SPECIAL DOUBLE AUDIOBOOK REVIEW
Lauren Oyler, “Fake Accounts” (2021) (narrated by Rebecca Lowman)
Jia Tolentino, “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion” (2019) (narrated by the author)
Noah Sapperstein: You wanted to save drama, but you have created nothing worth saving.
– Hamlet 2 (2008)
Thinking and writing about the Internet and identity has gotten so tedious that when I found out that Lauren Oyler, whose acclaimed new debut novel “Fake Accounts” I was listening to at work, wrote a “scathing” review of well-known Internet scribe Jia Tolentino’s book of essays, “Trick Mirror,” I fantasized that maybe they could get into a rivalry, like Nas and Jay-Z or at least Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, to lend some interest to a contemporary literary scene that sorely needs it. It doesn’t really look that likely to materialize. Tolentino tweeted something implying the strange intimacy of being read with such thoroughgoing disgust as Oyler displayed towards her (and also turned on Kristen Roupenian, author of viral hit short story “Cat People”) was somewhat enjoyable, and to the best of my knowledge that was that. I’m not on Twitter so I learn about these things via looking stuff up on Wikipedia and the like.
If there’s one thing Oyler is capable of in the literary sphere (beyond conveying a vague impression that she’s heir to Susan Sontag and/or Joan Didion), it is conveying disgust. “Fake Accounts” drips with disgust: for New York and Berlin, the cities in which it takes place; for every character within it; for the Internet, which is marketed as the novel’s subject; for most forms of human expression; and for the novel’s first-person narrator. This disgust expresses itself mostly through treating its objects as obvious subjects for disdain and expecting the reader to go with. This isn’t too difficult, given that the subjects are generally things like guided Berlin pub crawls, white middle-class liberalism circa 2017, online dating, and so on. As I tired of this book, I could “go with” the disgust mainly in the direction of the narrator, though I noticed a certain disgust differential in the narrator’s favor with which I could not agree.
We’re in the usual shell-game here, “is the narrator (nameless, natch) the writer???” The answer to shell games is to not play, or flip the table over and take the scammer’s money. So at this point I pretty much assume these first-person narrators are author-substitutes (and generally, implicitly, audience-substitutes too). Like Oyler, the narrator is a younger-millennial writer from a lower-middle-class background who went to an elite college and wrote for a kind of bullshit Internet publication (Oyler was a Broadly writer). I considered that maybe Oyler was basing her narrator on the writers she works amongst and despises, like Tolentino or Roupenian. But this is a woman who is fine using the word “hysterical” — rather throws it down like a gauntlet — to describe the writers she and her narrator hates, and the narrator does not come off that way. What clinched it for me was when the narrator declared she didn’t like any music except for jazz or classical. No way would anyone looking to make fun of most millennial scribblers give their target that character trait, but it fits right in with the critical brand Oyler has been building, modernism’s revenge (but still willing to talk celebrities). The narrator is the author, or anyway, close enough.
The story, presumably, is the made-up part, though it’s really more outline than plot. In early 2017, the narrator finds out that her sort-of-boyfriend, Felix, runs a popular right-wing conspiracy theory Instagram account, and has kept it entirely secret from everybody. This is where my complicity, the complicity most marks have with the people who con them, comes in. This plot gambit is the major selling point of the book in the copy about it. I allowed the copy to convince me that the novel would explore identity in the Internet age, and what I (thought I) knew about Oyler from other reading and what I saw of her public performance of self — a prickly intellectual, young but self-assured, highly critical of the poor state of contemporary letters, a Baffler contributor — convinced me it would be smarter than most such explorations. That’s on me, I guess- failure to be sufficiently critical, though this book has made a big enough splash it might have been inevitable that I’d read it at some point even if I thought it was going to be bad.
