That we often are not the masters of our own machines, and can even become their witless lackeys, is a cautionary claim as old as the Hebrew prophet Isaiah and as urgent as the latest bogus newsfeed on Dr. Fauci’s evil ways. (Instead of saving lives, he’s been busy, don’t you know, torturing puppies, rendering impotent our patriotic men, and implanting surveillance chips in our brains: accusations all conveyed via apps relentlessly surveilled by Facebook, Apple, Google, and their like.) As a species gifted with inventive minds and opposable thumbs, we are ever about the business of generating new tools and techniques that will, we are certain, better our lives. Time after time, though, those new methods and machines also prove to change our public spaces and private selves in radical ways we fail to foresee and come to regret.
The pace of such progress, with its hidden discontents, increased exponentially in the twentieth century. Take radio as an example. Although the nation’s first local newscast occurred in 1920, two years later there were already more than five hundred licensed broadcasters in America. In 1926, the first national radio network was created, allowing millions of citizens coast to coast to hear a single program simultaneously: a mighty megaphone inevitably co-opted throughout the West by the era’s chief propagandists, first its admen and then its politicians. On February 1, 1933, two days after he was appointed chancellor, Adolf Hitler addressed the entire German nation via radio; some forty days later, a week after he was sworn into office, Franklin Roosevelt gave his first fireside chat. In Britain, Churchill; in Italy, Mussolini—oratory had gone electronic, and was quickly exploited by statesmen and demagogues alike.
Despite that well-documented history and a plethora of excellent research on the disruptive impact of new communications technologies, American leaders, in journalism as well as government, were shocked to discover that the most effective exploiter of our new social media in the political sphere was yet another narcissistic hatemonger. Just twelve years after Facebook was launched as a site originally restricted to Harvard students, it had more than a billion active users, and was being manipulated by both campaign officials and hostile foreign powers to spread lies, sow dissension, and promote the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump: a strategy whose success has arguably done more damage to our democracy than the physical attack on Pearl Harbor or the Twin Towers.
The political dangers of these largely unregulated sites and devices are now widely acknowledged and debated, if to little practical effect so far. Two very different recent novels, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This—both written and set during the Trump presidency—are also centered on the impact of social media on our lives, but as novelists are wont to do, Oyler and Lockwood focus instead on the personal consequences of our nation’s addictive submission to its latest round of miraculous machinery. Written by women who came of age during the social media phase of the digital revolution, these novels explore the social and psychological costs of a life increasingly lived online.
Oyler first made her name as a controversial critic for the online site Bookslut and then as a blogger for Vice, where she established a persona allergic to the pieties of her generation and to its emerging literary stars such as Sally Rooney and Jia Tolentino. In her debut novel, the same oppositional temperament and sardonic voice that have characterized her criticism prevail, this time through the perspective of a nameless narrator whose background closely resembles Oyler’s.
Fake Accounts opens in Brooklyn (the hub of the woke hip universe) just prior to Trump’s inauguration, when the narrator hacks into her lover Felix’s smartphone and is shocked to discover that he’s opened a secret account on Instagram. There, à la the Donald, he has attracted a following by promoting conspiracy theories: the initial fake account among the many that will be satirized, including the fraudulent self-presentations common on dating apps. Disturbed by Felix’s deception, the narrator resolves to break up with him after she gets back from the women’s protest march at Trump’s inauguration. Before returning, however, she learns that he’s been killed in an accident. At a loss about how or even whether to grieve for him, she’s reduced to googling the topic but can “find no example of the way to react to the death of a semi-serious boyfriend about whom you felt ambivalent at best,” and soon decides to return to Berlin, where they first met. There, an aimless and alienated expatriate who doesn’t speak the native language, she spends a lot of time online, where she has “gotten used to using people [she’d] never met, or met a few times, to muffle the sound of time passing without transcendence or joy.”
