‘Getting Real’ with Lauren Oyler: Relationship building and decision making in virtual landscapes

Instead of taking advantage of the obvious, Lauren Oyler’s style of thinking and joking is more critical—critical in a way I consider intrinsically optimistic. Her work is instilled with a sense that things could be better if people actually read, wrote and thought carefully and rigorously. Oyler is an American literary critic and freshly-minted debut author, who has established a reputation for writing poignant and hilarious, albeit scathing, book reviews. 

In 2014 she reviewed Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist,” having no mercy as she opened with, “I have always hated Roxane Gay’s writing,” and criticized its “blogginess.” Gay’s reply? She said it was clear that Oyler had read the book very carefully. If anything, Oyler certainly does that: She is a careful reader and a thoughtful writer. If she fears being deemed disagreeable, it’s undetectable. Although she and I came close to making fun of people who need to reach a consensus in order to do anything with their lives, Oyler is warm and notably un-mean (even when a cheap shot against people who uncritically go along with the masses is readily available). She understands people and their fears; she knows the things we tell ourselves about the world and our own selves for comfort, and she is not afraid to push for more nuanced thinking and candor from herself and others.

On April 6, I sat down with Oyler over Zoom to chat about the very thing that made our conversation possible: the virtual. For the past year, I have been writing a thesis, grounded in political theory, on people’s relations with the digital. This research informed my reading of Oyler’s debut novel “Fake Accounts,” as the unnamed narrator plays with different personas while musing about the virtues and ills of the Internet, dating apps and social media. This contemplation of the digital world follows her discovery that the boyfriend she thought was offline actually ran a conspiracy theory Instagram page with tens of thousands of followers. She resolves to break up with him, but he dies in a biking accident along the Hudson River before she gets the chance. Through her confusing, ungrieflike grief and immediate jaunt to Berlin, where she goes on dates masked by personas concocted from the basis of astrological signs, she starts to question what is “real” and what is “fake.” As Oyler and I  sat, with our faces simultaneously both inches and miles apart from each other, we discussed what it means to have a “real relationship” over the landscape of the virtual, theorized on what it takes to make a life-altering decision and how declarations of one’s own character are not how people build intimacy with each other. 

Before I could ask her about her own Internet relationships, and as if she had the ability to read my mind, Oyler laid out a description of how the relationships developed online are weird in nature: People actually do notice that you’re gone when you don’t post. The Internet makes people feel a need to continually be updating their statuses and feeds, with the impetus of constantly reminding people of their existence. Oyler empathizes with this feeling, adding, “I think that the way Twitter works is that it makes other people seem like characters to you. Like everybody is like a narrator in some way. And you just get to watch this sort of, like, large-scale play take place every day.” 

She continued, “I think that you don’t need to be super precious about the individual things that you say if you develop these relationships, which I’m not saying you should, but like lots of random strangers know who I am, because they’ve been reading my little messages for 10 years.”

I said that her Twitter followers probably feel like they know her. She told me that, to a certain extent, they do. If people are good readers, it is quite possible to read someone’s character when they are participating in this ongoing large-scale play that is social media. Oyler likes to think that even relationships with people online that are tenuous are still real relationships, even relationships with people who you message with occasionally and then “they betray you in some way, which—” she then laughed—“seems to happen.” In this, she made a clear distinction. Just because something isn’t good doesn’t mean that it isn’t real

At this point, Oyler referenced a conversation she had with New Yorker writer Naomi Fry. She recalled,  “Her relationship with her daughter is better than her relationship with me, but it’s not more real than her relationship with me. Like, I talk to her on Twitter DM[s] every couple of months and have met her in person a few times. That is real.” 

Both Oyler and I acknowledged the tendency of people to distinguish between their “online” life and their “in real life” life, as if one is “more real” than the other. Rather than turning to the word “real,” it seems more appropriate to me to understand the differences in these relationships in terms of grains, as if they have a different texture to them. All of it, the digital and non-digital, is very real.

Oyler spoke to this, saying, “I think what a lot of people don’t want to do is incorporate the true nature of reality into their understanding of reality, if that makes sense. They don’t want to admit that the world is like this. ‘Cause it feels bad.” 

Living through smooth touch screens and keyboards does have an uncanny and even dystopian feeling about it. But, it is how it is. The way that digitality saturates life can, and in my eyes should, be critiqued, but accepting it as the truth of the situation is key to building an intentional relationship with these mechanisms. People have always felt this way about technologies that mediate their relations with each other. It’s a fact of life, and although she doesn’t feel wonderful and fuzzy about her own relationship with Twitter, Oyler doesn’t consider it particular to the present moment, despite how the details may have changed with the proliferation of the digital.

