In this equally exhausting and well-executed debut, Lauren Oyler turns her sharp critical eye on the world of social media—the lies we tell online and the lies we tell ourselves. Already a respected critic, this is Oyler’s first foray into fiction. The story focuses on an unnamed 20-something white middle class American female narrator in a directionless relationship with a man (Felix) she met while traveling in the summer of 2015. In a lengthy backstory section (titled “Backstory”), we learn she pursued Felix one night in Berlin while on a tourist pub crawl that he was guiding. They keep in touch after she returns to New York and eventually, Felix moves back to the US and the two of them continue ambivalently dating.
The novel shifts across time and time zones (primarily Brooklyn and Berlin) and is told completely from the narrator’s often questionable point of view. Language shifts from immensely run-on sentences—reminiscent of intelligent but overly lengthy blog posts; there is no dialogue, and there is very little in the way of traditional conflict and/or action. In a recent interview in The Atlantic (January 9, 2021), Oyler claims that one of her goals was to “retain that sense of confidence that links the public and private worlds—the sense that while the narrator is definitely performing, she’s performing for you.” And perhaps that’s part of the problem with the novel for me: it feels like I’m listening to a very long, circuitous, and not very interesting story told by a privileged and incredibly self-absorbed young woman. Maybe that’s the point: in a world where many people under a certain age live large parts of their lives online, it’s hard for them not to be self-absorbed, and it’s equally hard for the rest of us to care.
There is certainly a timely aspect to the novel: in the first 25 pages the narrator discovers, by checking Felix’s phone without his permission, that he secretly runs a conspiracy-theory focused Instagram page with thousands of followers. But while this presents an interesting plot point, aside from some rambling angst, this discovery doesn’t really seem to affect the narrator beyond affirming her desire to dump him. Instead of confronting Felix or even really doing anything about her discovery, she decides to go to the post-inauguration Women’s March in Washington, DC. The description of the march is vivid: the immense crowds, the lack of police, the swell of solidarity that she witnesses, but our narrator has only a brief revelatory moment before sliding back into her self-described “nihilism.” She’s not so much interested in feminist activism or the Women’s March as in presenting her own critique of what she sees as fundamentally “alienating” and pointless protesting by young women like herself of “an administration that would not affect them particularly sweepingly.” The narrator seems shockingly ignorant enough to believe the election of Donald Trump doesn’t really affect her or any other young women.
The novel is, the narrator tells us, an “effort to better understand myself … an effort to enchant an audience, promote certain principles I feel are lacking in contemporary literature … etc.” Unfortunately, she fails at her effort. That she’s bright is obvious, that she’s both insecure and wildly self-absorbed becomes apparent in many of her statements, including, “pace yourself, you still have a lot to read,” which, while meta, is more annoying to the reader than amusing: again, this is likely the point—we aren’t meant to “like” her. Accompanying us in our reading of the narrator’s endless stories are the “ex-boyfriends”—a construct not unlike a Greek chorus that we only have the narrator’s word actually exist. (It’s hard to imagine so many men would have found her that attractive.)
In the section “Middle (Something Happens),” something shocking does happen (no spoilers here—sorry!), and her response is to drink wine in bed in a friend’s spare room. In “Middle (Nothing Happens),” she quits her job (which she’s told us she loathes) and decides to go to Berlin. Somehow she’s managed to save enough money “to last several months,” and lucks into a sublet in a fashionable district with a pleasant bi-lingual woman. Bored, lonely, and not a German speaker, the narrator decides to embark on a social experiment: dating online, creating different personas for every date she goes on, all of which she details for us, including the disclaimer, “To be clear: I know this is boring.” Which, of course, it is, but by claiming it as such, she becomes almost endearing until of course, she says, “teetering as I am already on the border between likeable and loathsome.” By this point, she was much higher on the loathsome scale for me. Because she doesn’t have sex with any of her dates in Berlin, she does tell us about her (past) sex with Felix in awkward and uncomfortable passages including comments like, “Women having heterosexual P-in-V sex could not fuck, only be fucked,” that show both her insecurity and lack of experience.
There’s a certain appeal in a narrator so unlikeable as to be laughable. And there’s also a certain appeal in Oyler’s playing with structure while signaling that she’s doing so with big flags like, “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,” and, “I’m not very good at this structure. I keep going on too long,” and further, “Another justification for this structure is that it mimics the nature of modern life, which is ‘fragmented.’” But, as Oyler has her narrator tell us, “fragmentation is one of the worst aspects of modern life… Why would I want to make my book like Twitter?” Of course, the novel isn’t “like Twitter,” but the self-revelatory style where the narrator rarely actually reveals anything—except that she regularly lies to everyone and cheats on all her boyfriends—does read like an amalgamation of posts on someone’s profile: too long for Twitter, but addictive while also quite possibly, completely fabricated. When the narrator tells us toward the end of the novel that “it was chastening, to know I was pretty enough and socially aware enough and young enough to more or less get whatever I wanted,” we don’t really believe her, no more than when she claims, “You’re not going to believe me when I say this but I’m actually not very good at lying.” And when she offers this attempt at introspection, we can only shake our heads and hope that she’ll learn something about herself at some point, “There seemed to be two options for engaging with the world: desperate close reading or planned obsolescence. They were both so clearly rooted in natural impulses and so clearly wrong.” Wrong—yes, but definitely not the only options.
As a first novel, this is both an ambitious project and a difficult read: Oyler is an adept and interesting writer who has successfully created a (mostly) unlikeable and unreliable narrator, while also presenting a deep critique of the ways we communicate in the modern world and the ease of lying to ourselves and others online and in real life.