That’s about it for plot; with the exception of the last few pages, not much of consequence happens after the narrator returns to Berlin. Although the novel’s events are related mostly in chronological order, its author is not really interested in probing the narrative consequences of individual decision-making; the characters, settings, and events have been staged instead as occasions for acerbic social commentary. Oyler may have exploited the new opportunities the Internet era has provided for writers as a means of launching her career, but the novel is here to let us know that she has not been fooled by the self-congratulatory delusions of today’s digerati, or anyone else of her age and class.
Note the commentary of her autofictional narrator on the topic of her fellow workers at a digital site very much like Vice: They had tricked “themselves into thinking that because our office was cool, not like other offices, we were not really working, and that being at work was in some ways actually more fun than being at home, alone, streaming a TV show we pretend is good while eating delivery we pretend to afford.” Or on her yoga classmates, who were “primarily white women living in Brooklyn, and although [she] too was a white woman living in Brooklyn, [she] of course did not identify as such, since the description usually signified someone selfish, lazy, and in possession of superficial understandings of complex topics such as racism and literature.” Or on the shallow outrage sparked by Trump’s election: “For a few months the political catastrophe seemed so dire that one’s music and movie preferences were no longer considered the ultimate markers of one’s fitness to fight fascism.” Or on how her own “high-level search-engine excavation skills were knavish and petty; they marked [her] as a member of a generation that grew up watching reality TV, without respect for fundamental principles of a functional society and the human soul.” Or on her dismay with Felix’s inattentiveness: “He refused to see the advantages of certain relationship best practices, like ignoring your friends and surroundings in order to text your partner constantly.” Or on the conveniently passive pessimism of her generation: “Consensus was the world was ending [and] we were too late” to do much about it; “we [didn’t] want to die but also [didn’t] want to do anything challenging.”
Stylistically as well as culturally, Oyler resists the fads and fashions of her age. Instead of a fragmentary, aphoristic prose delivered in pellet-sized paragraphs surrounded by space, demanding that the reader intuit the themes and emotions meant to connect them—a style popular in the boutique literary marketplace for the last twenty years—this author prefers elaboration over concision, sardonic explanation over coy implication. And despite the syntactical complexity of the prose, one never gets lost in her lengthy sentences; the diction is almost always apt, often inventive, and sufficiently varied to avoid predictable patterns.
But if the vocabulary is variable, its tone is not. The snark is relentless and, after a point, begins to seem suffocating, the novel trapped in a compulsive need to debunk. As the narrator moves from Brooklyn to Washington, DC, to Berlin, her acerbic attitude becomes indistinguishable from cynicism: a mental machine programmed to reshape every person and occasion to fit its own expectations of cowardly conformity and bad faith. This is a problem for the novel dramatically, too. The other characters don’t get much of a chance to speak or act on their own, or even to earn our contempt, but are mostly summarized (and therefore preclassified) by this very witty but also jaundiced voice.
The problem is compounded by Oyler’s solipsistic reliance on self-conscious commentary and metafictional devices. Periodically, her narrator holds a mirror to the content or the process of her prose. She either addresses her readers directly, anticipating our objections and interpretations to show that she already knows what we’re thinking (she first! she first!), or cites a chorus of undepicted ex-boyfriends whose comments and criticisms remain tightly under her own control. Even the structure of the novel is self-conscious, its six sections labeled “Beginning,” “Backstory,” “Middle (Something Happens),” “Middle (Nothing Happens),” “Climax,” and “End.” The combined effect of these tics and tricks is stifling, as if the reader were trapped inside a graduate student lounge with a very smart but insecure PhD candidate in English literature.
Appending statements like “to be clear: I know this is boring” doesn’t make the preceding content any less boring. The purpose of self-criticism, after all, isn’t to provide a preening display of our own discernment, but to prod us into changing our ways. In the instance just cited, it would spur the author to cut the boring passage—advice that, frankly, could have been applied to a number of passages in the last two-thirds of the novel, which, however articulate, become repetitive. Rather than drive the narrative, test the main character, or contextualize the theme, they seem to exist because Oyler herself has been there, done that in her second home, Berlin, or because the novel needs to bide time until its abbreviated climax arrives. There is, finally, a plot turn at the very end of Fake Accounts, and our narrator, who so relentlessly mocks her contemporaries, gets her comeuppance. But there is little emotional kick or thematic news sparked by that event.
