On Irony, A Review of Lauren Oyler's Fake Accounts
At what point did online anonymity become a bad thing? This isn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely don’t know. Some time in the past decade or so “Make sure you don’t post any identifying information online” was replaced by “Post as much identifying information online as possible because God forbid strangers don’t know your name.” If I had to guess, I’d say that the popularity of social media—particularly the Big Three of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and their hopelessly square cousin, LinkedIn— widespread data farming for targeted ads, and an NSA psy-op convinced us that the only reason you’d want anonymity is if you had something to hide. Now if you don’t have a digital trail of breadcrumbs leading any passive Googler to you, you might as well not exist. In critic Lauren Oyler’s debut novel, Fake Accounts (Catapult, 2021), someone makes the mistake of dating one of these ephemeral, breadcrumbless creatures. It goes about as well as you’d expect.
A summary: It’s late 2016/early 2017—the interim between Donald Trump’s election and his inauguration—and the country is “transitioning from an only retrospectively easy past to an inarguably more difficult future.” A twentysomething writer snoops through her allegedly offline boyfriend’s phone and discovers that he, Felix, has secretly been running a popular conspiracy-theory Instagram account. Staying together, of course, is not an option—how dare he post without her knowledge! She had already become bored of their relationship, but now she looks forward to confronting him before their breakup; she wants closure in the form of an explanation for the offensive, seemingly out-of-character account. Instead, while attending the Women’s March in DC, she gets a call notifying her that Felix has been killed in a bike accident. The writer then moves from Brooklyn to Berlin—where she and Felix first met—signs up for OkCupid, and goes on a series of first dates in which she adopts a new name and background for each of her prospective paramours. She also takes a gig walking a stranger’s twin infants every morning and struggles to motivate herself to complete the German visa application process. And that’s about it. Aside from a climactic plot twist about fifteen pages from the end (in a part of the novel conveniently titled “Climax”) and a formal experiment with section breaks that has already been sufficiently clucked over elsewhere, I’ve omitted nothing. The longest portion is titled “Middle (Nothing Happens),” and it deserves its name.
The writer spends those long, plotless days in Berlin alternately scrolling through Twitter and Instagram and trying to avoid scrolling through Twitter and Instagram, both painfully familiar pastimes. She also intersperses the nonaction with quippy meditations on her own inertia, her reasons for not learning German, and her online presence, among other things that generally all come back to how others may perceive her.
To my surprise, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho kept springing to mind as I read. While Fake Accounts is devoid of violence and (relatively) sexless, both novels lock the reader into the perspective of an aggressively hip narcissist, somebody who would never be seen in public doing the wrong thing and who sees every interaction as a competition that they must win. Both the writer and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman indulge in essayistic digressions expressing rather banal opinions nonetheless best kept to oneself if one hopes to remain in the good graces of polite society, though with opposite effects: a disdain for the aesthetics of the Women’s March is more acceptable now than in the writer’s contemporary 2017, yet a love for Huey Lewis and the News only seems more ridiculous than in Bateman’s late ’80s. More than anything else, the writer and Bateman remind me of people I’ve been inadvertently drawn into conversations with at parties and never want to speak to ever again.
The big things that set the writer apart from Bateman are her self-awareness and her sense of humor about herself. While Bateman would never imagine himself as anything other than the most interesting and charismatic person to ever live, the writer is conscious of her self-absorption and aware of how dull her novel is, at times outright acknowledging it (“To be clear: I know this is boring,” she writes in the midst of a passage about the obtaining a visa) and at others allowing her imagined audience of ex-boyfriends to chime in (“The ex-boyfriends . . . feel some obligation to finish, having gotten this far, but they have to admit, they’re looking forward to reading other things,” she writes about three quarters of the way through). She knows she’s self-centered (“I know this is narcissism,” she reflects after not leaving an event because she didn’t want people to talk about how she left) and she knows she’s unlikeable (“My rent being so low that I am not going to tell you what it was, teetering as I am already on the border between likable and loathsome,” she acknowledges). She undercuts every comment with a joke, preventing us from ever quite pinning down what she believes or how seriously we should take her critiques (“I don’t think positivity works, not least because it’s alienating, but then again so is being a bitch,” she writes, reflecting on the two types of signs at the Women’s March). It all has the effect of implying that whatever the writer is describing is unimportant, passé, and, above all else, obvious. This is the mode of the cool Twitter personality, the one who, rather than tweeting about whatever has gone viral or the main character du jour, tweets about everybody else tweeting about it; a brand of contrarianism that pretends to have an angle but ultimately reflects back to whoever happens to be posting, saying nothing substantial about anything else.
