Lauren Oyler on the Drama of Swiping and Scrolling

“You could say conspiracy theories are like bad fiction, which attempts to tie everything up and explain it all.”

A portrait of Lauren Oyler with colored blocks
Pete Voelker
Editor’s Note: Read Lauren Oyler’s new fiction, “Discovery.”

“Discovery” is taken from Lauren Oyler’s forthcoming novel, Fake Accounts (available on February 2). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Oyler and Oliver Munday, a senior art director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: “Discovery” is an excerpt from your debut novel, Fake Accounts. This piece, and the novel more broadly, is concerned with the nature of conspiracy theories. Fiction has been tested by the surreality of the Trump era, during which movements like QAnon have gained popularity. Did you feel any pressure during the writing of this novel as a result?

Lauren Oyler: I felt energized by the idea that fiction was being tested by the surreality of the Trump era, as I feel energized by all ideas I strongly disagree with! All, or almost all, novels take place in a historical moment, and there’s nothing so outrageous about this one that makes it particularly difficult to represent. The existence of bad fiction that fails to capture the moment doesn’t prove that fiction can’t do it. I really believe that fiction is a better way to think through some of the trendiest pressing questions about what an individual is supposed to do, or be, in a collective reality. If you look past the headlines and the stupid flashiness of the era, you find relationships and social dynamics defined by ambivalence, uncertainty, and distrust, which are very well served by fiction.

As for the conspiracy theories, I wrote the book between the beginning of 2017 and the summer of 2018, and I was pretty far along by the time Q posted for the first time, which was in October 2017. The events of the novel conclude a bit before that. In the book, conspiracy theories end up being something of a misdirection, and I think that’s how they’ve come to work in politics and the news, too—they’re a tool for distraction and a way to manipulate people who might need a sense of purpose, clarity, or self-esteem. Occasionally I worried something would happen that would render all my ideas ill-conceived and moot, but I trusted that if I got the relationships and mood and tone right, the book would ring true after the news had moved on. Besides, the news moves on much slower than it seems to online.

Munday: You’ve primarily written nonfiction essays and literary criticism. Have you always been working on fiction? How and when did this novel take shape in your mind?

Oyler: I first responded to this question, “I started writing bits of fiction at the end of college,” but then I remembered I won a short-story competition in the fifth grade. At the awards ceremony, we realized I was the only person who’d entered. So I must have always been working on fiction. But the real answer is that after I graduated from college, I moved to Berlin, in part because it was still so cheap then and I wanted to have time to work on my writing. I was in writing groups and exchanges with other expats there, and I published a few stories that you could find online if you wanted to embarrass me. Meanwhile I was writing listicles and blogs about books for a couple of websites, and I became very invested in what was going on in contemporary literature that way.

I’m not particularly drawn to short stories, so I think I was just waiting for a good novel idea to come to me. I wanted to write something in which the internet and social media were portrayed very realistically, from an insider’s point of view, without having the novel reproduce the feeling of being online, which is terrible. I also wanted to write something that would apply the immediacy, flexibility, and autobiographical instability of the autofictional narrator, which I like very much, to more classical or even conventional modes of storytelling. I wish I remembered what happened next, but all I know is that one day I Gchatted a friend to say I’d come up with this plot, which I thought was hilarious, and it came together from there.

Munday: The unnamed narrator of “Discovery” addresses the reader explicitly several times, and as she continues to investigate her boyfriend, Felix’s, Instagram account, we get the sense that she’s trying to justify her actions to us. Is she?

Oyler: She’s playing with the expectation that she will try to justify her actions—while also acquiescing to the expectation that she try to justify her actions. Our discussion of literature (and life) often involves pat psychological motivations, but in reality so much is really weird and difficult to explain. (Indeed, sometimes people do things in order to be weird and difficult to explain.) Despite all her analysis, the narrator can’t really justify what she’s doing, but she’s very aware of her audience, as she would be if she were on social media, where everyone feels pressure to act like they’re some believable version of a good and/or interesting person. While I was working on the novel I kept thinking about the way I would tell the story to a friend, as if it were gossip, and I wanted 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. Metafiction can seem kind of tacky these days, but it’s very intuitive; whenever you’re telling a story, you’re always bouncing stuff off your audience, or digressing and then coming back and referring to the fact that you’re telling a story.

