Two Paths for the Extremely Online Novel
February 1, 2021
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by admin

The narrator’s estrangement keeps the reader at arm’s length; she has no recognizable authentic emotional reactions to the novel’s events, so it’s difficult to forget that she is a collection of postures and tics the author wanted to play with rather than, you know, a rounded character. She can be a bitch, which should be fun, but her bitchiness is mostly relegated to surly asides in her internal monolog, or mean-spirited observations about how she might delight in her acquaintances’ misfortune. Narcissists can be a great thrill to read about—but they’ve got to be dynamic, dammit. If American Psycho was a book about Patrick Bateman going on an extended vacation to think about his weird ex, it would also suck.

Gimmicks deployed as generously as zingers—a Greek chorus of ex-boyfriends chiming in here and there, a section written in an aphoristic style parodying trendy contemporary fiction, winks at autofiction—create noise, not meaning. There’s a twist in the final act that turns the protagonist’s listless mourning process on its head; or, rather, it would do this if Oyler hadn’t built a novel so lacking in a core. Instead, there’s nothing to meaningfully subvert. It packs the punch of an exposé on rigged carnival games. Who cares? We already knew it was bullshit.

Fake Accounts reckons with what fiction can achieve in the age of Twitter, but this reckoning, rather than enlivening the story itself, stifles it. The characters filter their identities through screens, and this filtration allows for no depth, no emotional resonance. How strange, since Oyler’s criticism is clearly animated by strong feeling and a palpable sense of mischief. There’s nothing palpable here. What is the internet doing to people, to books? The ultimate answer Fake Accounts suggests is: making them sour, and small.

Good news, though! That’s not the only answer, or even a correct one. Oyler isn’t the sole extremely online author releasing a book about an extremely online protagonist this month. Poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, also a novel about a Twitter-obsessed young woman, comes out a few weeks after Fake Accounts. The books have thematic overlap so obvious that Oyler recently referred to them as “evil twins.” It’s a beautiful thing when two cultural products so flamboyantly twinned get released in tandem—like Dante’s Peak and Volcano, or Deep Impact and Armageddon, they make it easy to have conversations and debates. In this case, Fake Accounts and No One Is Talking About This show us two approaches to the same goal: the creation of a novel capable of capturing what the internet does to people. They circle the same questions about how screens shape life and art. Ultimately, their answers sound nothing alike.

Lockwood’s career has been tangled up in the internet even more than Oyler’s. She might be the only person on Twitter everybody likes. In the early 2010s she gained an enthusiastic fan base for her series of vulgar, poetic “sext” tweets; her breakthrough moment came with the publication of her poem “Rape Joke” on the now-defunct blog The Awl in 2013. An autodidact homebody from the Rust Belt, Lockwood has never lived in New York or gone in for an MFA, and social media served as her main conduit into literary communities, where she has bloomed into appointment reading for both poetry and criticism in all the fanciest magazines.

Written in the aphoristic style Oyler needles in Fake Accounts, No One Is Talking About This also centers on an unnamed protagonist who resembles the author. Like Lockwood, she is a writer beloved for her witty online presence. The third-person narration describes the protagonist’s world in surrealist, deliberately estranging terms—the internet is “the portal,” for example—and the first half of the novel unfolds as a series of airy musings on what it’s like to spend your days scrolling through feed after feed. Because it’s written by Lockwood, the language is galloping and fun, although I suspect readers unfamiliar with meme culture will find it all but impossible to parse. Some of the passages closely echo Oyler’s riffs on contemporary foibles, except written in gnomic fragments. (E.g.: “Capitalism! It was important to hate it, even though it was how you got money. Slowly, slowly, she found herself moving toward a position so philosophical even Jesus couldn’t have held it: that she must hate capitalism while at the same time loving film montages set in department stores.”)

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