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May 2021 Issue [Reviews]

Sapphires of the Instant

The new internet novels
Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion

Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion


Sapphires of the Instant

The new internet novels

Discussed in this essay:

No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood. Riverhead Books. 224 pages. $25.

Fake Accounts, by Lauren Oyler. Catapult. 272 pages. $26.

I’ve been told by more than one friend that I should get off social media. Not because I’m fighting with people online, but because I’m bad at it. I have hundreds of mysterious Facebook friends from when I was stoned in 2014. My first Twitter handle was @AuntGemmimah, and it took me twenty-four hours to understand why this was a terrible idea. On social media I’m a dabbler, a lurker, a silent voyeur. Going on Twitter feels like putting my head into a giant laundromat dryer full of strangers’ hot takes. Why is Arby’s talking to Microsoft? Who is @AliceFromQueens? This morning (or was it yesterday?) I remember falling down a thread about one-night stands—a man I didn’t know asked his readers whether they’d ever found themselves in the awkward situation of being at a hookup’s house and knowing with dreadful certainty that they needed to GTFO. People recounted brushes with roaches, rats, mottled toilet bowls; one man described hearing his paramour beat her children. I could not look away, even as I found myself wondering, Who are these people? Why are they on my phone?

I’m not alone in my bewilderment. Ambivalence about the utility of social media and its effects on the psyche is the pith of two highly contemporary debut novels, both by authors who are indisputably good at the internet. What exactly does that mean? They’re on it a lot and have put in their ten thousand hours. The internet has entertained and deranged them, and they surf its choppy swells with the confidence of Kelly Slater. But fiction about the internet is tricky. The World Wide Web and its many platforms feel like fizz and ping and quicksand. How do you distill something that resists plot, that’s as fickle and atmospheric as the weather?

Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts was excerpted in The Atlantic; Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This was excerpted in The New Yorker. Both authors have been the subjects of rave reviews, thoughtful interviews, and profiles. On Twitter, Lockwood (94.5K followers) and Oyler (24.6K followers) mix incisive political commentary with jokes, judicious self-promotion, and pictures of fluffy animals (Lockwood’s cat, Miette, is a recurring character). Oyler’s account is bookish and niche. Lockwood’s is a bit looser and wilder. Both are funny (Oyler caustic and grouchy, Lockwood antic and smutty).

Oyler’s book is told from the point of view of a jaundiced insider, but avoids, as the author herself said in an interview, “having the novel reproduce the feeling of being online.” Lockwood’s book, told in an ultra-close third person, is in many ways its opposite: dissonant and fragmented in the manner of Twitter, nuggets of gossip and glosses on the news interspersed with the highly personal, an attempt not only to create what she has called “a slipstream, the way it felt to read the internet, except make it slightly more like literature,” but to show, at the same time, what happens when one is yanked from that slipstream. Both novels are preoccupied with the pathology of being extremely online. How does it distort our self-conception and ability to relate to others? How to square its humor, idiosyncrasy, and spigot of diverting trivia with its toxicity, vapidity, and posturing? The story of the internet seems to be about a magic with diminishing returns, a playground we’ve made grubby and dangerous, an oppressive convenience, a disenchantment. Both books are haunted by this disenchantment, and respond to it in nearly diametric ways.

Oyler is, per her Twitter bio, tall. She is thirty, grew up in Hurricane, West Virginia, and attended Yale, where she felt out of place as a student receiving financial assistance. She then started writing excellent arts coverage for a women’s vertical at Vice and ghostwrote politicians’ memoirs. Already enamored of Berlin, the pace and freedom of it, she came to see it as a respite from the oppressive media hierarchy of New York City. Berlin gave her the cheap rent and too-plentiful time needed to write a novel. Until now, Oyler has been known for her withering reviews of works by writers she thinks are overrated (Sally Rooney, Roxane Gay, Jia Tolentino, Meg Wolitzer, Kristen Roupenian). One of these reviews, of Tolentino, went as viral as it is possible for a book review to go, crashing the creaky London Review of Books site. To be a woman who speaks her mind without caring too much whom she might offend is still infrequent enough among the belles lettres that Oyler brings to mind intimidatingly forthright writers of yore: Elizabeth Hardwick, Dorothy Parker.

