By some odd coincidence, or other decree of the marketing gods, this month, two wildly anticipated first novels About the Internet will be published in close proximity to one another—and at a moment that may, because of a pandemic, be the cultural climax of our reliance on the internet for all forms of connection. (At least one hopes this is the climax; it is probably not.)
Both novels, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (Catapult, February 2) and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (Riverhead, February 16) are technically debuts, though neither author is exactly an ingenue. Both are well known quantities, especially to the literary internet. Oyler is a literary critic and essayist renowned for her incisive and sometimes savage pans of popular books; Lockwood is the author of a memoir, Priestdaddy, and three collections of poems, but is probably most, or at least originally, famous for being chaotically funny on Twitter, and for her viral poem “Rape Joke.”
Relative to the amount of space it takes up in the collective and capitalist imagination, the internet has had less of an impact on contemporary fiction than one might expect. It is increasingly acknowledged in novels, but it seems oddly difficult to represent well. I don’t know whether that’s because most of us have been raised on books that have absolutely no Instagram in them, or whether it’s because the internet has become such a constant and derided part of daily existence that writing about it can feel like writing about pooping, or whether it’s just boring to write out strings of texts or annoying to have to shelve all plots based on people being in the wrong place at the wrong time with no way to contact one another, or what. But whatever it is, there are few good contemporary novels that take on the internet directly and still manage to make it feel like art. That’s why it’s so notable that this month, there are two.
While these two novels share a subject, their approaches are different. Oyler’s novel is a sharp, witty critique of what it’s like to navigate the world through the filter of the internet, with all its potential for artifice and obscuration. Lockwood’s, particularly in its first section, is the closest thing I have ever encountered to an experiential rendering of what it’s like to be online.
As you might expect, given the plotlessness of existence both actual and online, neither one of these novels is particularly served by describing its plot, but this is the sort of thing critics are expected to do, so here goes. In Fake Accounts, a young woman snoops in her boyfriend’s phone and discovers that he’s leading a second (online) life as a popular internet conspiracy theorist. She gets ready to confront him, but then he dies, and she goes to Berlin, where they met, to sort out her feelings and possibly write a book. There is, ultimately, a very good turn. No One Is Talking About This has even less plot; in it, a young woman who makes her living on and around her online presence finds her world disrupted when her sister’s unborn child is diagnosed with a rare congenital deformity.
The language of both novels will be familiar to anyone who spends any time at all online, or “in the portal,” as Lockwood’s narrator describes it. The two protagonists—both of whom are nameless, and both of whom share some biographical details with their authors (Oyler’s narrator even seems to be using Oyler’s Twitter photo)—deploy an instantly recognizable tone of internet-speak, if slightly different versions thereof: Oyler’s narrator is on the arch, ironic end of the spectrum, whereas Lockwood’s is more dirty and absurdist, particularly in the first section. The internet, Lockwood’s narrator tells us, had “once been the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually it had become the place where we sounded like each other.”
Have I mentioned that both books are very funny? This seems essential to writing anything good about the internet.
Formally, Fake Accounts is relatively straightforward (that is, shaped like a novel) and wants you to know that it knows it, if you read only slightly into its ironic, knowing section headings (“BEGINNING” and “MIDDLE (Something Happens)” and “MIDDLE (Nothing Happens)” and “CLIMAX”), which a reader will either find charming or not (personally, I find them charming). There’s also this kind of thing, which I also find charming:
Knowing what happens next (you’re about to find out), and how he ended up performing as a boyfriend (you know some of this and will learn more), and what happens after that (this would be the conspiracy-theory thing, which you also know), and what happens after that (truly unbelievable, though in some ways not; you do not know this yet, unless you’re one of the people I’ve discussed it with), I would like to deny that I liked him very much at this point.
But while Fake Accounts is not as experimental as Lockwood’s novel (more on this in a moment), Oyler does have a little formal fun in the final third of the book, in a not entirely successful 40-page parody of—let’s name names here, though Oyler doesn’t—Jenny Offill. Or at least of the fragmented style that Offill has been an engine in popularizing over the last six or seven years. “What’s amazing about this structure is that you can just dump any material you have in here and leave it up to the reader to connect it to the rest of the work,” she writes. And, later:
Another justification for this structure is that it mimics the nature of modern life, which is “fragmented.” But fragmentation is one of the worst aspects of modern life. It’s extremely stressful. “Fragmented” is a euphemism for “interrupted.” Why would I want to make my book like Twitter? If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.
Lockwood’s novel is, in fact, written in the fragmented style that Oyler mocks so gleefully—and it seems to be for the very reason that Oyler deplores: Lockwood is trying to make her novel sound like Twitter, while she writes about Twitter. Lockwood’s way of writing about the internet is much more sensory, if we can call it that; it is just as expert as Oyler’s, only less removed. Christian Lorentzen recently described it as “virtual realism,” which feels right to me.
