Lauren Oyler and Patricia Lockwood on their ‘evil twin’ internet novels

Two debuts by 'very-online' authors take opposing views of what the internet is doing to us. Annabel Nugent talks to the women who wrote them, and asks, is it really true, as Oyler believes, that 'the internet makes you a bad person'?

Friday 05 February 2021 17:44
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I hate it here. Everyone agrees that “here” sucks. We are miserable and unproductive and lonely all at once. Time goes fast but not in the way that it flies when you’re having fun, more like when you wake up after a nap to find that it’s suddenly dark outside. It’s also too bright and the night-shift is too yellow. It makes our eyes hurt – maybe we should get those goofy blue glasses that are supposed to block the harmful waves. Now all my ads are for goofy blue glasses; why is my ad blocker not working? Why am I still here, on the internet?

Saying the internet is bad but addictive is a cliche. Even in literature – a medium that is years behind television and film in its portrayal of life online – our masochism is well documented. In Jia Tolentino’s widely beloved essay collection Trick Mirror, she describes her social media activity as “a rat pressing the lever… masturbating through the nightmare until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme”. Beyond an acknowledgement of our perverse compulsion (Stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself!) there has been very little in the way of exploring deeper – least of all in the world of fiction writing. Debut novelists and internet superstars Lauren Oyler and Patricia Lockwood ask: why do we keep hitting ourselves? How is it affecting us and what will happen if we don’t stop? The two writers turn up very different answers.

If you’ve read Oyler’s writing before, chances are you’ll remember it. She has a cachet in the literary world for writing the type of criticism that is the most fun to read and the hardest to find: the takedown. And if you haven’t read her reviews, you might have seen someone quote-tweet them, possibly accompanied with the added commentary of “She says what everyone’s thinking” or “Geez what a jealous ****”. Her favourite subjects are books that have achieved so much hype, are so festooned with praise, that they appear beyond reproach. Reproach, though, she does – and she has in the case of hugely popular titles such as Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion. Her deliciously scathing critique of Tolentino's aforementioned essay collection got so much traffic it crashed the London Book Review's website. She is, on our call, a very nice person. 

Oyler’s Fake Accounts is a funny and frank book set in the milieu of Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration about an unnamed woman who one night discovers her boyfriend is a popular conspiracy theorist on social media. He posts photos of “frowning women next to cell phones emitting harmful energies”. Her response to the revelation – “I could have laughed but I would have woken him up” – is indicative of the witty, pithy narration that follows. 

The protagonist’s voice is instantly recognisable. It’s our collective internet tone: callow, quippy, defensive, ironic. It sounds direct in delivery but it’s almost always opaque in meaning and of little actual substance. The result is that after 265 pages of intimate first-person narration you don’t know her at all – or at least in the way we are used to. “I wanted the reader to experience her in a less front-loaded way, so no backstory on who her parents are or what happened to her when she was young to make her like this [cold and distant],” says Oyler over Zoom from a New York Airbnb where she is riding out a snowstorm with her partner. 

The only thing that we do know about the protagonist is that she is performing, as we all do online. She is constantly, acutely and exhaustingly hyperaware of the fact that she is being perceived, so much so that neither she nor the reader can actually discern who she is. And this is what makes Oyler’s novel particularly unsettling – in constructing her character, the author makes no distinction between the "real me" and the "online me". They are not two distinct personalities that have no bearing on one another – telling someone to kill themselves on social media does, in fact, make you a bad person in real life. 

The performance required of being online, Oyler says, also very much impedes the argument that posits the internet as a force for political mobilisation. In her relentless irony, the narrator engages in another hallmark of present-day online existence: moral equivocation. “In the weeks since Trump had been elected there had been a quick proliferation of vocabulary: authoritarian, strongman, autocracy, kleptocracy,” the protagonist observes. “The language felt wrong [...] though I couldn’t find a way to pin down getting educated as a bad thing.” If she can’t, Oyler can. The writer explains that while she is “generally pro-meme” it’s the “memeification of academics and the simplification of academic terms that defangs them”. It’s true that hearing the term “fascist” 25 times a day on Twitter certainly takes the bite out of it. “You know, socialism and feminism aren’t supposed to be dumbed down. The whole point is that they’re quite complicated.” 