It’s seen as a bit embarrassing to attend too closely to autofiction’s porous membrane with real life, but these authors’ biographies and online personalities are inextricably mingled with their novels. The unnamed, first-person narrator of Oyler’s Fake Accounts is a blogger with sharp critical faculties. On vacation in Berlin, she reluctantly agrees to go on a beery bar crawl, a touristy non-adventure she is too cool for. One of the guides, Felix, intrigues her. He’s a fellow American—tall enough, with sexy eyes “that straddled the line between flirtation and mischief, that suggested independent thought.” She’s pleased when he suggests that the two of them splinter off from the lemmings queuing at a bad club and go to a “real bar,” where he showers her with attention.

Was he buttering me up for some kind of obstacle I’d have to slip through? A sexual fetish? . . . I checked my bag when I went to the bathroom to make sure he hadn’t stolen my wallet.

No such luck. What Felix will steal from her, across two years and 272 pages, is stranger and spongier. The morning after their first night together, he offers her his email address, which is an homage to the maniac in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and the first of many mini red flags she will slalom past. When an internet search reveals that he has embroidered the truth about his life (“sentimental bullshit about Italian nannies and dropping out of college”), she emails him to demand an explanation; he says he gets bored of introducing himself ad nauseam to tour groups. Months later they are a couple in New York, where Felix remains frustratingly elusive, vague, and unknowable. Suspicious, the narrator waits until he has fallen asleep and enters the long password to his phone, which she has been memorizing in snippets for weeks. She suspects he is cheating on her, and in a way he is. Despite having told her, soon after they got together, that he’d sworn off social media and deleted the time-suck apps that occupy so much of her attention, it turns out that he has done no such thing. In a folder titled “no,” the narrator finds an Instagram account with the username THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED_, where Felix espouses conspiracy theories (about the collapse of the World Trade Center, chemical contrails, the Illuminati) that have garnered him tens of thousands of followers.

The narrator chooses not to ask Felix about his secret persona and instead to make him pancakes and attend the Women’s March in Washington. We wonder whether she’s conflict-shy, or afraid of Felix now that she knows he harbors a troubling secret, but according to the narrator she is mainly relishing the feeling of superiority she now has over him. She’ll kick him to the curb when she gets back—except he inconveniently dies in a cycling accident upstate. Felix’s mother sends the narrator a thousand dollars so she can fly to L.A. to attend a “celebration of life” in his honor, but she skips it (“as soon as I started to envision the possibility of attending a not-funeral populated by the sort of wide-hatted culture-industry Los Angeles people I suspected his mother would invite I wanted to die myself”), pockets the money, quits her job as a blogger, and, in an act of ambivalent chutzpah, buys a one-way ticket to Berlin: “I hadn’t thought about doing this before, but it felt like the right thing to do.” She is bored regurgitating content for a Vice-like publication, bored by all the virtue-signaling from her anti-Trump milieu. She wants a change of scenery.

In Berlin, she mopes in much the same way she did in Brooklyn, in bed on her phone till her pinkie finger goes numb, though thwarted by the time difference.

I’d gotten used to using people I’d never met, or met a few times, to muffle the sound of time passing without transcendence or joy or any of the good emotions I wanted to experience during my life. . . . We could pretend something good, connection, had come of our turning to technology to deal with boredom, loneliness, rejection, heartbreak, irrational rage, Weltschmerz, ennui, frustration with the writing process. We were all self-centered together, supporting each other as we propped up the social media companies. Suddenly finding myself ahead of everyone, spinning my wheels, with no one to acknowledge my existence at the customary intervals, I entered a state of twitchy, frantic boredom.