Reading Fake Accounts led me back to the 1990 essay “E Unibus Pluram” by David Foster Wallace (the ex-girlfriends are closing this tab). It examines the effect of television on then-contemporary American fiction. More specifically, Wallace looks at how the rebellious tone of irony that the postmodernists used to critique postwar America had gotten consumed by everybody’s favorite narcotizing medium and shit back out as pseudo-self-aware advertisements that render that very form of critique utterly insipid and meaningless. He describes an average American, Joe Briefcase, who, watching his average six hours of television every day, has become an irony automaton, capable only of seeing things through its lens. He finds himself continuing to watch despite knowing that he shouldn’t be watching so much TV:
Since television must seek to compel attention by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television-watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV”).
Television appeals because it presents the world as better than it is in reality, with better punchlines, better action, and better-looking people. When out in public, TV-saturated Joe Briefcase self-reflexively obsesses over how he appears to others as though they were a live studio audience—am I funny enough? am I exciting enough? am I good-looking enough?—and the anxiety is so extreme that he’d prefer to stay in and watch TV, the very thing that gives him that anxiety.
Thirty years later and we seem to be in a similar place with social media. Though the average American (allegedly) only spends two and a half hours each day scrolling, the medium, and the irony that comes with it, is even more all-encompassing. Now instead of just consuming the corporate propaganda of how a person should be, we create it ourselves. Oyler’s social-media-addicted writer, like Wallace’s Joe Briefcase, fixates on how she appears to others. But for the writer, and for the rest of us in the modern digital milieu, the funnier, more exciting, better-looking people aren’t actors on shows; they’re our peers, people we know or could possibly meet. Social media tells us that everyone else is having more fun than we are, and that the only way to have more fun is by posting. Users then cultivate the teasing sense of irony on their own: to show that you know your mediated persona is flimsy and detracting from your lived existence, you make a joke in your post—but you still post. The writer in Fake Accounts is not unique in her addiction to Twitter, but her irony is honed to a sharper point than most. She comes up with something cutting no matter the situation, and it always cuts in such a way as to elevate her slightly above the unkempt masses of NPCs and into that elite tier that seems smarter, funnier, and cooler.
An example: while en route to a yoga class, she derisively mentions white women who live in Brooklyn, clarifying that “although I too was a white woman living in Brooklyn, I of course did not identify as such, since the description usually signified someone selfish, lazy, and in possession of superficial understandings of complex topics such as racism and literature.” The joke, of course, being that while the writer is in fact selfish and lazy, she also demonstrates that she is actually in possession of a more than superficial understanding of literature at least. Her ability to even make the joke at all shows that she is smarter and more self-reflexive than all those white women living in Brooklyn foolish enough to identify as such. Critique, to the writer and to many a Twitter user, demonstrates comprehension; if you can make a biting remark about something, you must have a perfect grasp of it. If anyone takes offense, they simply do not have the depths of understanding you have.
Being a paragon of self-awareness, the writer knows that this is what she’s doing. She explains jokily that the tone she developed working for a distinctly Vice-esque publication was “a rote, pseudo-intellectual dismissiveness that could be applied to any topic so long as the worst political implications (ideally, that the thing being discussed was bad for women) were spelled out by the end of the article.” Essentially, she would write tweets in article form, and Fake Accounts essentially consists of tweets in novel form.
Humor like this—especially in a novel—casts the audience in a complex role. The writer presents something clever that may shock the reader, but only gently. It’s enough, though, to seem like an admission, like something that you maybe shouldn’t say too loudly or if you don’t know the person you’re talking to very well. This flatters the reader, making them feel special and sophisticated; glad to be in on the joke and knowing that what’s being said is both wry and not totally unreasonable, they agree with whatever clever thing they’ve just been told. The artistry of this is in the mild shock—it can’t be so extreme as to be truly upsetting, and it can’t be so tepid as to be uninteresting. Oyler’s writer describes writing for an audience that “wanted to learn things that it could trick itself into believing it had always known,” and so writing “as if you [i.e., the writer] were like everyone else, and as if everyone else were decently intelligent,” something the writer obviously does not believe. The reader has to be able to convince themself that they knew all along whatever they have just learned or that they would’ve come to the same conclusion as the writer had they thought about it before.