When Oyler’s protagonist is hit with this conspiratorial-boyfriend-that-she-was-going-to- break-up-with-is-now-dead crisis, she ups and moves to Berlin, where she met him and had lived with him. With no job, no housing, no visa, no plan, she does it. I relayed my appreciation to Oyler for this jagged turn. For my own thesis, I consulted the works of theorist Byung-Chul Han, who writes on neoliberalism and how it favors smoothness. By flattening out differences and obstacles in favor of efficiency and full transparency, communication and capital can move with ease. 

I have always admired when people make decisions that seem to be very inconvenient. My parents have an understandable tendency to over-optimize in every way possible, from leaving the house at the exact hour when there will be the least traffic to always driving to the same gas station with the lowest price, even when it’s not on our way. As a consequence of their efficiency and frugality, I find myself caught up in thinking in terms of efficiency as well. Rebelliously, I idealize people who make inconvenient decisions work for them, with whatever annoyances and friction that come along. I explained this mentality of mine to Oyler and in turn, she shared, “I always think about how many sort of life paths are purportedly set for you today, even though there’s more freedom than ever before. And there’s this, I guess, neoliberal, encouragement to think of your life as needing to have these sort of set pathways, but actually, it’s quite easy for you to just decide one day, ‘I’m going to go move to Berlin.’” 

Making decisions that seem unsmooth comes fraught with inconveniences and headaches, but what bogs people down the most is the mere thought of these inconveniences, rather than actually facing them. Oyler remarked, “Part of the thing that is so surprising to the protagonist is that she can get all worked up about the visa process and hear all this stuff about it, but actually, she just goes in and it’s totally fine. Sure, it is annoying, but it’s not this big thing.”

Oyler and I discussed how we both think it is natural for people to want to arrive at some semblance of a consensus with others, particularly when one is faced with such large, insurmountable, incomprehensible opportunities. The sheer massiveness of the world is clearer to us than ever before with the internet showing us endless folds in reality. You can see so much at once, and it can be paralyzing.

We, any and all of us people, can wake up and decide to do something differently, to give a solid, concerted effort towards something in the face of doubt. You can only control yourself and your own behavior, which makes me think of Joan Didion’s 1961 essay for Vogue on self-respect. Moral nerve and character, “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” as Didion puts it, are the sources from which self-respect flourishes. Having self-respect means that you know the cost of things and make decisions with the full knowledge of that cost, no matter what it is. 

Oyler’s unnamed protagonist weaves a web of lies through self-declarations, such as telling the woman she babysits for that she is an accountant or lying to a date about being a professional dancer. She does this with a secret hope of being found out, of having a “real” connection where someone perceives her and calls her out on her bullshit. Reliance on self-declarations shields people from the risks of vulnerability, of letting someone figure out who you are and what you’re about. In the densely theoretical book “The Society of the Spectacle,” Guy Debord states that through “spectacularizing” the world, social life has degraded from being, into having and into appearing to have. We live in a world where even merely appearing to possess something (a character trait, a style, a way of being) is given value. In actuality, true, deep intimacy develops from letting yourself be perceived over a period of time, not from making declarations about yourself, your character or your commitments (Debord, “The Society of the Spectacle,” 2010).

As we chatted about the book, Oyler realized aloud that part of the way she keeps it on track is by having the protagonist constantly thinking about things in indeterminate ways. Oyler equivocated, adding that she hopes the book is quite evolved and smart and whatever, but even if it isn’t, the narrative style of the book is meant to seem like the protagonist is really talking to you in a certain way, rather than preparing a statement. This matches Oyler’s own style. Clever and incisive, she also pauses, constantly throwing the filler word ‘like’ and disclaimers into her dialogue as we spoke. Without moralizing, but with integrity, Oyler keeps things funny and highlights a real humanness as she builds a literary world similar to our own, where we’re not always quite sure what details we can trust. 

As we go through the world, we as people tell ourselves things about ourselves, our characters, our commitments and our relationships with others in order to grasp them in a certain light. Our conceptions of reality need to include that which we find uncomfortable. If we build self-respect and become comfortable with being uncomfortable, we can then take the steps, whether tedious or monstrous, necessary to shape our lives with intentionality. As Oyler noted to me, “Everybody talks about big decisions as if they matter more than actually do. So many of the things that we do in life are extremely arbitrary and then they set you on a different path… they can just change your path. That’s not something I want to overstate, but it is just true.” By considering the parts of life that might not be so idyllic, like hours of screen time spent on Twitter per day, we can cultivate self-respect and take responsibility for how we conduct our lives. Maybe for some this inspires a spontaneous move across the Atlantic, but it doesn’t need to. Oyler’s protagonist’s way of decision making is a reminder that we can take the reins, even when we aren’t quite sure what’s real and what’s fake.


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