To dispel this feeling, the narrator gets a bike and a babysitting gig, becomes ensnared in bureaucratic red tape (health insurance forms, visa appointments), befrenemies a woman named Nell (an Angeleno who exemplifies a gauzy, Goop-y femininity the narrator deplores), and goes on a million OkCupid dates. Perhaps inspired by Felix’s dissembling, she concocts new personae at every turn, telling the woman whose infant twins she looks after that she is a freelance accountant, telling Nell that her ex-boyfriend proposed by hiding a ring in the battery cavity of a Furby, telling a man she meets in a bookstore that she’s a modern dancer, telling one internet date she’s an acupuncturist, another that she’s an entrepreneur, another that she dropped out of a PhD program, another that her father abandoned her family after stealing her mother’s collection of royal-family memorabilia, and another that her beloved childhood dog just died. As lies go, they are relatively harmless; cumulatively, they suggest a person of shallow affect, fixated on the chimera of a fresh start. But wherever she goes, there she is, and all that. Personality, it seems, is frustratingly stable. In New York City, she was smart, cynical, and boy crazy, mooching off friends around whom she felt misunderstood. So it remains in Berlin, minus the friends.

Patricia Lockwood is an autodidact in her late thirties who did not attend college because her outré oxymoronic father, a Catholic priest, spent her tuition money on a guitar that had been designed for Paul McCartney. She is a poet, whose “Rape Joke,” published in The Awl in 2013, went viral for its nuanced and brutally funny depiction of a sexual assault; a memoirist, whose Priestdaddy (2017) memorably chronicled the contradictions of her unusual Midwestern Catholic childhood; and an erudite, anfractuous essayist. Lockwood has been called the poet laureate of Twitter, where she has converted sexts into haikus; her neck of the Twitter woods is sometimes referred to as Weird Twitter. The protagonist of No One Is Talking About This, also nameless, calls Twitter “the portal.” She is addicted to it and lets it gobble up whole days:

When something of hers sparked and spread in the portal, it blazed away the morning and afternoon, it blazed like the new California, which we had come to accept as being always on fire. She ran back and forth in the flames, not eating or drinking, emitting a high-pitched sound most humans couldn’t hear. After a while her husband might burst through that wall of swimming red to rescue her, but she would twist away and kick him in the nuts, screaming, “My whole life is in there!” as the day she was standing on broke away and fell into the sea.

She’s fascinated by the portal’s collective voyeurism, the way it turns private oddities into ubiquitous inside jokes. The don’t-email-my-wife garage graffiti, the white guy blinking GIF, Tatsuya Tanaka’s funeral diorama on the plus sign of a keyboard: these were all things I broke out of the novel’s portal to google, to see if they were real (they are). Such is the nature of internet ephemera, so specific and yet so arbitrary they might as well have been invented. Plunging in day after day makes the protagonist’s “arms all full of the sapphires of the instant.” She is “blissed” by “an avalanche of details”:

pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying her foundation with a hard-boiled egg, a shiba inu in Japan leaping from paw to paw to greet its owner . . . the world pressing closer and closer, the spiderweb of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk.

She is portal-famous “for a post that said simply, Can a dog be twins?” (The answer, by the way, is yes: monozygotic twin Irish wolfhound pups were delivered by caesarean section at a South African animal hospital in 2016.) When the protagonist isn’t posting to the portal, she is discussing it on the international lecture circuit. The protagonist is so saturated in memes that she begins to perceive them everywhere. Eating langoustines, “cracking the red backs of little sweet creatures,” she sees them as “cutouts of each other and all the same,” while “in Dublin every single woman looked like her mother. In Dublin every single woman was her mother, maybe.” She feels brainwashed by sameness, troubled by the way the portal homogenizes everyone’s language—suddenly the funnier way to express your amusement is not “Hahaha” but “Ahahaha,” and she duly conforms to the new convention.