And it was pretty bad. It wasn’t about identity or the Internet or any of that. It’s about what most contemporary literary fiction is about- romantic relationships, and the (supposed) impossibility of connection we all (supposedly) experience. Neither of these are bad topics for fiction in and of themselves, though both are overdone and the latter takes a lot for granted. But Oyler has nothing interesting or original to say about them. Her narrator, after discovering Felix’s secret Instagram, goes to the 2017 Women’s March in DC for the weekend and decides to break up with him when she gets back. She has an ambivalent time among the pussy hats and on her way back gets a phone call informing her Felix has died. Thrown (despite the fact they didn’t seem to like each other that much or have been together that long), she flees to Berlin, the city where she and Felix met. She does some light online-identity-play herself as she compulsively goes on online dates and feels self-conscious about participating in the anglophone gentrification of the German capital. She finds out one last terrible truth about Felix, and that’s all she wrote.
The plot is dull, but really, what drove me over the edge into despising this novel was, I guess, what can be called the ethos of the narrator/author. In some books, and again we can harken back to Oyler’s career as a critic, where she implies that good literature is difficult modernist literature (not that she does anything as straightforward as lay her own cards on the table), that makes me a bad reader. The author is dead, yadda yadda. Well, fuck that, I’ve got google, and moreover, the narrator lives, and I’m about ready to call it a rule- unless you can prove otherwise, first-person narrators are authors, in a mirror with a certain degree of distortion. What we’re supposed to buy from the author/narrator in “Fake Accounts” is that she is a smart person and that her disgust for the world around her is motivated by her intelligence and sensitivity. She’s aware it’s unhelpful much of the time but we’re supposed to buy that as part of the package, self-awareness being an important part of being smart and/or good in contemporary English lit-fic-adjacent circles.
But Oyler does not sell it- she doesn’t sell it for the narrator who might or might not be her, and she doesn’t sell it about herself in her criticism. In fact, I need to reach into the altogether happier world of genre fiction to find a comparison- that moment when writers who are distinctly non-geniuses try to write their way into the heads of the geniuses they make up: Orson Scott Card with the genius kids in “Ender’s Game,” Thomas Harris with Hannibal Lecter (and to a lesser extent some of Lecter’s opposite numbers), Robert Anton Wilson with assorted guru figures in “Illuminatus!”, examples could be added. But at least those characters are vehicles for interesting shit happening. Both the unnamed character, and the persona of Lauren Oyler, critical crusader for literary standards, at best would be a vehicle for criticism of low points in our culture. And they can’t even land that!
In her criticism, Oyler dings fellow (overeducated millennial woman) writers Jia Tolentino and Kristen Roupenian for lack of precision in language- that’s where the “hysterical” crack directed at Tolentino comes in. Tolentino sees how the structures of online content creation and consumption demand performances of emotionality (especially from women), she criticizes it, and yet, she still writes about how she “was driven insane” by various things that, clearly, left herself sane enough to become a successful writer and marketer-of-self, Oyler points out (with the smug self-assurance of someone pointing out you criticized capitalism from a smartphone which you presumably bought on the market). She also points to the ways in which contemporary writers (and here Roupenian gets more of the criticism) exploit tragedy porn and treat acceptable targets of scorn — like creepy, or even just normal and somewhat horny, men — as less than human. More than anything, she hammers home the point that contemporary culture is cheap and sloppy, which is fair enough (though again, she says nothing unique or compelling in the process- to quote a modernist of the sort she gives her rare nod of approval toward, “there’s no there there”) all things considered.
