Can A Novel Capture How Badly The Internet Has Broken Our Brains?

One of the most demoralizing aspects of spending half of my time on social media is that it makes me worse company for myself. In search of good posts and lured by the prospect of finding my occasional posts deemed good themselves, I willingly bathe my brain in the toxic slurry of nasty tweets, subtweets, thirst traps, and indecipherable memes. The effects of this on my psyche are those that most people report. I am consumed by the desire for better clothes, home decor, jokes, and ideas to present online. When I open my mouth to talk to my husband over dinner, what comes out are smugly informed tick-tocks of little dramas he doesn’t care about (bean dad, iodized salt). When I’m alone, I wonder whether certain scathing subtweets are about me or, if not, whether they indict me nonetheless. Every punctuation mark creates indecision when I post myself, and I am embarrassed by the attention paid or withheld. I wouldn’t say I like spending time with my brain when it’s like this: selfish, defensive, and trivial.

This is one of the significant challenges in addressing social media in fiction; it hardly sounds stimulating to read about characters strategically composing a post with the correct number of question marks or considering the best dunks on the day’s Twitter main character. It reflects a part of our life that wastes time and energy, which tends to leave us feeling itchy and alienated from others and ourselves. In two almost mirror-image novels, critic Lauren Oyler and poet Patricia Lockwood have shouldered turning the particular brain poisoning acquired online into literature. Both books — Oyler’s relentlessly wordy satire “Fake Accounts” and Lockwood’s deeply felt, fragmented novel “No One Is Talking About This” — are dazzling, devastatingly funny, and sharply observed accounts of life on and around social media. They’re also cased studies on how difficult it is to write fiction that gives us a real insight into our brain-parasite-like relationship with social media without giving us the same bone-deep sense of self-loathing and futility six hours of scrolling Twitter.


Narrated by a nameless young woman who shares biographical details with Oyler — a stint working as a blogger for an edgy digital media company in New York, a term living in Berlin, literary ambitions, etc. — “Fake Accounts” is a novel about how we shape our personas, online and off, and become neurotic, diminished creatures with no authentic self to call our own. The specter of Oyler’s public persona — specifically, her often-brutal book reviews, which tend to go viral in proportion to exactly how brutal they are — inevitably hangs over her debut novel, the critic made vulnerable to criticism herself. She doesn’t avoid this on the page; her narrator explains that she hopes to not only understand herself better through writing but to “enchant an audience, promote certain principles I feel are lacking in contemporary literature, interpret events both world-historical and interpersonal (perhaps at the same time), etc.” If it would be impossible to separate Lauren Oyler, the critic, from the narrator and main character of Lauren Oyler’s novel, why not simply address it head-on and control the narrative?

Addressing anything, however, is a fraught act in “Fake Accounts.” The novel begins with confrontations avoided: It opens shortly after the 2016 election, with a sketch of the mood of apocalyptic doom that has overtaken the narrator’s left-liberal New York City milieu, a common acceptance that it was too late to save the world. “We don’t want to die, but we also don’t want to do anything challenging, such as what living requires,” the narrator reflects. “The end of the world would let us have our cake and eat it, too.” Meanwhile, she has become suspicious of her boyfriend, Felix, and his habit of sleeping with his phone under his pillow.

While asleep, she goes through his phone and finds evidence, not of infidelity, that he is running a famous conspiracy theorist’s Instagram. Though shocked, she decides not to confront him immediately, preferring to have the dominant position — knowing his secret when he doesn’t know she knows and mentally preparing for a breakup he doesn’t anticipate. The planned division is still looming when she gets a phone call from Felix’s wealthy, distant mother: Felix has died in an accident while biking. This confounds the narrator; she is relieved she doesn’t have to dump him and unsure how to process her position as a presumptive grieving girlfriend.

Her examinations of this are more clinical than emotional: “Was there something to be sad about? I had been with a person; I had come to see him as despicable; pangs of doubt about that assessment were chalked up to memories and hormones and ultimately redoubled my certainty of his contemptibility; now, we were no longer together.” She thinks disdainfully of a photo of a pink neon sign reading “FEELINGS” that a coworker had used as a social media background. She finds it reminiscent of the trend of publicly over-emoting small things like celebrity crushes. “Now that I had actual feelings,” she thinks, “I could say for certain the whole trend was absurd. Feelings are nothing like a pink neon sign at all.” Hers, at least, are not so vivid; every feeling in “Fake Accounts” is wrapped in so many layers of self-awareness and posturing I’d be hard-pressed to identify an emotion not primarily rooted in or expressed as embarrassment or annoyance.

Something is brewing inside, however. Shortly after Felix’s death, she spontaneously quits her blogging job and moves to Berlin, where they initially met — she is a tourist and an American ex-pat. Once there, she makes half-hearted attempts to sightsee, make friends, find work, and date online; primarily, she lies in bed, staring at social media apps on her phone and trying to trace the relationships between the people she follows or post things that earn her some cheap likes.