The protagonist’s younger sister—also nameless—is pregnant, and they exchange bleak texts about the world her baby will be born into. Replying to a picture of a twenty-week sonogram, the protagonist writes, “hello little alien! welcome to this awful place!” When something goes wrong with the pregnancy, the protagonist’s priorities undergo a seismic shift. The diagnosis is Proteus syndrome, made famous by Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. The condition puts the protagonist’s sister’s life at risk, but their family is conservative; the father is a cop, and both parents are staunchly antiabortion. The book’s title could refer to the Twittersphere’s brain worms or to the abortion wars; at one point, the protagonist offers to drive her sister across state lines to terminate the pregnancy, but they decide against it when they realize their parents would never speak to them again. Her sister miraculously makes it to the point where doctors can induce labor. Her baby girl is born blind—“her eyes traveled and traveled though she could not see . . . there were drops of wild dragon-scale fluorescence where her irises ought to be”—with a raft of other health issues. She is fiercely loved. The protagonist spends long stretches with her sister, assisting her however she can. Her niece is all she can think about, and time with this rare and fragile being feels incredibly precious. She goes silent in the portal.

There’s a trip to Disney World with the baby and her special stroller equipped with machinery, the baby’s first encounter with a little white poodle that “lick[s] her all over, arms, legs, face, as if she were his long-lost owner,” a toy piano placed at the baby’s feet so she can kick music.

The things she wanted the baby to know seemed small, so small. How it felt to go to a grocery store on vacation; to wake up at three a.m. and run your whole life through your fingertips; first library card; new lipstick; a toe going numb for two months because you wore borrowed shoes to a friend’s wedding; Thursday; October . . . the portal, but just for a minute.

The baby dies at six months and one day.

“I would have done it for a million years,” her sister said, toneless. “I would have gotten up every morning and given her thirteen medicines. There is no relief. I would have done it for all time.”

When “gradually, the world call[s] her back,” the protagonist ponders how this experience has changed her. Giving a lecture at the British Museum,

she said the words communal mind and saw the room her family had sat in together, looking at that singular gray brain on an MRI. She thought about the 24-hour NICU badge in her coat pocket, that she kept there to remind herself she had once been a citizen of necessity. . . . She read, her rib cage shaking, with the voice she had used to delight the baby.

Afterward, she goes to a club to dance and her phone is stolen. Its loss leaves her feeling lighter.

That the narrator of Fake Accounts is hyperaware of her own shortcomings—telling us at one point that she knows she is straddling a line between likable and loathsome—makes hers a voice that is tricky to critique. The book contains many meta moments. Seventeen times, the narrator addresses an imagined chorus of ex-boyfriends whom she suspects are reading her novel judgmentally, impatiently (e.g., “The ex-boyfriends mean this in the most loving way, but they’re feeling like they really dodged a bullet here”). She disparages a supposedly feminine style of fragmented fiction—“melodramatic, insinuating utmost meaning where there was only hollow prose”—only to turn around and deploy it, with many winks and self-conscious asides (“FUCK! I MESSED UP THE STRUCTURE. THAT ONE WAS TOO LONG”), for the next forty pages. Then there is a memory of Felix requesting that the narrator tell him one of her sexual fantasies. Her reply: “I wanted to fuck him with a strap-on while he read the novel I was working on.” Certainly this is intended to be funny, but it gets at something punishing about this text as well. There is precious little love or wonder to be found here (the narrator even feels she must conceal from Felix how wowed she is by the Berlin sky that begins to get light at 3:30 am).

Oyler can write with lovely precision—she describes one man’s beguiling accent as “an upper-class Commonwealth fluidity atop a bed of congestion, garnished with a distant staccato”—but her characters are simultaneously thorny and abstract, almost ghostwritten, and her narrator’s motives are fuzzy. Are her white lies escapist? Defensive? Did her entanglement with Felix leave her so heartsick and trust-averse that she doesn’t want to be known, seen, pinned down, or was she always this way? Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is name-checked early on, and there are some similarities—an American abroad bungling self-reinvention—but Lerner’s narrator forms messier, more interesting attachments to the people he falls in with in Madrid. Oyler’s narrator, while praising herself for being an excellent listener, seems determined to keep her interactions with others glancing and diffuse, an extension of the ego-salving exchanges she seeks out on Twitter.