Munday: In “Discovery,” you skillfully dramatize an act that is very rote and familiar to most of us: interfacing with a smartphone. Was it a challenge to render riveting the scrolling and tapping required to use such a device?

Oyler: In some ways, yes. The verbs have to feel authentic—they have to be the verbs a “very online” person might reasonably use to describe what they’re doing with the phone—but I wanted to avoid the deadening effect that reproducing slang or tech vocabulary can have. I also wanted to emphasize all the choices that go into these technologies, both on the part of the user and the part of the designers, and I wanted it to read well enough to someone who’s addicted to their phone and to someone who might not have a smartphone at all. I worried that the book would feel dated in some way by the time it came out, so the detailed descriptions of the narrator using her phone also serve a practical purpose, which is to make sure that most readers can follow what’s going on, even if they’re Luddites or reading 20 years in the future, when all the technology has evolved.

The drama was the fun part—so much drama takes place in our phones anyway, and it’s difficult to talk about it in nonfiction because a lot of it is fundamentally petty, though it really affects the people involved. The little social-media spats that show up periodically throughout the book are based on things I’ve seen or been a part of online. And of course I’ve snooped through an ex-boyfriend’s phone. I think he’s forgiven me … though of course you can never be sure.

Munday: Felix is a mystery to us, as he is in many respects to the narrator herself. This mystery turns her into a bit of a conspiracy theorist as she concocts ideas about his private life. Do you feel that the unknowable aspects of the people with whom we’re intimate will always provoke this kind of speculation?

Oyler: I don’t! I think Felix is a particularly guarded, and particularly manipulative, person, and that’s both what attracts the narrator and what ends up repelling/obsessing her. The drive to speculate, to theorize, and to find out is natural, which is why conspiracy theorists take advantage of it, but there are many people who do want to be known and are open to others, even if they’re clumsy in the way they go about it. This is why social media can be so cringeworthy—it’s full of people accidentally revealing themselves. But Felix would never allow himself to get into a situation where some little bit of his “real” personality might escape into the world.

Munday: In a very funny scene, you describe the narrator’s laborious skin-care regimen, whose political and cultural ramifications she is deeply aware of, yet she partakes in it regardless. This ambivalence captures something essential about the difficulties of living in a world of endless consumer choice. What does this scene reveal about the narrator?

Oyler: First, it reveals that she’s a member of a certain demographic—she’s a skeptic but not an outsider or a conscientious objector. Second, it reveals that she cares about how she looks, and she knows that professing to care about how she looks is a fraught pursuit that could make her look bad, so she makes fun of herself for it, which is really just doubling down on the fact that she cares about how she looks. That’s important to know when attempting to determine her reliability as a narrator.

She’s also quoting little bits of Marx while she’s doing her skin-care routine—that’s what the interstitial mantras are—so we learn that she’s not so sentimental about either the personal or the political that she won’t make fun of either. To get the full force of the joke, it’s worth knowing what follows the line that goes “Great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment.” It’s from one of Marx’s letters, and the thought concludes: “Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex (the ugly ones included).”

Munday: To what extent do conspiracy theories and fiction relate to each other?

Oyler: To great extent! You could say conspiracy theories are like bad fiction, which attempts to tie everything up and explain it all. Neither leave room for randomness or pointlessness or meaninglessness. But life is full of all these, and our desire to eliminate them leads us down narrower and narrower paths.

There’s also a tendency to read symbols and metaphors in life the way we read them in fiction, which creates all sorts of problems. When you read symbols and metaphors in fiction, you know where they came from: the author. If you find a symbol or metaphor in life, you might start freaking out about where it came from and what it really means. The specifics of the stories conspiracists tell tend to camouflage the more interesting elements about them, which to me are all about (1) motivation—why am [I] being told this?—and (2) their unstable relationship to the real: Some aspect of this could actually be true, or come from something real. Both are essential elements of fiction as well.

Munday: Are you a critic or a novelist first?

Oyler: This question is a trap! The bullshit detector is good for both.