At one point, she remembers a childhood incident in which she mimicked the main character of “Harriet the Spy” by filling a notebook with nasty observations about a friend, Kayla, and then intentionally leaving the notebook for Kayla to find. When Kayla’s mother called to report that her daughter was in tears, she panicked: “I had ceded my thoughts in exchange for becoming the focus of attention, and now I had less control over who I was to other people.” It’s an almost too-perfect description of the work of a combative critic like Oyler. Overtly judging people is an act with a specific vulnerability: It invites not just delighted attention but dislike, social censure, and scrutiny in return.

And, more saliently to most of us, this is a description of the attention economy of Twitter. In Berlin, out of sync with her usual Twitter cohort, she can’t even waste time there as quickly as before. She keeps seeking the attention she gets online, though she knows it’s “illusory, inspired by my virtual persona and not myself.” She misses the “pathetic project” of pursuing this illusory attention. Online, it’s almost a game: Male followers are drawn to her pouty photo, hair tumbling over her eyes and nose; she, like other successful posters, tweets crude jokes and definite opinions with an air of assumed confidence. Any nuance or messiness falls into the gaps between the 280 characters and the photo captions.

“Fake Accounts” is presented as a text being authored by the main character, who is making her audience privy to the running inner monologue of an attempt to outrun critique. She occasionally pauses to explain her motives, admit that she has glossed over their complexity, or imagine the reactions of her ex-boyfriends, a sort of sporadic Greek chorus. “You did not look down in horror, the ex-boyfriends are saying, shaking their heads,” she interpolates at one point. “You were not horrified.” She’s exquisitely aware that her narration will not — perhaps should not — be taken at face value. When there’s a miscalculation, though — when a post goes wrong, you reach for attention and accidentally reveal an ugly part of yourself, or when you’re read ungenerously or out of context — the fallout is intense.

Faced with such a punitive audience, who among us wouldn’t become flinchy, guarded, and prone to apologizing in advance, over-qualifying our opinions, or pretending we’re somewhat different and more likable than we are? In some of the funniest scenes, the narrator of “Fake Accounts” makes this calculation during in-person conversations, carefully modulating her tone to push back on ardently pro-Clinton coworkers by bringing up the “intersection of class with race and gender and sexuality,” then adding a conciliatory “but she does have to deal with a lot of shit,” a bit of accepted wisdom she clearly either doesn’t believe or care about. Most of us find it easier to be liked, even by those we find somewhat contemptible.

If the novel is moral, it’s against that evasion of judgment and confrontation. Oyler’s narrator professes a distaste for the misleadingly simple thoughts presented on social media. All the complexity pared away in favor of something punchy and shareable. A significant chunk of the book is framed by her dislike for contemporary novels written in fragments, both because “in its attempts to reflect the world as a sequence of distinct and formed ideas, it ran counter to how reality worked” and because the fragmentation of modern life it’s meant to reflect is “extremely stressful.” “Why would I want to make my book like Twitter?” she recalls. “If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.”

A”Fake Accounts” is written against the fragment and the concise statement, everything picked apart and examined rather than left to speak for itself. s a display of the shortcomings of this form, the narrator chooses to write a chunk of the novel in fragments — almost immediately castigating herself for writing longer and denser pieces, spinning complexity and cohesion out of disconnected observations. “he is not any less stressful than a fragmented novel; “Fake Accounts” is one of the more stressful novels I’ve read lately. It doesn’t reproduce the interrupted flow of life on Twitter but produces the mental state it induces: uneasy, lightly paranoid, claustrophobic, and cynical. “Fake Accounts” is exciting for its commitment to considering everything, to never glossing over. But while successful at capturing the misery of life online, it sometimes feels captured by it. A neon sign would be a relief.

No One Is Talking About This” is written entirely in short observations, appropriate for a poet and a masterful tweeter. LFForeon and fragments; however, there’s Lockwood. ocLockwood’sain character (the novel is written in close third-person) also shares details with Lockwood’s persona — she’s from the Midwest, married, and extremely online in the weird Twitter sense, her life fueled by encounters with the stream of outré content that everyone is sharing.

But Lockwood’s subject is less the tortured consideration of self-presentation than the interface between user and platform, person and world. Through a collage of images, jokes, news items, video snippets, and observations, she zooms in on the close relationship her protagonist has with a fictional analog of Twitter called “the portal,” absent the overlying thread of the sense-making narrative, we tend to impose on our lives and the world. “No One Is Talking About This” observes the social platform as if it’s science fiction rather than mundane fact. “She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway,” the book begins. “Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.”

It’s as if she’s zoomed in so tightly on a loved one’s face that it looks like an alien landscape; the extreme close-up creates a perceptual distance. The present seems so bizarre and futuristic that it’s almost impenetrable. By more literally replicating the form of the internet, the novel ends up less closely resembling the emotional experience of being online than “Fake Accounts,” stripping away the connective tissue of anxious analysis. Instead, like a child entering the world, we’re presented with the sludge of memes and news briefs with a sense of almost mystical wonder.