Three very brief lines from William Carlos Williams’s Paterson capture a fundamental feature of both artistic and scientific achievement: “Dissonance / (if you are interested) / leads to discovery.” (The same principle is expressed in cyberneticist Gregory Bateson’s widely cited definition of information as “a difference that makes a difference.”) What’s most conspicuously absent from Oyler’s fictional account of our era is any dissonance, any difference. Unlike many social satires, her novel provides no island of innocence against which to measure the depredations of our digital age. Nor do we witness in stages the corruption of any particular character or institution because, as prejudged by our narrator, they are already corrupt, inauthentic by default. When one of the ex-boyfriends wonders, “Aren’t all personalities false?” the narrator insists he’s “missing the point.” But he isn’t missing the larger point, one the novel makes again and again.
Every generation needs its oppositional voices, writers brave enough to expose its hypocrisies and self-delusions, the old human flaws in their new and shiny guise. Oyler clearly has the wit and writerly chops to assume that role. Whether she is emotionally brave enough, though, is open to question. In a fictional world where all personalities are shown to be false, all accounts fake, and all emotions inauthentic, the dissonance of satire quickly devolves into the rote rehearsals of cynicism; there are no discoveries, just repeated confirmations of the same scathing bias. When writing his own mock obituary in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” Jonathan Swift defended his work by asserting: “His satire points at no defect, / But what all mortals may correct.” In Fake Accounts, though, we are given no sense that correction is possible. Rather than oppose the pat consensus that “the world was ending [and] we were too late,” Oyler’s account of our digital age exemplifies its pessimism.
No One Is Talking About This
Poet Patricia Lockwood’s engagement with online life has been far more thorough, complex, and, as is detailed in her powerful memoir Priestdaddy (2017), deeply personal. That book’s oxymoronic title is, in Lockwood’s case, literally true. Her father, Greg, a domineering narcissist into heavy metal music, Tom Clancy novels, and antiabortion protests, was also a Lutheran pastor who successfully petitioned the Vatican to become a Roman Catholic priest. Lockwood and her siblings, then, had the rare experience of being raised as a priest’s kids in two midwestern rectories, where they had to dodge their dad’s wrath, wrestle with his rules, and suffer his disharmonious guitar riffs.
Two weeks before Lockwood was supposed to enter college, her father ambushed her with the news that the family could not afford to send her. (Not long thereafter, in a characteristic example of the man’s self-centeredness, he bought himself a pricey guitar originally made for Paul McCartney.) Forced to stay at home during what should have been her freshman year, Lockwood slept in an abandoned convent next to the rectory. Alone in that suggestive setting at the turn of the century when the Internet was young, she went online, where she discovered (and how quaint this term sounds today) “a bulletin board devoted to the discussion of poetry.” That digital space became Lockwood’s substitute schooling in life as well as letters, the site where she found not just her calling as a poet but her future husband, Jason, with whom she would run away at the age of nineteen. At that point, their entire relationship had been conducted online or by phone, and, one imagines, could have easily fallen apart once they met in the flesh. It didn’t, though; they married two years later, and Jason proved to be a downhome version of Leonard Woolf to Patricia’s Virginia, financially and emotionally supporting his wife’s calling, allowing her to focus entirely on her writing.
Later, when Jason needed an eye operation they could not afford, friends and admirers of Lockwood’s poetry raised the money for the procedure online. Shortly thereafter, she posted an autobiographical poem, “The Rape Joke,” that went viral, and, abracadabra, within a day or two, the poetry manuscript that had been sitting unread on a Penguin editor’s desk for months was accepted. Joining Twitter in 2011, she rapidly developed a large following there for her bizarre and bawdy tweets. That led to multiple invitations to give talks and participate in panels on the topic of social media.
