Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
On vulnerability, ephemerality, and how the novel’s artifice is the best thing about it.
Fiction has always been a haven for characters who are liars, con artists, and sociopaths. In other words, where particular psychologies can be presented for general engagement. There’s a pleasure in examining how these minds work without real-world consequences. And there must be pleasure for the author, too, in seeing readers respond to such a mind, who believes when the character is lying vs. telling the truth, or being vulnerable versus being performative. I’m a little jealous of Lauren Oyler—not just because she has written a novel that’s extremely smart, funny, and slyly insightful, but because I imagine there’s going to be great enjoyment in store for her in observing how her highly unreliable characters are talked about, when they are believed or not, and why.
Oyler’s debut novel, Fake Accounts (Catapult) follows a woman who discovers that her boyfriend Felix is a popular online conspiracy theorist after snooping through his phone late one night. Then, before she can dump him for it, he dies, and she’s left trying to figure out who he really is in the aftermath. Felix lies all the time out of boredom, sometimes for no discernible reason. But so does the protagonist. She acknowledges several of her lies, which might also make it easier for her to lie to the reader and not acknowledge when she’s doing so, leaving us to figure her out, too. What’s perhaps the most satisfying in these pages, though, is how the artifice of the novel is put on display, how structure and grammar are toyed with and manipulated. Lauren and I corresponded about Fake Accounts over email this winter.
Mary South I’ve admired your criticism for a long time, so I was pretty excited when I heard you had a novel coming out. How did the idea for it come about?
Laura OylerI wish I knew where ideas came from—I would move there. I know I really wanted to write about the kind of person who is totally charming and charismatic, whom you can talk to for hours, and then they leave and it feels like they could have been lying about everything they told you. I also wanted to write about the experience of social media, which dovetails nicely with the previous aim: it’s full of ostensibly charming people who are clearly full of shit, but it’s really hard to tell why they’ve gone down this path, how they came to occupy their shit so fully. I also wanted to write about a contemporary romantic relationship—to do “women’s fiction,” basically—in a semi-maximalist, complicated style with lots of humor, without any personal growth or a happy ending or stupid things like that.
MS Autofiction tends to blur the authorial self and the fictional protagonist. Perhaps it’s also just in the nature of this project—the exploration of social media deceits and false selves presented to others—but I felt there was almost a dare in this novel to blur that distinction even further. For example, there’s a passage where the protagonist describes her Twitter profile picture (“my hair completely covers my eyes and nose, representing me as a poutily sexy girl without a face”) and this is exactly what your real Twitter profile picture looks like. How did you intend to play with reader assumptions?
LO It’s definitely a dare. It has the effect of neutralizing the “Is this autobiographical?” impulse in the reader; the book makes very clear that this one thing being “true” doesn’t make the rest of it “true.” Because of course the overarching plot isn’t autobiographical—no ex-boyfriends were harmed in the making of this novel.
The commentary on autofiction relates to ideas about anticipation and prediction, which play a big role in the book on different levels, from the first paragraph. We live in a time when people think having this unprecedented access to the world means they know everything, and so much punditry is dedicated to predicting what will happen in politics based on that knowledge. But of course almost everyone is wrong anyway, or they’re right in a bizarre way they couldn’t have anticipated, or their being right does little to change the course of things. The narrator often refers to the reader’s expectations or anticipates what she thinks the reader’s reaction is going to be, and one of the ways she does that is to say, “I know you think I’m Lauren Oyler, the name on the front of the book I’m narrating.”
Self-reference works best when it’s funny, and is present in the book, but it isn’t the point of the book, and ideally it doesn’t spawn any sort of pseudo-intellectual “woah…makes you think” arguments; it’s an inside joke for people who have expectations for the book based on who I am. (To be clear, I’m not saying there are tons of those people—I think all authors have to contend with this now. If I’m reading your book I’m going to Google you, period. Even if you don’t have a social media presence, that says something about you.) You don’t need to know about my Twitter account to enjoy the book—or even to enjoy that particular joke—but you could figure it out if you wanted to. (Again, by Googling.) It’s a little conspiratorial in that way.
MS The voice is wryly funny, hyperaware, and yet also disaffected. At times, she almost seems embarrassed for herself and for everybody else. I’m thinking of the long description of the Women’s March, which gives the sense that one is involved in something important, history-making, that is simultaneously succumbing to self-parody—all the pink pussy hats. In a recent essay in Bookforum, you cite Rachel Cusk, how she has described traditional fiction as “fake and embarrassing.” Is a voice that is sort of embarrassed for everyone the most honest? Or does constant documentation make the artifice of everything more pronounced, especially those things seemingly genuine?
