Review: Anthony Domestico on Lauren Oyler

For as long as book reviews have existed, there have been complaints about their tendency to declare chaff wheat and wheat very manna from heaven. In 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised.” Hardwick didn’t solve reviewing’s praise problem. In 2019, Christian Lorentzen still found “a class of journalists drunk on the gush.” 

Getting drunk on the gush isn’t a problem for the critic Lauren Oyler. While she writes well about writers she loves, Oyler has made her name through critical spleen. One review opened, “I have always hated Roxane Gay’s writing, though I often agree with her, sort of, inasmuch as that is possible.” In another essay, she declared that Jia Tolentino “maintains a smugly retrograde understanding of the mind that would be funny if it weren’t so offensive.” Oyler’s reviews are always intelligent, never boring, delighting in their own meanness.

Critical acuity doesn’t always translate to fiction—see: Harold Bloom’s The Flight to Lucifer—though the transition can work. Apologies to those whom Oyler has savaged: her debut novel, Fake Accounts, deserves praise. Exhibiting style and dark wit, it’s of the moment (Trump, Twitter, and Tinder, the whole gang’s here) but not reducible to it. Oyler represents interiority, the act of thinking rather than the stability of thought, in all its twisting, turning glory.

Fake Accounts opens in 2016. Trump has just been elected. For Oyler’s characters “consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon,” and this state of affairs offers the excuse to do what they’d like to do anyway: “the idea that everything was totally pointless now was seductive, particularly as a mantra you could take advantage of when it suited you and abandon when life actually started to feel alarming.” In an Elizabeth Bowen novel, such recklessness might lead to the opening of a trove of old letters. In Fake Accounts, the young unnamed narrator—living in Brooklyn, writing for a lifestyle website when not scrolling through Twitter—“decided to snoop through [her] boyfriend’s phone while he was asleep.” She finds something shocking: Felix, apparently stable if excessively guarded, has been posting conspiracy theories from an anonymous Instagram account. 

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After the discovery, the narrator tacks between recrimination and justification, thinking but not acting, her messy consciousness unfolding in elegant, controlled sentences. She will confront and dump Felix; just not yet. His indecipherability puzzles and attracts her: “he was like one of those people who look different in every photo, whom you need to meet several times before you can recognize them in the street, except instead of his face it was his personality that always evaded what you’d had in mind.” Their relationship is sustained by an erotics of interpretation. The fake account offers more material to be deciphered.

Narratively speaking, lies make things happen, and we expect Felix’s deceptions to drive the plot. Another narrative engine soon fires up. While half-heartedly attending the Women’s March in Washington, DC, the narrator receives a call from her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend’s mother informing her that Felix has died in an accident while biking upstate. She skips the funeral (and thinks, in endlessly looping sentences, about why she does so) and moves to Berlin, where she first met Felix. She joins a dating site, turned on by the challenge of creating a persona: “apparently saying much but actually saying nothing at all, but actually saying something true via the inaccessibly flirty style.” If Felix led a double life, the narrator does him better: “I decided to go on a series of dates assuming personalities based on the twelve signs of the zodiac.” In a world dominated by social media, selfhood becomes a work of art—that is to say, a lie; the pleasures offered by dating are aesthetic and intellectual, not physical or emotional. We wonder if the narrator’s fakery will be uncovered or Felix’s mysteries revealed. The plot wanders but still, somehow, feels suspenseful. 

Fake Accounts is a critic’s novel, self-reflective about form and precedent. A character mentions Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, unsurprising given that the Venn diagram of Lerner and Oyler’s interests—selfhood, performance, authenticity—is almost a circle. A friend declares that the narrator’s life resembles a recent novel. Unnamed, it’s Katie Kitamura’s A Separation. Like Oyler the critic, the narrator skewers writerly pretension: “I spent a lot of time with admittedly OK writers, and around them self-awareness seemed like the only personality trait that could not be learned, no matter how much it could be mimicked.” She describes why we’re on Twitter as the world burns: “Time spent this way was worse, but at least it was faster.”