Unlike Oyler, then, whose mastery of the new media seems at once successfully transactional and very skeptical, Lockwood has had multiple reasons to be grateful that the Internet was available to her. A fortunate Rapunzel, she was rescued from the tower of her confinement by connecting with others via its “portal” (her preferred term). Through it, she found her prince and her profession, and while one of its sites helped save her husband’s vision, others became the means to establish her career as a poet, prose writer, and commentator. Unsurprisingly, then, her appreciation of those early days online has at times the glow of Eden before the Fall: “The feeling of getting an email! As if the ghost of a passenger pigeon had flown into your home and delivered it directly into your head, so swooping and unexpected and feathered was the feeling.”
In the memoir, Lockwood revisits her childhood and reassesses her complicated relationship with her impossible priestdaddy and his religion. Although the book won the Thurber Prize for American Humor and is frequently hilarious, Lockwood’s ambitions are serious, and her final recognition of the ways in which she has and has not liberated herself from her domestic and religious heritage is both wise and moving: “People accuse me of blasphemy…which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It’s my way of participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine.” Even after exposing her father’s hypocrisy and his often intolerant version of Roman Catholicism, she still finds and retains the pearl concealed within that pigsty: “But faith and my father taught me the same lesson: to live in the mystery, even to love it.” The absence of bitterness, the capacity to love, the acknowledgment that there are mysteries beyond our capacity to classify or satirize: These are the emotional and spiritual resources that sharply distinguish Lockwood’s sensibility from Oyler’s.
In No One Is Talking About This, Lockwood’s debut novel, the thematic focus initially shifts away from her birth family to the portal itself and the ways it has changed since the early days when she discovered it alone in that abandoned convent. Again, we have a nameless female central character whose background closely mirrors the author’s, but this time the narrative is in the third person, as if the author is seeking to gain a wedge of perspective on herself as well as on the evolving character of our social media. Although the sensibility of the author remains the same, Lockwood forgoes conventional chapters organized by topic in favor of short and discontinuous probes, meditations, and jokes, little islands of observation separated by space, in the manner of today’s tweets and posts—the very style Oyler scorns as “trendy…and melodramatic, insinuating utmost meaning where there was only hollow prose.”
The novel’s first brief section is representative of the whole: “She opened the portal, and the mind [that is, the collective online mind] met her more than half-way. Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.” In two sentences, the poet-novelist captures the portal’s surreal contradictions (both “tropical and snowing”) and its blinding abundance (the “blizzard of everything”), even as its imagery suggests, ironically or not, her experience of it as sacramental. (If you know Lockwood’s upbringing, that single flake of snow can’t help but evoke the transformative crux of Christian ritual: a communion wafer melting on the tongue.) The meditative voice then questions the character of the online life—“Why did the portal feel so private when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?”—then balks against the ugliness of its emerging temper during the Trump era: “Every day their attention must turn, like the shine of a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.”
A month after the election, our nameless hero gets caught up in the initial outrage in her own way, and is “banned from the portal for forty-eight hours for posting a picture of herself crouched down and having her period on a small sculpture of twisted pipe cleaners that was labeled TREE OF LIBERTY.” But like Oyler’s narrator, she soon begins to scorn the authenticity of such gestures: “We were being radicalized, and how did that feel? Like we had just stepped into a Girl Scout uniform made of fire? Like the skies had abruptly shifted to the stripes of an old Soviet poster, and the cookies we carried through green and well-watered neighborhoods had been cut by the guillotine?” And she can’t help but contrast the current online climate with the past she fondly recalls: “The [collective] mind we were in was obsessive…it swam with superstition and half-remembered facts pertaining to how many spiders we ate in a year and the rate at which dentists killed themselves.… But worth remembering: the mind had been, in its childhood, a place of play.… It had also been the place where you once sounded like yourself. Gradually it had become a place where we sounded like each other.” The impact of her own obsessive behavior within the portal begins to bother her: “Already it was becoming impossible to explain things she had even done the year before, why she had spent hypnotized hours of her life, say, photoshopping bags of frozen peas into pictures of historical atrocities.” And she recognizes that though the value of such efforts may be illusory, their allure remains addictive: “When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”
Then, a little past the book’s midpoint, while in Europe speechifying about the Twitter-verse, our nameless hero receives a text from her mother: “Something has gone wrong…. How soon can you get here?” What has gone wrong is the pregnancy of the younger sister she adores, the one who is “living a life 200 percent less ironic than hers.” The fetus she’s carrying has a fatal birth defect, the Proteus syndrome, its head growing at ten times the normal rate and so placing its mother’s life in danger. For their very Catholic parents, abortion is an abomination, and the state of Ohio has just passed a law making it illegal to induce labor before thirty-seven weeks. The shock of the news and intimacy of sharing its dilemma changes everything, for now “the question that was the pure liquid element of the portal—who am I failing to protect?—had found its stopped clock answer.” And the playful speculation that has characterized the book acquires a wholly new dramatic urgency. “What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract?… Could we sue?… Could we…could we post about it?”