LO Honesty in this context is relative, right? I’m sure there are plenty of people who can, and have, described the Women’s March in completely loving terms, and for them that would be totally honest. I don’t think they would be right, but they would be honest. From my perspective, I didn’t want to deny or privilege either the embarrassment or the history-making quality of the event, which seemed to me both pretty anodyne and overwhelmingly big. In the case of the Women’s March, and social media in general, I think you have to incorporate the compulsion to relentlessly document and return to and reframe events into your idea of “reality,” not try to distinguish between the documentation and the real. It seems to me that Cusk in particular uses documentation, or at least the appearance of documentation, to get out of the “fake and embarrassing” problem. But we know documentation isn’t objective, and she’s certainly not.
MS Despite the coolness of the voice, I thought there was perhaps a vulnerability underneath it. There’s the sense that the time invested in something belies actual investment.
LO Thank you for noticing that. It’s hard to get the right amount of vulnerability without succumbing to the temptation for a big tearful lesson, but that’s what I wanted—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. I think the narrator’s repeated fantasies of being caught lying in some way speak to this—she wants to be known but feels that there are vanishingly few opportunities for that to genuinely happen in her life, that people aren’t willing to do the work to know each other. So she turns to “testing” people, and they always disappoint her, even though she knows she’s rigging the game. And she develops this sort of mimetic relationship to Felix in part because she wants to understand him. He seems to have no vulnerability or desire to be understood; he only wants to be paid attention to. Wanting to understand is also a vulnerable position to be in, and he knows that very well.
So of course none of the narrator’s schemes are fulfilling, but at least they give her something to do—and she needs some way to organize her time. I agree with you that the way we spend our time is an expression of “truth,” even if we spend our time in pursuit of something entirely “fake” or “inauthentic.” What both the narrator and Felix use to manipulate everyone around them is the impulse to interpret—what does it mean to spend your time tricking and alienating everyone around you? They create uncertainty about their motives, their identities, whatever, and it allows them to get away with all sorts of stuff.
MSIt seems like any identity claim or structure you establish for a relationship is an artifice. For example, Felix doesn’t want to state anything definitive about himself but when pressed will admit he’s straight. (The protagonist funnily adds, “which he was.”) The reason he gives for this shiftiness is that if you change your mind later, you essentially make yourself a liar. Later, when the protagonist is online dating, she meets a man who practices “Relationship Anarchy,” wherein you don’t have expectations of anyone in a dating situation. She finds this absurd, and it’s again very funny when he’s frustrated she won’t commit to total non-commitment with him. As flawed as self-professions or commitment might be, don’t they at least allow the possibility of intimacy?
LO There’s no shortcut to intimacy, which develops from letting yourself be interpreted over a period of time, not from making declarations about yourself or your commitments. (And from doing that in return.) This is why self-awareness becomes exhausting after a certain point—other people are like, “OK, when do I get a turn?” You can’t have a relationship in which both people are just making declarations to each other back and forth until they die. Yet it’s a commonly held belief among liberals right now that if I make a statement about myself, you have to believe it. You can’t question it or interpret it. You have to accept my idea of myself. In part, this is what both Felix and the narrator are responding to—they’re saying, “OK, fine, you don’t want me to know you; you can’t know me either. Here’s a ridiculous character I came up with. Deal with it.” It’s really depressing. I see things like “Relationship Anarchy” as a more earnest response to this same situation. The narrator feels a little sympathetic to that guy, because he ultimately wants the same thing everyone else wants. He’s just totally misguided and annoying about it.
MS Is there also a tension between fakeness that’s playful and fakeness that’s damaging? For example, very early on, the protagonist recounts that Felix took her out for dinner and lied to the waiter that they were celebrating her recent acceptance to a PhD program. There’s champagne. It seems like a fun shared moment in the relationship. But when she discovers his conspiracy theory Instagram, that’s a betrayal.
LO Yes, and I think this speaks to your next question as well. Lying to a waiter about your life is a proportional response to the ephemerality of the exchange; no one’s harmed by that, as long as you’re not trying to embarrass the waiter, and indeed by engaging in that kind of play, the couple’s white lie might even make the waiter’s evening slightly less tedious. That’s also why Felix lies to the narrator about his life when they first meet—he thinks he’ll never see her again. It truly doesn’t matter; it makes the evening go by faster. But once he starts using the game to forestall intimacy, all those fun, harmless memories become really painful.
