Why do I feel so bad all the time is the question asked by so many young people today. In order to sneak a bite-size amount of control and warm feeling for themselves, a privileged set of young Americans mount laborious and costly self-care rituals. Most of these devotions, along with their requisite products, are designed by, marketed to, and bought by women and those of us who travel alongside them in these matters (some gays, some femmes, some beyond gender, some misandrists). They journal quietly for a time in the mornings, before or during a tea, often using luxurious and varied colors of ink, each hue corresponding with a feeling or a goal. They develop their handwriting as anxiety-practice, they tidy up as care-work. Later they envelop themselves in a surround-sound atmosphere of humidifiers and oil diffusers, texting their group chats lengthy quotes from the latest overdue astrological treatises. In the quiet afternoons and again finally late at night, after much washing and rinsing, they rest under ruinously heavy blankets.
These behaviors manifest largely because their work conditions feel so stupid and degrading. Also, the educational system on which they were told to stake their hopes and identities was actually a one-two K–12 punch of compliance training and debt consumership. Their health care system is an extortionist sham, their democracy a gerrymander of grifts and kleptocracies that have—until quite recently, perhaps?—succeeded in convincing a sizable percentage of US citizens that they do not matter. And the previous generation is callously distant (we’re sorry but not that sorry!), and the men that enough of us feel compelled to date are dishonest and uninterested in regularly brushing their teeth.
More irritatingly, the contents of the phones with which they spend so much of their time are so hilarious, so distracting. The devices, many of them suspect, also serve to sap the hardiness of a self that could resist and unmake all these other indignities.
At night, hydrated but worn through, their edibles kick in and they fall asleep, waking up greasily, phones in hand. Garbage in, garbage in. Another day, another Daily Harvest bowl.
How should a person be? Sheila Heti asked a decade ago; how should she carry herself, relate to others, characterize her day-to-day? The answer: like a famous person, like the most important person in any room. As the main character in our own Instagram Stories and Twitter Spaces and, more recently, Clubhouses, we should spend each day choosing what plot-advancing adventures we will strive for next, to everyone’s amazement and adoration. Applause, please!
We like to think this bad situation is new and we absolutely should blame Mark Zuckerberg for all of it. But what about the cluster of the condition—this gold-medal girl-bossing of self-care—that is, like, you know, actually self-harm?
For nearly two decades now, people who wanted to be writers took their liberal arts degrees to New York City and found demeaning work producing “content”—making written words to accompany, impersonate, or perform advertising in an endless looming, which now, as in biblical times, we call a scroll. For many of us, this had the glamour of seeming like writing while also appearing to be a pleasurable and creative alternative to a real job, particularly for those of us with no actual skills or qualifications. We “normalized” such work, building a publishing ecosystem that recognizes only the always-unfolding creamy taffy of content.
The frenzy for stuff—more morning outrage snacks of lite news about human cruelty, more service-y swipeable Instagram carousels, more newly edited, less-imperialism-infused recipes, more less-racist podcasts, more clicks, an ever-better ranking of “unique visitors” on Comscore, the better to delight advertisers—has evolved but never abated. So far in this millennium every emerging writer who couldn’t crack the refined pages of n+1, but who still wanted something better, casually sold a piece of her trauma for fifty bucks to xoJane, the short-lived lifestyle brand-cum-magazine for feminists who didn’t want to do the assigned reading. All the while she worked on her novel, as if Elena Ferrante had ever passed her days feverishly recapping Riverdale for some Naples tourist blog, or as if Edith Wharton wrote extended treatises denouncing stale forms of the interior decor of ballrooms. (Oh, whoops, she did.)
The secret of becoming a writer in a moment like this—has it always been true?—is that attention will be paid if you absolutely demand it. Some, desiring something better, writing all clackity-clackity, rise above the chum.
For the talented who are also lucky, the work goes beyond the shareable and the merely readable and is judged worthwhile. Even in this chaotic age we can enjoy a little golden moment of literature as a treat. Now we have a large crop of young people who are successful at explaining the present moment. They are, spicily and blessedly, not in consensus.
Chief among those who are explicators of these issues of selfhood, labor, and cultural consumption in our time is the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino—if you judge by the frequency and speed that her 2019 essay collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion became the object that people would place next to their yoga mats or beet lattes for Instagram photos. (Disclosure: I have done yoga with her.) Elsewhere in the truth and making-sense department, you have the writings of Ijeoma Oluo and Lindy West and Tressie McMillan Cottom; the analyses of Doreen St. Félix and Patricia Lockwood and Jenny Odell, Amanda Mull and Lauren Michele Jackson; the mad memes of Maddy Court; the sane ravings of Cat Marnell. There are happily many more people to read now. (And somewhere, some of them are men.) Also, I am leaving out the astrologers, though at least three of those writers would scold me for that.
And then there is Lauren Oyler. Supposedly she’s the mean one.
Oyler graduated from Yale about a decade ago; she lives in Ithaca and Berlin now. She has declined, she has said, to exploit her West Virginia upbringing, an identity-condition that people in New York media, just now becoming accustomed to the fact that there are Texans, probably still find exotic and monetizable—“the implication being that, just as I benefited from it on my college applications, I might benefit from it professionally,” she once wrote.