No One is Talking About This is separated into two sections; the first is technically about a woman who has become famous on the internet and travels around giving lectures about it, but really is a seamless integration of online life and life—an experiential representation of what Lockwood calls the “communal stream-of-consciousness” that is life in the portal. In the second, that narrator finds out that her sister’s unborn child has been diagnosed with Proteus syndrome, and suddenly attention shifts from the dehumanization and gross joy of the portal to the very close, physical, immediate human experiences of pain and love. There’s some gross joy here, too. “All the worries about what a mind was fell away as soon as the baby was placed in her arms,” we are told, but then, almost immediately, “How she wished she had never read that article about octopus intelligence. . .” The two sections function as a juxtaposition, but not a simple one: the point isn’t that being online is empty. Instead, Lockwood probes the end of irony and finds that, you know, it’s still a little ironic.
Reading the first part of the novel feels almost like scrolling; it is a recursive, mimetic experience, an infinity mirror: a form used to describe itself. But Lockwood’s narrator also has something to say about the fragmented literary structure, which it uses and Oyler mocks.
Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.
. . .
That these disconnections were what kept the pages turning, that these blank spaces were what moved the plot forward. The plot! That was a laugh.
It is true that fragments can feel like Twitter—little discordant missives that add up to some greater textural understanding (or not). But is this style really a product—or even a reflection—of the internet? It feels like an easy leap to make from where we’re standing, but I doubt Twitter had much to do with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, or Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever—sure, the internet existed in 2001, but not like it does now—much less Renata Adler’s Speedboat in 1976. It’s certainly possible that the resurgence of this form has something to do with the internet, but I wonder if both forms actually come from some deeper instinct to collect and order information. Juxtaposition has always been a meaning-maker, after all.
Descriptions of memes, no matter how poetically done, can’t help but fall a little flat, like explanations of jokes.
And despite the form it comes in, all that information, the information promised by the portal, to use Lockwood’s word, is honestly valued by both narrators, though neither entirely trusts her own valuation. “The problem was that I didn’t actually believe the knowledge I acquired online was useless,” Oyler’s narrator tells us. “I sought it out purposefully, defensively, as if it would one day become vitally important, provide the clue to some threatening mystery of my social or professional life.” Meanwhile, Lockwood’s narrator thinks
longingly of My information. Oh, my answers, Oh my everything I never knew I needed to know. At least, that was how she saw it in elevated moods. In baser ones, she saw herself bent over, on her knees, spread-eagled, and begging for reality’s cum.
Have I mentioned that both books are very funny? This seems essential to writing anything good about the internet.
Still, Oyler’s narrator takes a somewhat dimmer view of the “collective stream-of-consciousness” than Lockwood’s: “Discussion begat more discussion,” she explains,
and that discussion begat imitation. People became exasperated with the same things and produced the same thoughts. . . . Most of what I read or started to read online was aimed not at clawing for some difficult specificity but at reaffirming a widespread but superficial understanding, or highlighting the understanding that could easily be intuited by the highest number of people, if they chose to think about it at all.
This feels undoubtedly true. But neither novel lives outside of this collective, repetitive world. In fact, both novels reward (or punish, depending) the reader who has been paying attention to social media, and in the case of Oyler, contemporary literature, over the last few years. Oyler spends a paragraph summarizing an unnamed book that is clearly Katie Kitamura’s A Separation; her narrator’s verdict is that “it sounded like an interesting book but it made my pain feel less significant.” Lockwood cycles through descriptions of internet phenomena, often without exactly naming them, describing “Cat Person,” and that creepy Folger’s commercial, and the meme-ification of “This is Just to Say”; Oyler’s novel too includes sequences of scrolling, evocations of the narrator’s “peripatetic style of reading.”
Reading these sections is an odd sensation—at least for me, as someone who works at a website and spends much too much time online. It feels eerily sickening, like reading a piece of autofiction by someone I know too well. The waves of recognition come with a kind of dissociation. I find myself getting slightly bored. After all, I know about all this already. I was there. Descriptions of memes, no matter how poetically done, can’t help but fall a little flat, like explanations of jokes. These sections make me wonder how a person unversed in the contemporary internet would read them: would they be fascinating or too random to have meaning?
For what it’s worth, both of these novels eventually transcend these moments of discomfort by giving readers (or just me) what they really want: some indelible human drama, some brain and heart with which to connect. But maybe more importantly, both are invested in engaging that age old question that always feels too dumb and broad to have any meaning at all, but is actually what art is for: what does it feel like to be alive right now? If it feels sickening and mean and thrilling and boring and overstuffed, and it does, then both of these novels are getting it right.
And if it feels like being online all the time, and it does, well, then you know what I’m going to say next.