Can I be honest with you? As much as I love talking about the books that have brought me immense joy, I find it equally as exciting to talk about books that I absolutely couldn't stand. One of the great benefits of owning a bookstore is being exposed to new releases, upcoming novels and just generally being immersed in the myriad of topics being explored in the world of publishing. Two recent novels that caught my attention were Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler and No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Both titles have been published in 2021, and have received critical acclaim, with No One Is Talking About This being on the shortlist for the Women's Fiction Prize this year.
And honestly speaking, I couldn't stand either of them. I read Fake Accounts earlier this year, and was surprised that I managed to finish it at all (something that can't be said for my experience with No One Is Talking About This which I abandoned three quarters of the way in). Lauren Oyler is a debut novelist, but prior to that had built up quite the reputation for writing scathing reviews of other millennial novelists, one of which included Jia Tolentino's popular collection of essays 'Trick Mirror'.
When I came across the premise of Fake Accounts, I was hooked; a woman discovers that her aloof boyfriend is a secret conspiracy theorist, and decides to break up with him only to be confronted with a bizarre twist in fate that leads her to abandon her life in New York and move to Berlin where she first met him. There, she proceeds to 'Do Nothing', and eventually starts to concoct new characters for herself to test out on men she meets on dating sites.
The book is written in a stream of consciousness style, and perhaps it was my lack of appreciation for the method overall that overtook how I perceived the book but I found the absence of an actual plot frustrating. There is no semblance of character development throughout the novel, and while our narrator is just about self-aware enough to know that she is quite self-involved, this doesn't make her any more relatable or likeable. There are some funny observations about the world and the ways in which we construct identities sprinkled throughout the 272 pages, but the narrators limited capacity for self-reflection and half-hearted self-criticism came across rather obnoxious. The bizarre 'twist' in the last few pages of the novel comes across as an attempt to leave the reader shell shocked by the turn of events, but I was so exhausted by the narcissism of the narrator by then that I simply didn't care.
There were certain points in the novel where it felt as though Oyler wanted to be congratulated for her cleverness, such as when she abandons the long winded and rambling paragraphs that make up the majority of the novel and adopts short unconnected paragraphs. This re-structuring is portrayed as a parody of writers who do in fact, write like this (the entirety of No One Is Talking About This is written in this format), and in Oyler's own words, '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.'
An astute observation, because why would I want to read a book that makes me feel like I've emerged from the depths of a hellish doomscroll through Instagram / Tiktok / Reddit / Facebook / dating app of your preference? I get that this book is supposed to be a metaphor for the ways we spend time on the internet, the construction and intersection of real vs. online identities, but I found it absolutely insufferable. 'To be clear, I know this is boring' the narrator tells us on several occasions, and I'm inclined to agree with her.
After the disappointment of Fake Accounts, I was hesitant to read another novel featuring 'the internet' but the shortlisting of No One Is Talking About This for the Women's Fiction Prize this year is what compelled me to pick up the book. Written by acclaimed poet, novelist, and essayist Patricia Lockwood, it's described as an 'urgent, genre-defying book' on the Goodreads page, and I was genuinely really excited to read this.
We follow a nameless protagonist who has acquired online fame after tweeting 'Can a dog be twins?' and has since become an authority on all things internet. If there was an inside joke that provides context to the layout and structure of this novel, it went over my head as I'm not a Twitter user. I briefly attempted to understand what the hype was all about when I was in college, but quickly abandoned the endeavour as it felt very much like standing on the top of a cliff and shouting absurdities into the abyss hoping to hear something revelatory back but unsurprisingly, only hearing my own distorted voice.
The novel is supposed to be experimental, split into two parts with the first part being an adventure through the internet, which is referred to as 'the portal', and the second half bringing us back to reality when something terrible happens in real life. The stream-of-consciousness style of writing, coupled with the short jumpy paragraphs felt haphazard and and the pointless references to internet jokes that are forgotten in all of 10 minutes was exhausting. Let me share an example:
'Every day we were seeing new evidence that suggested it was the portal that had allowed the dictator to rise to power. This was humiliating. It would be like discovering that the Vietnam War was secretly caused by ham radios, or that Napoleon was operating exclusively on the advice of a parrot named Brian'.
This thought ends here. There is no before, or after to this little tidbit of information and the lack of any continuity, plot, development, explanation gave me such a headache that I abandoned the book with about 30 odd pages left. While I felt Fake Accounts was attempting to be clever and the narrator spent a significant amount of time explaining everything, this was the opposite but equally as frustrating. I seem to be rather drawn to these types of novels that contemplate the nature of the digital self, and the role it's played in our lives but I don't get much value out of them. On further reflection, I suppose what I'm looking for with books about 'the internet' is an understanding of how and why things happen rather than a replica of the digital experience in a book? I think both these books are attempting to capture the experience of being online, and could be viewed as commentaries on the ways we consume information in fragmented and scattered ways but that's not what I'm looking for when I'm reading a book.
I'm not reading books because they're clever - I read because I want to feel something magical, I want to be transported away from my day-to-day reality and emerge from this experience of reading a better person, transformed into an improved version of myself, or at worst, having had a blast reading it. Unfortunately, I experienced neither with Fake Accounts and No One Is Talking About This and have come to the conclusion that I simply do not enjoy contemporary millennial internet fiction.
I realise this is a terrible review of two books that we sell in store, and hardly encouraging for anyone reading this to pick up either title, but I would like to take this opportunity to stress the importance of making up your own mind about something so subjective. Everything I've shared here are my personal thoughts and feelings, and it's quite possible that there are many people who might enjoy exactly this style of writing. I've read many a book over the years that had terrible reviews on Goodreads but have had a phenomenal experience reading them myself, so I would encourage you to take my words with a pinch of salt and come to your own conclusions after reading the books. After all, how else are we to learn our literary likes and dislikes if not through trial and error?