning any spare hours, penning short pieces in between looking after their children.

Oyler is nonetheless at frequent pains to remind us there is an artlessness to understand here; the narrator wonders whether using the internet is ironic, whether sex is ironic, whether writing in fragments is ironic. ‘The internet is always on … but it could not guarantee I would be able to interact with someone I liked and understood or who (I thought) liked and understood me’, the narrator declares at one point. It’s a summation of her fraying relationship with the online world, but it is also a good model for how Fake Accounts reads — I often wondered whether I was ‘getting’ it. ‘To be clear, I know this is boring,’ the narrator reminds us, on more than one occasion.

To return to our beginning and ask again: is the internet bad for the novel? No, but I’m not sure that it constitutes a plot. Oyler has achieved a tricky feat here: a good internet novel, albeit a flawed one. Fake Accounts is a heady whirlwind of a book, that, in spite of its despair, is really something. Undoubtedly, it will keep you away from that phone.

LUCY THYNNE reads English at Somerville College. Aged three, she had to be taken to hospital because she was subsisting only on cheese puffs, a diet she proudly continues to this day.

Art by Izzy Fergusson


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