Like the author, the main character specializes in provocative, comic observations; she’s become somewhat famous for the post “can a dog be twins?” Aside from that, her primary occupation seems to be traveling the world, sitting on panels with other internet-famous people, and explaining why so many people pay attention to what they do. The more she tries to explain “why it was objectively funnier to spell it ‘sneezing,'” the more ineffable it seems. These scenes are funny but somewhat frustrating; the answers don’t seem to be there, and there isn’t much interest in trying for them. Her life floats on in a stream of discrete encounters with GIFs of cute animals. “This did not feel like real life, exactly,” she thinks, “but nowadays, what did?”

Then something not online happens: Her sister gets pregnant, then learns late in the pregnancy that her unborn daughter has Proteus syndrome, the life-threatening medical condition John Merrick, the Elephant Man, was believed to have suffered from. Abortion is never surfaced because of the state’s restrictive laws and their parents’ beliefs. The book is cleaved in two by the diagnosis. The real world reasserts itself forcefully. She rushes from a speaking engagement in Vienna back to Ohio, her childhood home, to be with her sister. “Great gap in the thrumming of the knowledge of the news,” Lockwood writes.

Her perfect synchrony with the portal’s gush of content has faltered; what’s happening on the internet no longer seems important. She attends ultrasound appointments with her sister and turns her very-online mode of speaking to the more private purpose of coming to terms with the baby’s diagnosis. (“‘Forgive me for thinking,’ she argued in the shower, ‘that every baby should get to have an ass. Call me old-fashioned, but I happen to believe that a BABY! should get to have an ASS! No matter WHAT!'”)

Before this happened, her brother had told them about a conversation with a friend, an expecting father, with “terrible Internet poisoning.” “Saw my daughter’s tits on the ultrasound. Looked pretty good!” the friend had told him. “Damn, dude, really?” said her brother. “I don’t know how to act,” his friend responded. “I’ve been this way so long; I don’t know how to be anymore.” This is another way the performance of social media fucks us up: We forget how to speak and act in modes that aren’t tailored to the purpose of getting laughs online.

Lockwood hints, too, at the internet’s lack of stakes, a proliferation of political memes divorced from the suffering that makes them necessary. The woman tries to feel her way into embodying the trendy stances: “Every fiber in her being strained. She was trying to hate the police.” Her therapist suggests that she start small and work up to it. But later, when her cop father makes an insensitive comment about abortion, the hatred seems to flow more easily. “When that sentence woke her in the purple part of a night, she would tug her phone off the bedside table, post the words eat the police in the portal, wait for it to get sixty-nine likes, then delete it.”

But having a life no longer lived primarily online doesn’t mean leaving the fragmentation behind. Taken from a state of constant symbiosis with the portal, Lockwood’s heroine is still borne along on a tide of vivid moments and reflexive responses to stimuli. The communal urgency and exhaustion of her family’s life with her niece mirror, more intensely, the collaborative speed and weariness of life online. The doctors told the doctors that if the baby lived long after birth, “she would live in her senses. Her fingertips, ears, sleepiness, and wide awake, a ripple along the skin wherever she was touched.” These sensory moments are what they all have with her — as in the portal, moments that drift over them and accumulate into something with ineffable weight.

It would be simple to say that what happens in the portal has been exposed as frivolous and wasted time. But what the novel explores is something more textured than this. The world of the portal is gross, disposable, and wasteful of time and thought. It’s also a form of communion with others, where we experience each other and the world. The culture that merges in the portal is flattenings — “I’ve been this way so long, I don’t know how to be any more” — and redemptive in its particularity. It makes us something other than mere archetypes. When her sister sometimes seems to disappear into her maternal role, passionate and endlessly giving, her generational quirks ground her: wearing hot pink to a funeral, assuming an ironic swagger instead of the timeless posture of the weeping mother.

In “No One Is Talking About This,” there’s a visceral sense of the genuine feeling underlying the performance — unironic emotion, raw and unself-conscious, that emerges in response to a baby’s laugh or a loved one’s illness. Where “Fake Accounts” is all head, this novel is mostly heart. It’s striking when the two stories are read in succession; the bright tang of joy, grief, and hilarity in Lockwood’s writing overwhelms. Something does fall between the cracks of the fragments through an understanding of how the internet shapes us beyond the immediate stimulation and the cultural references. It’s a kaleidoscopic flurry, a snowdrift of feelings and relations, and the logic of it is mainly up to us to decipher — unless we wish to lie back and let the sentences fall on our tongues and eyelashes.

Perhaps this is an evasion, a failure on the novel’s part to try to make more sense of things. Oyler’s narrator would likely think so. But it is no less an evasion to withhold any profound emotion; feeling deeply, like thinking critically, is one of those challenges that living requires. Perhaps the greatest challenge we need to master is doing both simultaneously. Though both novels do very well, they don’t offer this. In all fairness, social media isn’t a great place for that. Calling all HuffPost superfans! Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter.

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!