We never learn whether Felix’s burner accounts were clout-chasing or sincere, or a bit of both. The content and language of those fake accounts are glossed over, and Felix’s enigmatic personality stays blurry from start to finish. In the end, his various duplicities (the last of which provides the book’s not-quite-denouement) feel a bit so-what, since he never lived very vividly on the page to begin with. The lacuna that is Felix is interesting only if we care about its effect on the narrator, and “in the end,” said Oyler of her book and its narrator to an interviewer, “you might walk away from it being like, Oh, I really know nothing about her.” In a review, she stated that “public writing is always at least a little bit self-interested, demanding, controlling and delusional . . . it’s the writer’s responsibility to add enough of something else to tip the scales away from herself.” Fake Accounts suffers from too little of that something else: the narrator’s consciousness is a hermetic one, private about its actual griefs and incurious about those felt by others.

Lockwood’s book, by contrast, abounds with the angular frequencies of love: the abiding love the protagonist feels for her vivid siblings—her brother who did a tour of duty in the Middle East and has the no step on snek Gadsden flag meme on his silky yellow boxer-briefs; her sister, pre-baby, “leading a life that was 200 percent less ironic than hers, which had recently allowed her to pose for a series of boudoir shots that saw her crouching, stretching, and pouncing like a tigress all over the beige savannah of her suburban house.” The quirky, lived-in love that characterizes her marriage, the shattering love she feels for her niece, and the protective love she feels for her parents (even when they test her patience). The unlikely swell of affection she feels for a stranger when he tells her, at an event in Bristol, that he used to read her online diary.

Lockwood has said that her book is “composed of things that didn’t quite fit in the portal itself.” The break in the novel—between the mimetic Part One and the exigencies of Part Two—corresponds to a moment in Lockwood’s own life when her niece Lena was diagnosed with neonatal encephalopathy. The protagonist doesn’t turn to the portal to mourn publicly. She spares her niece from its glare, from strangers who tend to offer compassion in the form of heart emojis, memories of their own lost loved ones, GIFs of flickering candles, prayers in Hebrew and Arabic, lines of Scripture, Henry Scott Holland’s “Death Is Nothing at All.” Instead we perceive her grief indirectly, in the flotsam turned up by related searches:

i miss my son who died
i miss my son so much quotes
i miss my son in heaven
my son died and i miss him
missing my son sayings

The sensibility of the book’s first half leaks into the urgent present; the first half teaches us to read the second.

At the end of Part One, the protagonist muses on the afterlife of her famous tweet:

Strange, how the best things in the portal seemed to belong to everyone. There was no use in saying That’s mine to a teenager who had carefully cropped the face, name, and fingerprint out of your sentence—she loved it, the unitless free language inside her head had said it a hundred times, it was hers. Your slice of life cut its cord and multiplied among the people, first nowhere and little and then everywhere and large. No one and everyone. Can a _________ be twins.

She is Zenlike about her signature tweet multiplying among the people. But in Part Two, she worries, when the family takes the baby to Disney World, that a teenager might be taking a mocking photo and posting it online; the thought is unbearable. Later, however, after they have lost her, she thinks:

What if that teenage boy had put her in the portal? It was hard to imagine a time when that would have made her angry. She would be so grateful, now, to have people meet the baby in the broad electric stream of things—to know a picture of her, blurred, in motion, was living its own life far from actual fate, in the place where images dwelled and dwelled.

The internet as afterlife. This change in perspective hints at the way in which, as the critic Merve Emre put it, the book “transforms all that is ugly and cheap about online culture . . . into an experience of sublimity.” For Lockwood, disenchantment with the internet is real but not permanent or nihilistic. She still finds in it blips of magic and surprises, a place “to delight and be delighted.” The tragedy at the book’s center unfolds as senselessly and unpredictably as the scroll in the portal. Lockwood’s exuberance and empathy are omnivorous, suited to any subject, and have produced a novel that is ferocious and also delicate, a celebration of one brief life gone too early to God.

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February 2016

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