The sister does receive special permission to induce an earlier labor. Despite the doctors’ best guesses, the baby girl, Lena, is born alive, and the final sections of the book portray the family as they care for this infant, who is blind and cannot survive for long. The commitment undertaken is complete, unstinting: “‘I want a year,’ her sister said fiercely. ‘I want one year,’ when for so long the rest of us had been thinking only how to skip ahead until the dictator was gone.” Named as Lena’s godmother, our central character is just as devoted; she can’t resist the call: “‘Touch me!’ the baby demanded at all times. ‘Touch me, I am in the dark!’” She talks and sings to Lena too, savoring “the great gift of the baby knowing their voices, contentless entirely except for love.”
The emotional intensity of the experience shows in two contrasting ways: “She found herself so excited by the baby that she could hardly stand it. [Lena] was stupendous.… That every person on earth might be watched in that way, given a party whenever she waved and raised her little arms, breathed just like the rest of us.” And later, when the source of the novel’s title is revealed, “she wanted to stop people on the street and say, ‘Do you know about this? You should know about this. No one is talking about this!’” But when away from Lena and behind her bedroom door at night, “she exploded into a white mist of tears and strange gasping sounds that were a million years before or after language.” The profundity of the emergency calls into question our hero’s previous commitments, including those online: “If all she was was funny, and none of this was funny, where did that leave her?” And when she explains to her husband why she keeps flying back to help with the baby, the self-accusations become more acute. “‘A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has—I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.’ Then, almost angrily, ‘What was I doing with them before?’”
Those minutes pass, and Lena approaches the end of her very short life: “Her face was luminous, as if someone had put flesh on the bone of the moon, and her beautiful eyes were larger than ever, as if coming to the end of what there was to see.” She has survived six months, and for the family gathered to witness her death, “it was like nothing any of them had ever seen. There was nothing trivial left in the room—not the clearing of a throat, not an itch on the arch of a foot.” Afterward, no one involved has to Google how to grieve. Lena’s exhausted mother intones, “‘I would have done it for a million years.… I would have gotten up every morning and given her thirteen medicines. There is no relief. I would have done it forever.’” Our hero finds herself “cry[ing] uncontrollably in cafes, taxis, grocery stores, bars,” but her pain also becomes the means for a moral awakening into a broader empathy: “The doors of bland suburban houses now looked possible, outlined, pulsing—for behind any one of them could be hidden a bright and private glory.”
Patricia Lockwood is an abundantly gifted author; her metaphorical intelligence, musical ear, and capacity for invention routinely delight and surprise. Some of her humor, as evident especially in her online posts, can seem adolescent. But what’s most impressive about both Priestdaddy and this autofictional sequel is the ways she employs those poetic gifts: the intensity and variety of the emotions evoked, the honesty of her self-scrutiny, the willingness to shed irony when the occasion requires an earnest approach. The question she poses to herself—Who is she failing to protect while devoting herself to her online life?—is one many of us might ask when lost in “the blizzard of everything,” scrolling through posts, streaming sports highlights, idly shopping for this or for that. And when her antic meditation on the portal’s changing nature shifts midstream to memorializing the autobiographical tragedy of a sister’s anguish and an infant niece’s demise, not a word feels fake.