Fake Accounts: irony and the aesthetics of alienation

A brilliantly funny novel, in its mordant fashion, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts is also very engaged with the implications of humour in contemporary online culture. The specific conditions of the internet – the size of the networks involved, and anonymity of those networks – have meant that the potential scale and real-world impact of inside jokes and the possibilities of transgressive humour have escalated. Meanwhile, irony and snark remain the dominant tone, sardonic knowingness prized above all else. The novel suggests that these characteristics play a key part in what Oyler slyly terms the ‘aesthetics of alienation’ (248). She gives the phrase to a rather earnest character who has recently completed a PhD (lol), so it’s a joke about academic pretension, but alienation is a crucial concern for Oyler, too. The irony is characteristic of the novel’s shamelessness: critiquing the ‘pathology’ while simultaneously relishing it.

The novel opens as our narrator discovers her boyfriend has an Instagram account which promotes conspiracy theories. It seems to have started as an inside joke, mocking delusional and hateful theories, but many of his tens of thousands of followers follow without irony. This discovery helps her decide to end the relationship, but there is little heat to her repulsion – it’s more a matter of gaming the situation to her advantage. When Felix dies suddenly, the narrator is denied the satisfaction of ending the relationship, and unmoored, lost in uncertain and uncharted emotion, she travels to Berlin where they met, and starts using dating apps, relishing the freedom of false personas. While she frames it as a project critiquing the falsity of online dating, its mimicry of Felix’s deceit might be better interpreted as an attempt to understand him.

The novel is set in the days after the 2016 US election, and Oyler implies an uncomfortable kinship between the narrator’s sardonic humour, Felix’s ‘satirical’ online persona, and the aggressive, anarchic humour of the army of trolls who helped germinate support for Trump’s campaign, as inside jokes from anonymous chat rooms developed into highly contagious memes with ‘real world’ traction. (“We memed a President into existence” bragged Chuck Johnson, a troll banned from Twitter.) Their toxicity means trolls are generally judged unworthy of interpretation, and Felix, while initially also deemed ‘beyond the pale’ (54), seems to offer a way in; only he doesn’t, because he continually evades both the narrator and the reader’s grasp. We know he’s an artist of sorts, and we know the narrator initially enjoys his deceptions, which demonstrate both his savvy and his freedom from conventional prohibitions. Even once the extent of his cynicism becomes clear, she grudgingly respects his ‘manipulative insincerity’ as ‘a fair response to the way the world was’ (108). But that willingness to exploit human foibles in order to express a deeper ‘truth’ is clearly indistinguishable from the motivations of a troll.

Like Felix, our narrator has an astute understanding of social typologies and has honed her tone of ‘bratty knowingness’ as a blogger on a website that ‘had once been good’, but now churns out the same shallow commentary produced by ‘other websites that had also been good’ (67). Her instrumental approach to emotions, and to experience in general, is pretty much endemic in the culture around her, a disease of the internet. It has bred a kind of disassociation, with emotion experienced at a distance, and analysed for its utility as a blog, a joke, a tweet. Irony is a key part of that distance – a way of signalling sophistication and nonchalance. At one point, ‘frustrated and teary’ at the failure of others to ‘get’ her, she asks what the point is of making jokes, and the doubleness of her exasperated enquiry asks both why bother, given no one appreciates the sophistication at work, and also what actual purpose do they serve. Do jokes help? The answer would seem to be no.

‘Getting it’ is paramount in this context, but the phrase suggests a debased form of comprehension – a demand for immediate gratification rather than the slog of ongoing interpretation. The novel is very preoccupied with interpretation, which, in the online era, is more often than not reduced to a series of hot takes. Part of Oyler’s resistance to presenting a definitive portrait of either Felix or the narrator is a way of enacting a resistance to easy interpretation, but evasion is understood simultaneously as an ethical stance – a way of resisting simplistic classification and consumption – and a pathology, one which includes the plausible deniability bestowed by irony.

There’s a risk of making the book sound aridly theoretical and diagnostic, and while many commentators rightly see its low wattage affect as illustrative of the narrator’s alienation, that ambivalent affect is not only pathological, but also a more rigorous kind of emotional notation. The emotion is there, but muted. Because, while irony is a problem, melodrama and the sentimental must still be guarded against. As a critic, Oyler is keenly aware of contemporary efforts towards counteracting what Rachel Cusk sees as the ‘fake and embarrassing’ qualities of traditional fiction, and in Fake Accounts, the comforts and satisfactions of traditional fiction (the clearly delineated emotion, the comprehensive information about character, the guidance about interpretation) are withheld just as they are in life. Oyler has said that she was trying to achieve ‘a realistic treatment of vulnerability and pride as they actually manifest. Most often, hurt feelings linger and then just sort of dissipate; desires feel unfulfilled even when they’re fulfilled’ (‘Writing to Delight’). This ‘realer’ realism is also there in the attention to the economics of relationships; the power struggles and the continual accounting (the tallying of scores about attractiveness, the degrees of reciprocity). It’s not pretty, but like the internet and the behaviours it has spawned, it requires attention.

Cusk, Rachel. ‘Aftermath was creative death. I was heading into total silence’, Interviewed by Kate Kellaway, The Guardian, 24 Aug 2014

Kitamura, Katie, ‘Fake Accounts’ Examines the Alluring Trap of Our Online Personas, The New York Times, 1 Feb 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/01/books/review/lauren-oyler-fake-accounts.html

Nussbaum, Emily, ‘How Jokes Won the Election’, The New Yorker, 23 Jan 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/23/how-jokes-won-the-election

Oyler, Lauren. Fake Accounts. London: 4th Estate, 2021.

Oyler, Lauren, ‘Writing to Delight: Lauren Oyler Interviewed by Mary South,’ BOMB, 10 Feb. 2021

© Emma Sullivan 2021.

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