So having said all that, presumably, Oyler can blow our asses away by getting at what things are really like, right? Unmotivated as she is by market logic (she calls herself a socialist at various points and has written for the Baffler but shows nothing but contempt for virtually any opinion she writes about, especially any form of protest or direct action against Trump)? Ivy League schooled but keeping it real with West Virginia roots? Wrong again! For all that it’s dull, the story is also unrealistic. Despite her novel being temporally framed by politics, Oyler avoids saying anything about it other than to broadly imply it makes people stupid (Felix, for instance, we are carefully told, was right-wing on his Instagram but not openly racist or antisemitic, thereby absolving narrator/author of any responsibility to out him). There’s nothing interesting in the writing. It sounds like a flatter version of the sort of testimonials — “it happened to me!” — that used to be a big thing on the Internet. Disgust can be a powerful motivator for interesting, passionate language, from Juvenal’s time to Joan Didion’s. But it doesn’t help here, presumably because making writing actually interesting would be participating in the game of communicating with other people, which in turn would spoil the illusion of aloof superiority which is Oyler’s real ethos and her narrator’s, too.
Oyler titles one chapter “Maybe If I Wrote Like This I Would Understand Them.” “Like this” is writing accounts of her dates in Berlin, where she does some light lying (really, any millennial who grew up with the Internet and any creativity has lied more and better than the narrator, or Felix the arch-liar for that matter), not in chronological order but theming dates according to the signs of the zodiac. The “them” in the title is, basically, women. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the main thing giving emotional backstop to Oyler’s performance of intellectuality and literary potential is that she is, as the cliche used to go, “not like the other girls.” She doesn’t wear her ever-so-mediated feelings on her sleeves and she won’t bore you about Beyoncé. She’s just barely clever enough to avoid trying to be “one of the boys,” but especially given that “the boys” (understood as youngish white or white-adjacent literary fiction types) basically don’t meaningfully contribute to English language letters these days, it wouldn’t help her if she tried, not with the market she’s trying to get over. Again, think Sontag or Didion- the woman above it all. That’s basically what’s going on here. I thought the zodiac-themed chapter was the best chapter in the book, in no small part because by going on a bunch of dates we met a bunch of characters. They weren’t good characters, the strangling solipsism of this book prevents that, but at least they weren’t the narrator or Felix. *’
Dana: We’ll all remember this moment for the rest of our lives! It was dramatic, it was visual…
Octavio: It was stupid.
Dana: It WAS stupid! But it was also THEATER!
-Hamlet 2 (2008)
This is the second of three nonfiction “beach reads” I decided to listen to this summer, in what now seems like an ill-conceived attempt to, I don’t know, juice interest in even my tiny review audience. It was based on a jibe from an old friend of mine about how I read too much advanced stuff. Probably not a ton of people read this on the beach. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a few do! Jia Tolentino is a popular writer on the Internet. I didn’t know she was a target for Lauren Oyler’s critical scorn when I set up a pattern that would have me listen to first “Fake Accounts” and then “Trick Mirror.” Just one of those “happy little accidents” I guess.
Tolentino and Oyler have a fair amount in common. They’re both younger millennial women who both once wrote for now-defunct women-oriented online publications (Jezebel and Broadly, respectively) and who went to elite colleges (UVA and Yale, respectively- in her review of this book, Oyler sneers that Tolentino made sure we knew she got into Yale… and a quick googling reveals that Oyler actually did go to Yale… google really wracks hell on certain snobbery patterns and you’d think “digital natives” who write for a living would grasp that, and yet, and yet, and yet!). They are both now reasonably major writers in their own respective rights. Both cover what could be called the “American awful” beat (“Fake Accounts” dwells on Berlin but has next to nothing to say about Germans), which has swallowed up so much of contemporary literary writing, both fiction and non-. It’s worth noting both are conventionally attractive women (another thing Oyler sneers at Tolentino for noticing about herself, not like Oyler doesn’t pose for the camera too)- it seems like a trend, millennial literary fiction writers having it going on in the looks department.
“Trick Mirror” is not a novel but a set of essays. Had some of them been online before? Probably? They all interweave first person narrative with exposition and analysis based on reporting or research. Like the subtitle suggest, they all discuss self-delusion. There’s the delusion that the Internet or self-improvement can make us happy, the (good?) delusion that MDMA can connect you with others and/or the godhead, the delusion that Tolentino’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, is a place dedicated to learning and gentility when really women get raped all the time (and one woman deluded herself into thinking she had been raped, sold the story to Rolling Stone, and helped perpetuate a delusion that campus rape is all lies and hype), etc etc.
