Can A Novel Capture How Badly The Internet Has Broken Our Brains?

One of the most demoralizing aspects of spending half of my time on social media is that it makes me worse company for myself. In search of good posts, and lured by the prospect of finding my own occasional posts deemed good themselves, I willingly bathe my brain in the poisonous slurry of bad tweets, subtweets, thirst traps and indecipherable memes.

The effects of this on my psyche are those that most people report. I am consumed by desire for better clothes, better home decor, better jokes, better ideas to present online. When I open my mouth to talk to my husband over dinner, what comes out are smugly informed tick-tocks of insignificant dramas he doesn’t care about (bean dad, iodized salt). When I’m alone, I kill time wondering whether certain scathing subtweets are about me, or if not, whether they indict me nonetheless. When I post myself, every punctuation mark creates an agony of indecision, and I am embarrassed by either the attention paid or withheld. I don’t like spending time with my brain when it’s like this: narcissistic, defensive, trivial. 

This is one of the great challenges in addressing social media in fiction; it hardly sounds stimulating to read about characters strategically composing a post with the right number of question marks or considering the best dunks on the day’s Twitter main character. It reflects a part of our life that feels wasteful of time and energy, that tends to leave us feeling itchy and alienated, both from others and ourselves. In two almost mirror-image novels, critic Lauren Oyler and poet Patricia Lockwood have shouldered the task of turning the particular brain poisoning acquired online into literature. Both books — Oyler’s relentlessly wordy satire “Fake Accounts” and Lockwood’s deeply felt, fragmented novel “No One Is Talking About This” — are dazzling, devastatingly funny and sharply observed accounts of life on and around social media. They’re also case studies in how difficult it is to write fiction that gives us real insight into our brain-parasite-like relationship with social media without giving us the same bone-deep sense of self-loathing and futility as six hours of scrolling Twitter.

Narrated by a nameless young woman who shares biographical details with Oyler — a stint working as a blogger for an edgy digital media company in New York, a stint living in Berlin, literary ambitions, etc. — “Fake Accounts” is a novel about how we shape our personas, online and off, and become neurotic, diminished creatures with no real self to call our own. 

The specter of Oyler’s public persona — specifically, her often-brutal book reviews which tend to go viral in proportion to exactly how brutal they are — inevitably hangs over her debut novel, the critic made vulnerable to criticism herself. She doesn’t avoid this on the page; her narrator explains that she hopes to not only understand herself better through writing, but to “enchant an audience, promote certain principles I feel are lacking in contemporary literature, interpret events both world-historical and interpersonal (perhaps at the same time), etc.” If it would be impossible to separate Lauren Oyler, the critic, from the narrator and main character of Lauren Oyler’s novel, why not simply address it head-on and control the narrative?

Addressing anything, however, is a fraught act in “Fake Accounts.” The novel begins with confrontations avoided: It opens shortly after the 2016 election, with a sketch of the mood of apocalyptic doom that has overtaken the narrator’s left-liberal New York City milieu, a common acceptance that it was too late to save the world. “We don’t want to die, but we also don’t want to do anything challenging, such as what living requires,” the narrator reflects. “The end of the world would let us have our cake and eat it, too.”

Meanwhile, she has become suspicious of her boyfriend, Felix, and his habit of sleeping with his phone under his pillow. While he’s asleep, she goes through his phone and finds evidence not of infidelity, but that he is running a popular conspiracy theorist Instagram. Though shocked, she decides not to confront him right away, preferring to luxuriate in having the dominant position — knowing his secret, when he doesn’t know she knows, and mentally preparing for a breakup he doesn’t anticipate. The planned breakup is still looming when she gets a phone call from Felix’s rich, distant mother: Felix has died in an accident while biking. The narrator is nonplussed by this, both relieved that she doesn’t have to dump him and unsure how to process her position as a presumptive grieving girlfriend.

Her examinations of this are more clinical than emotional: “Was there something to be sad about? I had been with a person; I had come to see him as despicable; twinges of doubt about that assessment were chalked up to memories and hormones and ultimately redoubled my certainty of his contemptibility; now we were no longer together.” She thinks disdainfully of a photo of a pink neon sign reading “FEELINGS” that a coworker had used as a social media background, which she finds reminiscent of the trend of publicly over-emoting over small things like celebrity crushes. “Now that I had actual feelings,” she thinks, “I could say for certain the whole trend was absurd. Feelings are nothing like a pink neon sign at all.” Hers, at least, are not so vivid; every feeling in “Fake Accounts” is wrapped in so many layers of self-awareness and posturing, I’d be hard-pressed to identify an emotion not primarily rooted in, or expressed as, embarrassment or annoyance.

Something is evidently brewing inside, however. Shortly after Felix’s death, she spontaneously quits her blogging job and moves to Berlin, where they originally met — she as a tourist, he as an American expat. Once there, she makes half-hearted attempts to sightsee, make friends, find work, and date online; mostly, she lies in bed, staring at social media apps on her phone and trying to trace the relationships between the people she follows or post things that earn her some cheap likes.