The best examples of this technique (outside of Fake Accounts) come from the podcast Red Scare. The hosts, Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan—often described as provocateurs—love standing up for the somewhat perverse. They assert that Woody Allen did nothing wrong and lobby for the continued use of the word “retarded” as a pejorative, to name a couple pet causes. None of these things are especially remarkable, interesting, or strongly defensible, but their schtick works because of their deliberately lo-fi aesthetic; they act as though they’re just a pair of drunk “r-words” chatting about current events and the mics happen to be turned on. The audience, then, is let in on a moment that feels private, like when somebody you barely know pulls you aside at a party and asks you to make sure their ex doesn’t see them. It is an ultimately meaningless gesture that only serves both parties’ egos. The insidiousness of this style of irony lies in that dynamic. While there may be a kernel of genuine thought or fully formed opinion at the center of the bit, it’s all undercut by the joke. The faux intimacy of the presentation allows two conflicting interpretations, equally untrue: they’re totally serious and they really believe these things, and they’re not at all serious and they don’t believe any of it. And, because of the ambiguity, either interpretation can be deployed with equal success if need be. If you take them either too seriously or not seriously enough, then clearly you’re the rube here. it doesn’t matter to the Goldilocks audience because they’ve been told they’re in on the joke already, and so can deploy that bad-faith logic themselves. Ultimately, the irony serves only to keep attention on the person making the joke and to keep everyone else in their orbit, waiting for what comes next.
The effect is essentially the same as that of a Pepsi commercial that Wallace describes in “E Unibus Pluram.” The ad shows people at a beach compulsively driven to buy a Pepsi after hearing one open, the irony being that the slogan “The choice of a new generation” appears after this show of blind choicelessness. Joe Briefcase, the rugged individual sitting on his couch, gets it: “The commercial invites complicity between its own witty irony and veteran-viewer Joe’s cynical, nobody’s-fool appreciation of that irony. It invites Joe into an in-joke the Audience is the butt of. It congratulates Joe Briefcase, in other words, on transcending the very crowd that defines him, here.” Joe is too wised-up to the admen’s tricks to be sold something by earnest commercials exhorting him to buy a Pepsi because it tastes good, because it’ll make him cooler or hotter, &c. Pepsi knows this, and tells him that they know this, and he likes that. It makes no difference to Pepsi; either way, he buys their product. In fact, according to DFW, “This ad boosted Pepsi’s market share through three sales quarters.” With social media, the product sold isn’t a soft drink; it’s people. Irony is the means by which attention, and therefore power, is now exchanged.
The problem with irony, then, isn’t in irony itself, or in jokes, or anything like that. It’s that, when deployed in this sort of context, it convinces each member of the audience that they’re better than everyone else while keeping a thumb on the scales of power for whoever the ironizer is. It can build a brand or create a following, but ultimately it only makes people feel more alone and beholden to whoever the smarter, cleverer person making the jokes they think they could be making happens to be. Irony is, after all, “the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage,” as DFW quotes Lewis Hyde saying. Each individual who snickers along—part of a massive number of unseen individuals who also think they’re cleverer than all the other sheeple out there—only nestles deeper into the very same cage that the irony brings to their attention. We can all have a grand ol’ time this way, but the crushing loneliness and boredom and anxiety that comes from watching a simulation of the world play out through a glass square never goes away. To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution cannot be memeified.
Fun fact: Catapult CEO and cofounder Elizabeth Koch is the daughter of Charles Koch. Even indie publishing isn’t safe from the political elite. ↩︎
N.b. “The writer” refers throughout this piece to the unnamed protagonist and writer of the semiautobiographical novel that makes up the text of Fake Accounts. She is, of course, not to be confused with Lauren Oyler, the author of the semiautobiographical novel Fake Accounts. ↩︎
Much to my gratification, Oyler name-drops American Psycho near the end of the book, in a passage where the writer describes a series of pornographic videos featuring women “reading aloud from their favorite books while, under the desk and off camera, someone stimulated them with a vibrator.” American Psycho was one of the featured books. ↩︎
Italics in original. ↩︎