The essays are pretty good. Oyler’s not wrong that Tolentino isn’t always particularly precise in her use of language and often brings things back around to herself. Well… she seems to be an interesting person! Daughter of Filipino immigrants, raised in Houston, religious school, brief stint on reality tv, successful writer, she either is interesting or is capable of making her experiences interesting. She interweaves a lot of material into her essays, like when she discusses Houston’s religiosity, its history of drug-fueled “chopped and screwed” rap, and her own experience with MDMA in one essay.
I remember my dad coming to a Thomas Frank talk with me, maybe ten years ago or more. Dear old earnest baby boomer Dad walks up to Frank at the end of the talk, big smile on his face, thrusts his hand out to the author, and says “ok- what do we do about it?” in reference to whatever DC Gomorrah situation Frank had laid out. Frank laughed. He didn’t know. Not his business! He’s a critic. Especially now, alienated by the excesses of the “woke capital”/Russiagate/internet-liberal crowd like so many lefty scribblers have been, he’s less interested in solutions than ever before. At the time, I was lightly embarrassed. Now I’m a little more in my dad’s camp, especially as I’ve seen some of the lefty heroes of that time, including Frank, descend towards (or all the way into) a crankdom fueled by premature hopelessness.
Split the difference- I don’t expect a critic to append proposed legislation to their essays (you’ll notice I don’t). I would say it would make sense for a critic — especially one who calls themselves a socialist and/or anticapitalist, as Tolentino does a few times in this book — to at least gesture in the direction of how to fight. All too often, Tolentino throws up her hands, accedes her own complicity in eating Sweetgreen’s antihumanist salads or enjoying weddings, and collapses into miserabilism- we’re stuck with the system because the system is us. Don’t do it, Jia! You’ve got more power than you know! It’s not as though the early Christians didn’t obey Roman law most of the time, or the Russians who stormed the Winter Palace didn’t buy stuff… you can snarf your Sweetgreen and get to work pointing us where to take our pitchforks! Her work on “Free Britney” isn’t a bad start, and her chapter on “difficult women” — both a genuine feminist veneration object and one extremely easy to capture to the orbit of the sort of power that crushes the lives of everyday women — is a good one.
I do wonder, though… how much can one be part of “the zeitgeist” and still recognize within oneself the power, as part of a collective, to change it? Especially this zeitgeist, which seems to fetishize overawe in the face of complexity and of the power of the elite? I draw inspiration from the many “extremely online” people I know who joke about the brain rot it imposes but still do the work, organizing, agitating, fighting. I guess it’s more of a “me” problem. Probably I’m just enough of a little boy, playing soldiers on my atlas while my sisters watch 90210 (note- I watched too, I still remember most of the cast members, not trying to snob my dear sisters), dreaming of better (and bloodier) drama than beautiful people hurting each other’s feelings, that certain aspects of the zeitgeist will always elude me… ah well.
Like I said, I like this book, but chain listening to this book and Oyler’s before it, and reading Oyler’s criticism, brought up an unpleasant vista in my mind. The relationship between the two in the sphere of literature reminded me of nothing so much as two of the common types you see at millennial house parties. Tolentino would be the person who shows up midway through, possibly already drunk and/or high, and grabs all the attention by talking a mile a minute, name-dropping, and apologizing for talking about themselves so much whilst keeping on doing so. Oyler is the person in the corner snickering about what a dumbass everyone at this lame party is. You can go over and snicker with them, but you know they think you’re just as much of an idiot, if not more, and you know if they threw a party it’d be at least as bad. And you know if you throw your own, better party, which one you’d rather invite- anyway, I do. ****