At one point, she remembers a childhood incident in which she mimicked the main character of “Harriet the Spy” by filling a notebook with nasty observations about a friend, Kayla, and then intentionally leaving the notebook for Kayla to find. When Kayla’s mother called to report that her daughter was in tears, she panicked: “I had ceded my thoughts in exchange for becoming the focus of attention, and now I had less control over who I was to other people.” It’s an almost too-perfect description of the work of a combative critic like Oyler. Overtly judging people is actually an act with a certain vulnerability to it: It invites not just delighted attention, but dislike, social censure and scrutiny in return. 

And, more saliently to most of us, this is a description of the attention economy of Twitter. In Berlin, out of sync with her usual Twitter cohort, she can’t even waste time there as easily as before. She keeps seeking the attention she gets online, though she knows it’s “illusory, inspired by my virtual persona and not myself.” She misses the “pathetic project” of pursuing this illusory attention. Online, it’s almost a game: Male followers are drawn to her pouty photo, hair tumbling over her eyes and nose; she, like other successful posters, tweets unsophisticated jokes and categorical opinions with an air of assumed confidence. Any nuance or messiness falls into the gaps between the 280 characters and the photo captions. 

When there’s a miscalculation, though — when a post goes wrong, when you reach for the attention and accidentally reveal an ugly part of yourself, or simply when you’re read ungenerously or out of context — the fallout is intense. “Fake Accounts” is presented as a text being authored by the main character, who is making her audience privy to the running inner monologue of an attempt to outrun critique. She occasionally pauses to explain her motives, admit that she has glossed over their complexity, or imagine the reactions of her ex-boyfriends, a sort of sporadic Greek chorus. “You did not look down in horror, the ex-boyfriends are saying, shaking their heads,” she interpolates at one point. “You were not horrified.” She’s exquisitely aware that her narration will not — perhaps should not — be taken at face value.

Faced with such a punitive audience, who among us wouldn’t become flinchy, guarded and prone to apologizing in advance, overqualifying our opinions, or pretending we’re somewhat different and more likable than we actually are? In some of the funniest scenes, the narrator of “Fake Accounts” makes this calculation during in-person conversations, carefully modulating her tone to push back on ardently pro-Clinton co-workers by bringing up the “intersection of class with race and gender and sexuality,” then adding a conciliatory “but she does have to deal with a lot of shit,” a bit of accepted wisdom she clearly either doesn’t believe or care about. Most of us find it easier to be liked, even by those we find somewhat contemptible.

If there’s a morality in the novel, though, it’s against that evasion of judgment and confrontation. Oyler’s narrator professes a distaste for the misleadingly simple thoughts presented on social media, all the complexity pared away in favor of something punchy and shareable. A significant chunk of the book is framed by her dislike for contemporary novels written in fragments, both because “in its attempts to reflect the world as a sequence of distinct and clearly formed ideas, it ran counter to how reality actually worked,” and because the fragmentation of modern life it’s meant to reflect is “extremely stressful.” 

“Why would I want to make my book like Twitter?” she reflects. “If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.”

As a display of the shortcomings of this form, the narrator chooses to write a chunk of the novel in fragments — almost immediately castigating herself for writing longer and denser chunks, spinning complexity and cohesion out of disconnected observations. “Fake Accounts” is written against the fragment and the pithy observation, everything picked apart and examined rather than left to speak for itself. This is not any less stressful than a fragmented novel; in fact, “Fake Accounts” is one of the more stressful novels I’ve read lately. It doesn’t reproduce the interrupted flow of life on Twitter, but it does reproduce the mental state induced by it: uneasy, lightly paranoid, claustrophobic, cynical. “Fake Accounts” is exciting for its commitment to considering everything, to never glossing over. But while successful at capturing the misery of life online, it sometimes feels captured by it. A neon sign would be a relief. 

For neon and fragments, however, there’s Lockwood. “No One Is Talking About This” is written entirely in short observations, appropriately for a poet and a masterful tweeter. Lockwood’s main character (the novel is written in close third-person) also shares details with Lockwood’s own persona — she’s from the Midwest, married, and extremely online in the weird Twitter sense, her life fueled by encounters with the stream of outré content that everyone is sharing.

But Lockwood’s subject is less the tortured consideration of self-presentation than it is the interface between user and platform, person and world. Through a collage of images, jokes, news items, video snippets and observations, she zooms in on the immediate relationship her protagonist has with a fictional analog of Twitter called “the portal,” absent the overlying thread of sense-making narrative we tend to impose on our lives and the world. “No One Is Talking About This” observes the social platform as if it’s science fiction rather than mundane fact. “She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway,” the book begins. “Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.” 

It’s as if she’s zoomed in so tightly on a loved one’s face that it looks like an alien landscape; the extreme close-up creates a perceptual distance. The present looks so bizarre and futuristic that it’s almost impenetrable. By more literally replicating the form of the internet, the novel ends up less closely resembling the emotional experience of being online than “Fake Accounts,” stripping away the connective tissue of anxious analysis. Instead, like a child entering the world, we’re presented the sludge of memes and news briefs with a sense of almost mystical wonder.

