Although I am leery of, and usually bored by, novels about the internet, a world in which I have little to zero interest, Lauren Oyler’s debut novel “Fake Accounts” is a real exception. Oyler, for starts, is a brilliant writer, and the worlds she describes–of fake identities and obsessive reading of a variety of social media posts, are as frightening as they are witty and clever. She’s not fallen for a recent ominous trend of actually writing in the abbreviated styles of social media itself (a world that “New Yorker” writer Jia Tolentino deconstructs but has also, it seems, fallen for); Oyler’s own prose is exceptionally fine, and her observations about human character and personality penetrating and smart. Parts of the art world, too, have fallen for this cozy but often frightening alternative reality, with many younger artists fascinated by the digital world, rather than critiquing it.
Another young, often bored New York woman has been working at a company that does nothing but generate copy for its own media company, which deals only with social media stuff; she whips off copy with amazing speed, little of it meaningful, most of it intended as a form of marketing (those two worlds are colliding every day now). She decides to leave this job–well, she’s actually fired– and go to Berlin, to get some freedom from the New York City world of competition for everything one can consider. Her time in Berlin is utterly hilarious; this newly liberated/empowered woman feels perfectly free to pick up men, if she so desires–that’s also a newish trope of contemporary literature–and she finds one early on, on a tour of various bars in Berlin, led by a man who appears to be (that word, “appears”, is critical in the world of social media, where entire identities are invented on the spot) a romantic artist. Their first night together is brilliantly rendered by Oyler, whose narrator is aware that what this man tells her maybe partly true, entirely true, or entirely invented, but she seems not to care. Upon her return to New York, their affair continues over social media, and once he’s in New York, she decides to snoop onto his phone (another frighteningly common trope in fiction these days) to see what he may be hiding, and discovers an entirely different persona there, a man with right wing/paranoid tendencies in politics, and through her abilities with phones and computers, she follows his alternative persona on a daily basis, sometimes when the two are in the same room (creepy, that). She, of course, finds him one of those men who doesn’t open up easily, a great trope on today’s female reading of today’s male, as she’s almost entirely wrong about who he is and what his motives are: this is brilliant stuff, but, to me, scary as hell.
One day she receives a phone call from his mother in LA, telling her that this man, Felix, has died in a bicycle accident, and , disoriented though she is, and since she’d been intending to break up with him imminently anyway, a rash of emotions runs through her, and she decides to return to Berlin, having nothing else, really, to do. While back in Berlin, she hooks up onto various dating sites, goes out with slews of men, but she invents a new identity every night (not really knowing if these men are possibly doing the same , or not). This fragmentation of persona is really both fascinating, often funny, and frightening , concurrently, although the writing about these mostly awkward first dates is also hilarious. This narrators lies are both compelling and constant; she begins to lie/fabricate about virtually everything, including how to get a visa to stay in Berlin. (Oyler does quite a number on expats living in/mooching off the government in Berlin). There’s something unpleasantly manipulative about all her behavior, yet the reader will find her warm and funny and really mostly a very strong contemporary woman. There’s a denouement near the end, which involves the magic return of Felix, but I won’t spoil how this happens. Suffice it to say, that two can play her game, and, no doubt, way more than two.
Although we get the sense that the narrator is partly enjoying her romp through Berlin as a different persona a day, one also wonders whether or not said behavior won’t lead to actual psychosis and the complete fragmentation of identity in real time. My own psychological concerns for her well- being may be old-fashioned and false, but it’s difficult for any older reader to actually relate to this behavior. But for the duration of “False Accounts”, Lauren Oyler’s brilliant writing, astute perceptions, and her terrific understanding of how social media does/can/might work is the single best novel I’ve read to date on this topic, and I recommend it enormously as it’s so fully explicated.