In a few asides, the narrator criticizes the vogue for fragmented, Tweet-like narratives. (She then imitates this style for forty pages.) The narrator doesn’t mention Jenny Offill specifically, though Oyler did in an essay for The New Yorker. There, she claimed that Offill “ignores the strength of the novel as a mode, which is its ability to reflect a mind that is contained in a body that exists in the world, a mind that may be hyperaware of its time but is not actually trapped in it.” Oyler captures the period details of the Brooklyn scene (stressful yoga sessions; terrible literary parties; political virtue-signaling) to perfection. But better, and appealing even to those disengaged from such an existence, is Oyler’s attentiveness to the mental contortions of life as we live it. Fiction isn’t sociology, and Fake Accounts does what Virginia Woolf, another critic-novelist, said fiction should: it represents the mind at work and at play, conveying the “semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the book critic for Commonweal. He is the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.

Book notes
Earlier this month The New York Times magazine published a lengthy consideration of the work of classicist Dan-el Padilla, consulting many scholars across the field, about the relevance of the study of the Greek and Roman classics in our conflicted moment. Padilla is Black and Dominican, having grown up in New York City homeless shelters and gone on to receive degrees in classics from Princeton, Oxford, and Stanford. His work considers how study of the classics has been an instrument for perpetuating elites across the centuries, a legacy that has recently surfaced as classical symbolism appeared among the trappings of White supremacists. It’s one of the most thoughtful considerations I’ve seen of the challenge posed to the study of the humanities by the struggle to end racism. The author, Rachel Poser, writes that Padilla “can no longer find pride or comfort in having used [academic advancement] to bring himself out of poverty. He permits himself no such relief. ‘Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,’ Padilla has said, ‘requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.’” He is considering going into politics.

Shelly Romero and Adriana M. Martínez Figueroa, meanwhile, writing recently for Publishers Weekly, revisited a historic 1995 essay by James Ledbetter in the Village Voice on “The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing,” finding not much to have changed with the exception of some increase in candor about the dispiriting figures. One theme that emerges from recent stories about efforts to achieve racial parity in publishing is sidestepping the industry’s powerful middlemen. The Biloxi Sun Herald reported earlier this month that LaTracey Drux, who founded the Black Authors Rock coaching and publishing company in 2017 to help Black authors break into the publishing industry, was opening a pop-up bookstore at Biloxi’s Keesler Air Force Base. Drux said, “I have found especially during the pandemic that a lot of people have realized that their stories matter, that their voices matter, and that they need to learn which ways they can effectively tell their story and get paid by it.” Ashley Marie Booker Knight told KCEN TV that she opened her Texas bookstore, Words Unite, after trying to market her own books directly to venders, saying “we lose large deductions from mainstream publishing companies or distributors” and wanting to create a direct connection to readers for her fellow independent authors. In Oklahoma City, Kenyetta Richard and Courtney Strickland of Belle Publishing opened their own bookstore Belle Books Boutique & More in September, giving away Thanksgiving dinners a few weeks later and establishing a children’s book club with the nearby Ralph Ellison Foundation that offers each member a book and a snack at every meeting. They began Belle Publishing, a publishings-services company, to serve and support local African American self-published authors. “The pandemic has been beneficial to our company,” they told a Publishers Weekly report on Black bookselling for the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, “because people have more time on their hands, and this idle time has allowed [authors] to think about publishing unfinished projects. We’ve picked up fifteen clients.” Evisa Gallman, manager of the Black-owned store Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, told Publishers Weekly that the store owes part of its success to “an ability to source books that are not always carried by large publishers and distributors.”

Lily Mendoza opened her bookstore, Bird Cage Book Store and Mercantile, in Rapid City, South Dakota, after many of the customers of her distribution company, which brought Native American books to school book fairs and other sites across the Northern Plains, asked her if she had a bookstore. Readers come to her for books they “can’t find anywhere else, especially if they’re interested in Native American culture and history,” and and she makes a point of sourcing for her store from regional native women’s cottage industries. Romero and Figuero, in their update of Ledbetter’s piece, note that major publishers’ diversifying efforts have included a willingness to consider unagented submissions from writers of color. Publishing behemoth Penguin Random House recently announced a program, in tandem with the organization We Need Diverse Books, to coach authors in revising and submitting their work and building their audience—going straight to aspiring authors, apparently, and cutting out the intercession of the usually obligatory agent. Notably, Amazon’s self-publishing results were the only book-related feature of the blockbuster year-end earnings they reported alongside Jeff Bezos’s retirement, after having founded the whole company on bookselling. Even as journalists strike out on their own with platforms like our very own Substack, authors, especially those historically frozen out of the industry’s controlling elites, may be finding ways to work around traditional paths of advancement an increasingly consolidated industry.

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