Like the author, the main character specializes in subversive, comic observations; she’s become somewhat famous for the post “can a dog be twins?” Aside from that, her primary occupation seems to be traveling the world, sitting on panels with other internet-famous people and trying to explain why so many people pay attention to what they do. The more she tries to explain “why it was objectively funnier to spell it ‘sneazing,’” the more ineffable it seems. These scenes are funny but also somewhat frustrating; the answers don’t seem to be there, and there isn’t much interest in trying for them. Her life floats on in a stream of discrete encounters with GIFs of cute animals. “This did not feel like real life, exactly,” she thinks, “but nowadays what did?”

Then something very not online happens: Her sister gets pregnant, then learns late in the pregnancy that her unborn daughter has Proteus syndrome, the life-threatening medical condition John Merrick, the Elephant Man, was believed to have suffered from. Abortion is never broached because of the state’s restrictive laws and their parents’ beliefs.  

The book is cleaved in two by the diagnosis. The real world reasserts itself forcefully. She rushes from a speaking engagement in Vienna back to Ohio, her childhood home, to be with her sister. “Great gap in the thrumming of the knowing of the news,” Lockwood writes. Her perfect synchrony with the portal’s gush of content has faltered; what’s happening on the internet doesn’t seem important anymore. She attends ultrasound appointments with her sister, turns her very-online mode of speaking to the more private purpose of coming to terms with the baby’s diagnosis. (“‘Forgive me for thinking,’ she argued in the shower, ‘that every baby should get to have an ass. Call me old-fashioned, but I happen to believe that a BABY! should get to have an ASS! no matter WHAT!’”) 

Before this happened, her brother had told them about a conversation with a friend, an expecting father with “terrible Internet poisoning.” “Saw my daughter’s tits on the ultrasound. Looked pretty good!” the friend had told him. “Damn, dude, really?” said her brother. “I don’t know how to act,” his friend responded. “I’ve been this way so long, I don’t know how to be anymore.” This is another way the performance of social media fucks us up: We forget how to speak and act in modes that aren’t tailored to the purpose of getting laughs online.

Lockwood hints, too, at the internet’s lack of stakes, a proliferation of political memes divorced from the suffering that makes them necessary. The woman tries to feel her way into embodying the trendy stances: “Every fiber in her being strained. She was trying to hate the police.” Her therapist suggests that she start small and work up to it. But later, when her cop father makes an insensitive comment about abortion, the hatred seems to flow more easily. “When that sentence woke her in the purple part of night, she would tug her phone off the bedside table, post the words eat the police in the portal, wait for it to get sixty-nine likes, then delete it.”

But having a life no longer lived primarily online doesn’t mean leaving the fragmentation behind. Taken away from a state of constant symbiosis with the portal, Lockwood’s heroine finds herself still borne along on a tide of vivid moments and reflexive responses to stimuli. The communal urgency and exhaustion of her family’s life with her niece mirrors, more intensely, the communal urgency and exhaustion of life online. If the baby lived long after birth, the doctors told them, “she would live in her senses. Her fingertips, her ears, her sleepiness and her wide awake, a ripple along the skin wherever she was touched.” These sensory moments are what they all have with her — as in the portal, moments that drift over them and accumulate into something with ineffable weight.

It would be simple to say that what happens in the portal has been exposed as frivolous, a waste of time. But what the novel explores is something more textured than this. The world of the portal is gross, disposable, wasteful of time and thought. It’s also a form of communion with others, a place where we experience each other and the world. The culture that coalesces in the portal is both flattening — “I’ve been this way so long, I don’t know how to be anymore” — and redemptive in its particularity. It makes us something other than mere archetypes. When her sister at times seems to disappear into her maternal role, passionate and endlessly giving, it is her generational quirks that ground her: wearing hot pink to a funeral, assuming an ironic swagger instead of the timeless posture of the weeping mother.

In “No One Is Talking About This,” there’s a visceral sense of the genuine feeling underlying the performance — unironic emotion, raw and unself-conscious, that emerges in response to a baby’s laugh or a loved one’s illness. Where “Fake Accounts” is all head, this novel is mostly heart. When the two novels are read in succession, it’s striking; the bright tang of joy and grief and hilarity in Lockwood’s writing overwhelms. Something does fall between the cracks of the fragments, though: an understanding of how the internet shapes us, beyond the immediate stimulation and the cultural references. It’s a kaleidoscopic flurry, a snowdrift of feelings and references, and the logic of it is largely up to us to decipher — unless we simply wish to lie back and let the sentences fall on our tongues and eyelashes.

Perhaps this is an evasion, a failure on the novel’s part to try to make more sense of things. Oyler’s narrator would likely think so. But it is no less an evasion to withhold any profound emotion; feeling deeply, like thinking critically, is one of those challenges that living requires. Perhaps the greatest challenge we need to master is doing both at the same time. Though both of these novels do a lot very well, they don’t offer this. In all fairness, social media isn’t a great place for that sort of thing.

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