MS The section titles also draw attention to the artifice of the novel’s construction. They’re titled: “Beginning,” “Backstory,” “Middle (Something Happens),” “Middle (Nothing Happens),” “Climax,” and “End.” Even on the micro level, sentences like this one delighted me grammatically: “A drunk coworker had once let me know that I’d established myself as a somewhat retrograde cynic, a toxic presence in the office but ultimately safe from firing because, among other skills, I was one of only two people on staff who knew how semicolons worked; my leaving was a wash.” To what degree did you want to comment on the artificiality of the novel’s form?
LO I was aiming to delight! It’s nice to be delighted by little details like that. I think you have that throughout your collection, too—elements that show you’re actually thinking of the reader and not just yourself. I want anyone who reads my book to have a good time. The novel’s artifice is the best thing about it. (By that I mean The Novel, not Fake Accounts. The best thing about Fake Accounts is the semicolons.) It isn’t trying to deceive; it’s trying to do the opposite. We now all know the novel is something that’s made—that idea is fully integrated into our understanding of the novel and of art in general. I’m not making a truth claim, and the reader knows that, which is what gives them the power to interpret what I’m saying. It’s a reciprocal exchange; you give me your time and energy, I give you the possibility of entertainment, the opportunity to see the world a new way, the power to critique, whatever. I wanted the structure to emphasize that relationship between the reader and the author, and the reader and the book, to show that some artifice has a point, that what is so good about this relationship is that it allows for reciprocity.
This also goes back to the question about self-reference: by establishing that we exist in the same “reality”—in which someone wrote a book comprised of some portion of truth and fiction, you are now reading it, you could read its reviews and look up its author online, you might have purchased it from Amazon or a bookstore—we can be “on the same page,” (ha) and start to look at more difficult questions. The people who try to say that these things are not relevant to criticism, or who dismiss writers writing about writing and publishing as inside baseball, are truly kidding themselves. It’s all folded in. If you are not merely in the business of entertaining people but also in the business of saying something true about life and making a work of art, the conditions under which it’s produced and distributed are important.
MS In the middle of Fake Accounts, there’s a good forty pages parodying the fragmented style that’s been popular recently. I was impressed by the merging of the critical and the fictional there. How has your work as a critic influenced you as a novelist?
LO Many of my ideas, particularly the formal experiments and stylistic flourishes, developed in response to writing criticism and thinking a lot about contemporary literature, where there was (is) a lot of stuff happening that I just don’t like. The standard advice is to write the book you want to read, and writing criticism sets you up for that really well, because it allows you to create a sort of negative image of what you might want to do—not like that, not like that, definitely not like that. Ideally you then fill in the negative space with something positive. (Though not positive in the cheerful or optimistic sense.) There are so many clichés at work in the world; I think many authors must not realize that some of their work is so derivative. Or maybe they just don’t care. Clearly I’m very haunted by ambiguous motives.
Another thing about writing criticism, for magazines in particular, is that you feel sort of limited, particularly stylistically, to what the editor/publication will allow for their audience; I don’t often feel very free while I’m doing it, even if that’s mostly a matter of preemptive, anticipatory limitation and not something the editor is necessarily doing. So I wanted to be able to do some criticism within the novel, too, in a more holistic and playful way than I would end up doing for a magazine. I think I get so mad about bad books because I really appreciate the relative freedom a book, and especially a novel, offers, and I don’t like to see people waste it.
MS Perhaps this is cheating, bringing up another recent interview in this interview, but I read the conversation between you and Sam Jaffe Goldstein in The End of the World Review. I was really taken with what you said both about how literary fiction needs protecting as well as the trickery of marketing copy, how it can distort or sort of reduce a book’s meaning. I remember when Sam Lipsyte was promoting The Fun Parts, and he said something along the lines of: “Why these stories are grouped in a collection, what links them together, is that I wrote all of them.” I loved that; there was a sort of resistance of facile meaning.
Sorry if this is venturing into more of a comment-than-a-question territory, but you say you feel animated by the something you’ll never figure out but keep trying to move toward; I see that in this book. What kind of fundamental tension were you trying to explore in Fake Accounts?
