This account is bugged

On Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (and a little on Roisin Kiberd's The Disconnect)

The debut novel by literary critic Lauren Oyler, Fake Accounts is about many things: Twitter humour, American expats, the farce of online dating, Trump-era resistance politics, infinite scrolling, not speaking German, the beginning and ending of a relationship. It’s also about the joy of being someone else for a little while. 

Our unnamed Millennial content-producer narrator first acquires a taste for duplicity when, one night during her five-step skincare routine, she decides to snoop through her boyfriend’s phone. Anticipating texts from other women, she finds something far more sinister and surprising: a fake Instagram account, @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_, riddled with typos and warped conspiracy theories. She knows her boyfriend, Felix, well enough to think that he doesn’t believe the antisemitic bullshit he posts (after all, she’s “pretty sure” he’s Jewish), but apparently not well enough to know he posted them. 

Felix’s secrecy is no big surprise. An aloof, emotionally distant softboi who sleeps with his phone under his pillow, we already know he tells lies for kicks: on a date in a restaurant, he tells a “smooth and beautiful” waiter they’re there to celebrate our narrator’s acceptance on a PhD programme (total bullshit). To her bemused embarrassment, he orders champagne, “to celebrate the genius”. In a flashback to how the couple met – he was her tour guide on a cringey Berlin pub crawl – we learn he fudged the details of his life story, only to be rumbled by our narrator’s expert sleuthing. (His excuse: he makes up stories to entertain himself at work; had assumed he’d never meet anyone worth seeing again on a ticketed pub crawl – understandable.) 

After she and Felix part ways (I won’t reveal how), our narrator has become infected with his thirst for faking it. She flees to Berlin to get over the calamitous relationship. Alongside very-real passages about Tempelhof and Neukölln, eating falafel with peanut sauce, smoking in bars and struggling to find apartment lets, we are furnished with some very-unreal personal histories as our protagonist takes to OkCupid and starts to serial-date fellow expats, telling them all invented histories about herself. The joy of deception is contagious, it seems. Or perhaps it was always there in the first place? As Olivia Sudjic points out in an LRB podcast, our narrator is a woman who tells us she’s not the kind of person who snoops, but does so anyway; not the kind of person who goes on a Women’s March, but does so anyway; not the kind of expat in Berlin who doesn’t speak German, but is one anyway. 

We’re all guilty of this kind of self-deception and hypocrisy on some level. We all deceive ourselves on a daily basis. Is it such a big deal, then, to also deceive the people we meet casually on a dating app, as we’re passing through a vast and unfamiliar city? So what if we’re not really an architect? Dating profiles are ephemeral – temporary by design (in theory, if not in practice) and normally kept private. They’re also disingenuous, used to construct very particular versions of ourselves, populated with pictures that flatter (posed, but not too posed) and witty one-liners that manufacture a sense of nonchalant charm, which may or may not be there IRL. 

Like myself, Oyler (and her narrator) is of a generation that has grown up online. Those of us born in the late eighties/early nineties joined our first social networking sites as teens. Consciously or unconsciously, we have spent over a decade cultivating our online presence, constructing an online ‘self’ – one whose pictures are stylised, whose professional triumphs are celebrated, whose friends/boyfriend/parents/dog are simply THE BEST. Our online selves are optimised for the demands of capitalism, always seeking new projects and “collaborations”. Do we really shape these online personas, though? Or are our online personas shaping us? Does it even make sense to draw a line anymore? Oyler says no: “What I hope the book expresses is that the personas we assume online aren’t so different from those we assume offline”, she told the Los Angeles Review of Books in a recent interview. “There is no hard boundary between our persona and our not-persona.” 

Another dazzling debut published this year, Roisin Kiberd’s The Disconnect explores the author’s intimate and ambivalent relationship with the internet in luminous prose. Kiberd was born in March 1989, “the same month and year as the Internet as we know it”. While the internet of the 1990s and early 2000s was free, anarchic and full of aliases (“avatars, pseudonyms and elaborately designed in-game characters were a default in online life”), Kiberd points out that Facebook has now explicitly banned the use of fake names. Its “timeline” format seeks to extract as much factual biographical data about your life as it can. While Twitter and Instagram allow for a little more creative agency, for many of us they double-up as professional tools. “What torments me is a sense of the internet as an archive, one that records all my past mistakes,” Kiberd writes, confessing to compulsively scrolling through her past tweets and deleting anything that might be read as offensive. “At times I believe that I am evolving against my will, attaining the state the internet has long prodded us towards: eternal vigilance, instability, consumption.” We have been trained to surveil not just each other, but ourselves. 

As Hito Steyerl points out in her 2012 essay ‘The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation’, “Warhol’s prediction that everybody would be world-famous for fifteen minutes [became] true long ago. Now many people want the contrary: to be invisible, if only for fifteen minutes.” The desire to drop out completely and switch everything off is one most of us have experienced, but few have followed through on. Our participation in social media platforms is, of course, a choice, but for most of us, the genie is not going back inside the bottle. “The internet isn’t in the way of my life; it is my life,” Kiberd writes. “I find it very difficult to imagine an alternative.”

If the narrator of Fake Accounts is able to (temporarily) liberate herself from her true identity, she is unable to escape the relentless self-policing Kiberd describes. A strangled tone of self-consciousness permeates Fake Accounts. There’s an imagined audience of ex-boyfriends, whose reactions are predicted: they shake their heads or tell her to get to the point. Our moral evaluations are pre-empted (“I’m sure some of you might say strategy is immoral…”). This frustrating solipsism and meticulous self-awareness is perhaps a mockery of contemporary autofiction: Oyler has criticised the self-excusing tone of Jia Tolentino and Roxanne Gay, likening it to “getting in ahead of criticism, PR-style”. (In another section of the book, she parodies and mocks the trend of writing in fragments: “What’s amazing about this structure is that you can just dump any material you have in here and leave it up to the reader to connect it to the rest of the work.”)

For all her fake personas and literary posturing, though, our narrator ultimately fails to seize control over her own narrative. The ending, described by Oyler as a “negative epiphany”, is a clever twist (again, I won’t reveal it). Reflecting on the book, after finishing it, I turn one of its phrases over in my mind: “This account is bugged.” Which one? The fake Instagram? Or the account of events we’re being relayed by our reliably-unreliable narrator? Adam Curtis, whose documentaries I wrote about last week, posits in interviews that most conspiracy theorists probably don’t actually believe the shit they peddle. They’re just looking for something more fantastical, something new to believe in. In Fake Accounts, I’m not sure our narrator truly believes she’s escaping the baggage of her past relationship, either, but the life she invents and the journey she takes us on is nonetheless compelling. Whether or not it goes where you think it will, it’s worth jumping in for the ride.

- Rosa xo

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Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts was published by 4th Estate on 4 February 2021; order it on Waterstones or ask your local independent bookshop.

Roisin Kiberd’s The Disconnect was published by Serpent’s Tail on the 4th March. Again, order on Waterstones or go indie.

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