Oyler adds that this language born out of the internet – the one that uses tildes ~ ironically ~ and regards lowercase to be cooler than caps – is not the means of connection it has been held up as. Meaning becomes unstable, she says, when a bunch of very-online people are using a word like “workers”, a term that has been used so commonly on social media that the internet’s inner circle use it only with a knowing wink, and others who are less-online are doing so sincerely. It’s for the same reason that Fake Accounts depicts the internet in the way that it does, detailing its mechanics and the “pleasantly rounded corners” of an iPhone, so that the layman description would “theoretically work for someone who’s more or less offline”. Oyler says, “I didn’t want the book to be an internet-y commentary that’s like, ‘Ha ha, we’re all in on this joke’. Because my point is that we’re not, even though we really want to be.” 

In Fake Accounts, the message is clear. “I’ve reached the conclusion that the internet makes you a bad person,” Oyler laughs. Patricia Lockwood – another extremely online author publishing another extremely online novel this month – reaches a different conclusion, however. 

The author – also known as the “Poet Laureate of Twitter” whose viral dick jokes in the 2010s no doubt are the foundations of your favourite meme today – is best known as the brain behind the internet’s most absurdly sexual/poetic tweets, and the 2013 viral poem "Rape Joke". Lockwood may be one of the few people considered more online than Oyler. 

No One Is Talking About This is autofiction, written in small fragments to look like “a fictional feed, a fictional scroll downwards into whatever it is we’re doing”. Like Lockwood, the unnamed narrator has gained modest fame online after one of her posts goes viral (“Can a dog be twins?”) and is now paid to speak at conferences around the world as an expert on the internet. She is by all standards “extremely online” – a descriptor which Lockwood defines to me as “when it feels like you’re breathing the internet instead of reading it”. 

The first half of the novel reads like a highlights reel of being online over the past five years. Where Oyler’s depiction of the internet in Fake Accounts resonated with its reader by describing the recognisable minutiae of scrolling on your phone, Lockwood connects by using our shared catalogue of very internet-y images: “Pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying her foundation with a hard-boiled egg, a shiba inu [the “doge” dog] in Japan leaning from paw to paw to greet its owner.” The narrator later refers to an image of a tree frog that looks like a slice of melted cheese – if you know, you know. “The fact is that those images are instantly recognisable to so many people but we’re also asking ourselves, for how long? You’re scrolling down these things as a community taking them in altogether, but you’re also acknowledging how of the moment they are,” she explains. No doubt, the internet moves fast: no one that is “very-online” says “lolz” with a “z” anymore, unless of course ironically.  

“That’s the animating impulse of the entire book, this panic over whether anyone is going to be able to understand what we’re talking about,” she laughs. Admittedly, the idea of future archaeologists digging up our browser history to discover the definition of a “smooth brain” is hilarious. “I liked the fact that a lot of the book was going to pass out of consciousness very quickly even though it feels so permanent in the moment.” For Lockwood then, putting those viral images to paper is a way of embalming them in amber for future generations to decipher and interpret in a new way, giving fresh life to a soon-to-be old version of the internet. She pins them in place like a butterfly under glass. 

The book’s third-person narrative is typical of Lockwood’s poetry. It flits between sincere and frivolous, waxing sacred or irreverent or both. Some passages echo Oyler’s funny riffs on the internet’s empty moralism: “Something in the back of her head hurt. It was her new class consciousness.” The protagonist’s digitally inflected existence, however, is later interrupted when her pregnant sister learns that her baby has a congenital disorder – a storyline based on Lockwood’s own younger sibling, Mary, who had a similar condition when she was pregnant. 

The emergency plucks her from the ether and plops her into “real life”; she steps back from the “portal” to spend time with her family. Crucially, however, there is no change in the narrative tone and the protagonist's experiences remain filtered through the blue glow of the internet. “When something awful like that happens, you experience a fracture and you’re in this new world but that doesn’t mean you shed any of the previous language that you’ve been using, or your previous sense of humour, right?” explains Lockwood. “The frameworks that you’ve learned to look at the world, those things are still there for you – you still have them, and they still serve you.” The narrator’s response (“I was a mythology girl”) after the doctor diagnoses the baby with Proteus syndrome is as meaningful and appropriate as any other. In times of trauma, the internet – its silliness and irony – are there as a linguistic crutch when words are hard to come by. 

In one moment, Lockwood’s narrator bemoans the collapse in context that can happen between people of differing online-ness, most notably with mothers who can’t stop using horny emojis (“NEVER SEND ME THE EGGPLANT AGAIN, MOM!”). Overall, though, the internet portrayed in No One Is Talking About This is a positive one, and its language – which signals a breakdown in Oyler’s novel – is useful. Oyler recently spoke of the two novels, debuting in the same month, as “evil twins”. The two authors circle the same questions about the internet but reach contrary conclusions. And really, what’s truer of the internet than that?

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