LO Part of what I wanted to get across in the book is the way the internet reveals the continuity of, uh, everything, so I understand and even hope that people will make connections between things that are available online, that have my name on them or don’t, and my novel. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with popularity or selling things, but there is almost always actually something wrong with that stuff. Obviously, I’m trying to sell my book; I want tons of people to buy it, and I have it pretty easy because I can say it’s about a woman who discovers her boyfriend is an anonymous conspiracy theorist and add SEX, FEMINISM, RELATIONSHIPS, THE INTERNET, POLITICS, so I haven’t been too terribly conflicted about this.
More generally, the problem is that if you even suggest just a whiff of a category, readers will immediately expect something that falls into that category, and ignore the elements that make it unique. I struggle with how much that really matters, but the fact that literary fiction doesn’t sell the way it used to suggests to me that it does matter. I tend to think you could build a bunch of different audiences if you were more honest about what’s in the books and who they’re actually for. If it weren’t my job and I were just a reasonably intelligent person living my life, I don’t know that I’d read much contemporary fiction; there is more than enough reliably great stuff from the past. If it weren’t my job to be able to tell within a page or two which “luminous” books are probably going to be crap and which are going to be good, I’d probably be constantly disappointed.
As for the fundamental tension… it’s probably something to do with individual agency and its limits, what happens when one’s choices hit the wall of another person’s choices. But I don’t know. Ask me when I’m 70.
MS On the matter of unresolved tension, there’s a scene near the end of the novel where an acquaintance from Berlin asks the protagonist if she’s ever been sexually assaulted, and when she says she has, this acquaintance wants her to provide details and answer in a sort of standard way. She doesn’t; she gives her a much more nuanced answer.
She asks, “Had she ever met a male feminist? The kind of guy…whose obvious belief that there’s some trauma at the center of your being makes him so preemptively sensitive to your theoretical difference that he assumes you are unfathomable?” I think one of the potential pitfalls of the Me Too movement, say, is the desire for an easy healing narrative. Or that you could come forward about it, and it could still mess up your life.
It’s an extreme case, but I think of how Christine Blasey Ford had to go into hiding with her family after her testimony. I wonder about the room that’s there to have complex feelings about it, as this character does. Or to react to it in a way that doesn’t fit the acceptable paradigm of how women are supposed to react or heal in the aftermath. Is the novel pushing against easy narratives, as an objective?
LO It’s interesting—everyone who’s asked about this seems to take that story to be “true” within the context of the novel, even though the narrator is at the peak of her pathological lying at this point in the book. The fact that she gives such a nuanced answer makes her believable, but what I wanted to emphasize is that the reader will never be able to “know” if she’s telling the truth, just as the acquaintance will never be able to “know.” The idea that she might “own the story” is revealed to be ridiculous, because the story can’t be possessed, by the narrator or by the reader. (Or by me—I’m not going to J.K. Rowling it and reveal the “true” backstory of this character in ten years. I don’t actually know either.)
So the answer to your question is: yes, the comfortable narrative is not just that a woman has been harmed and needs to heal in this prescribed, almost stereotypically emotional way, but also that the woman is always going to be a good representative of Women and Feminism. I’m also not trying to say you have to trust her about this one thing even though she’s extremely untrustworthy. You don’t. I couldn’t ask you to do that. This is another example of a case where it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter if she’s lying: as she says, a man having sex with a woman when she doesn’t want him to is actually not that hard to understand. She doesn’t want to live her life acting like a politician, having to be careful of all the implications of everything she says; she wants to be able to live as a person. She’s not in a courtroom or, as she says, having an argument with a conservative.
Your story “You Will Never Be Forgotten” does this in a different, maybe opposite, way, but it’s very impressive: you manage to show that the character has clearly been wronged, by a clearly “bad” person, and that she is very damaged by it, but she responds in a really strange, complicated way that doesn’t allow the reader to come to a nice conclusion about what’s happened. The circumstances of your stories are pretty extreme; the characters are clearly delineated, yet the lifelike complication shows through.
MS Thank you so much for the kind words about my stories.
On the other hand, sort of related to the earlier question about time investment, I thought there might be an argument that things that are potentially deep or unfathomable—Felix, for example—are actually just empty. His whole project seems to resist understanding, but after a while I wondered if there was just nothing to be had there. Sometimes is there just no deeper meaning?
LO For sure. Particularly with stuff that happens online, the dumbest, most basic explanation is often the right one, but it’s so hard to admit that having just spent hours and hours thinking about it.
Fake Accounts is available for purchase here.
Mary South is the author of You Will Never Be Forgotten, longlisted for the PEN/Bingham Prize for a Debut Story Collection. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Guernica, NOON, and elsewhere.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.