Through the kaleidoscope of recent history, she is often said to have made her name with criticism of America’s next top totemic feminists: a piece picking apart the writer and columnist Roxane Gay, and a less cruel take on Tolentino that was still treated as a pearl-clutcher. In the case of Gay, Oyler mostly hated the writing; with Tolentino, she distrusted the thinking. Was either essay genuinely brutal? It depends on whose standards you’re using—Gay is hilariously harder on any number of people on Twitter in any given week than Oyler ever was on her—and if your standards evolved in a liberal arts college cuddle puddle. Oyler, on a press tour recently for Fake Accounts, her debut novel, noted that we’ve become accustomed to “more or less positive criticism or only tepidly questioning criticism,” making any sort of severity stand out. Honestly, we’re here for the drama, and it’s wonderful that—in this economy!—anyone will raise her voice at all.
The criticism of Gay appeared on the blog Bookslut in 2014; the review of Tolentino was published in the London Review of Books in 2020. Between these provocations, there was much content. Oyler, like Tolentino, has done her time in the Internet factory.
“This Ranking of 84 ‘Twin Peaks’ Characters Will Make You Extremely Mad” is a 2017 Vice listicle she wrote that placed David Lynch’s own character, Gordon Cole, in the number one slot. “I would give myself the best character as well,” she concludes—foreshadowing herself! She is the author of “Charlie Chaplin Was a Sadistic Tyrant Who Fucked Teenage Girls” as well as “MILF Madness: Why So Many Men Want to Fuck Moms.” What’s notable here is that, while Oyler has over the past decade refined her methods and her outlets, she arrived stylistically intact.
Her arch blogging and her fairly generic embrace of social media were not any kind of problem for her. “In the two years since I went freelance,” she wrote in 2018 in The Baffler, “I’ve written three books”—the first two are not novels and were written with/for Alyssa Mastromonaco, who went from the Obama White House to Vice Media—
and many long essays, had two serious relationships and an active social life, and traveled frequently, all while tweeting—as a rough estimate gleaned from the program I use that deletes all my posts that are older than ninety days—between two hundred and four hundred times per month.
The point of the essay is how unhappy Twitter makes all of us who use it. Yes, but reading the above it’s hard not to think: Well didn’t we almost have it all!
Oyler has now published a novel about the situation of having a phone. Knowing that Fake Accounts, about a young content creator and social media addict who schlepped off to Berlin, as she did, would be read with some squinting to determine whether she herself was the main character, she used the opportunity to lean in, to build an Oyler-shaped stunt double of a narrator—“building up this fake persona that was still definitely connected to my real self,” she told Elle. Fake Accounts is her fake account.
Fake Accounts takes place at the onset of the Trump administration. There are pussy hats. But the psychic rupture of the debut of the Trump times is backdrop for a story that is mostly about the effects of exposure to the Internet on the self. A young nameless female narrator meets a man named Felix in Berlin. They shack up in Brooklyn and settle into one of those relationships you have when you’re young and aren’t paying enough attention to the brevity of life. Soon enough the narrator “discovers” that Felix has a confounding other life inside his phone. “His password, numerical, was long and, as far as I could tell, random,” she writes, “and I was only able to figure it out after weeks of surreptitiously watching him tap it out whenever I could, acquiring new numbers out of sequence one by one.”
Felix’s Instagram account is loaded with the sort of anti-Semitic Jewish-space-lasers-are-responsible-for- wildfires George Soros–blaming mish- mash imagery that proliferates so handsomely on social media. His secret passion isn’t adult babies or video game characters doing sexy things. It’s much more perverted. He gets off on propagating conspiracies.
With this surprise, the narrator’s status as the main character in all she touches—her work, the Internet, her relationship—is upended. And before she has the chance to break up with him, Felix dies, she’s told, in a bike accident. Oh, well:
This might have disturbed me, but I remembered that I rejected sentimentality for sentimentality’s sake, and that I was in the unique situation of being in a unique situation, with no burdensome expectation for my grief or lack thereof. Was there something to be sad about? I had been with a person; I had come to see him as despicable; twinges 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. I had already mentally separated from Felix, who had become, I guess you could say, despite it seeming a little on the nose, dead to me.
The most disgusting thing on the Internet is what the kids now call “cringe.” You know you’ve seen cringe when you feel a flush of shame on behalf of someone else, including when you see a raw display of emotion. Such emotions begin to roil beneath the narrator’s well-moisturized carapace. “A woman I worked with used a photo of a pink neon sign that read ‘FEELINGS’ in all capital letters as the background image on one of her social media accounts,” Oyler writes:
FEELINGS were popular at the time—expressing them was seen as a kind of feminist statement, the reclamation of an “inappropriate” femininity previously dismissed as frivolous or hysterical, and as a result people were constantly declaring (on social media) the intensity of their emotions: about celebrities, about television, about heavy-handedly alluded-to romantic turmoil, about pizza, about cute animals, about deadlines…. I had identified with the impulse to express profligately at times, though I tried not to act on it, because the people who declared their emotions in this way were annoying…. Now that I had actual feelings, unlikely given the almost-laughable originality of the situation to have been anticipated, I could say for certain the whole trend was absurd. Feelings are nothing like a pink neon sign at all.
Swollen with these indigestible emotions, she returns to Berlin and does absolutely nothing. The middle parts of the book are, handily, labeled “MIDDLE.” One part bears the description “(Nothing Happens).” She reads Twitter until there are no more tweets. She washes her face. Her skin-care routine is epic, but the rest of her life takes place on her phone.
Her phone that, Oyler suggests, is just a tarot deck of the actual psychic ailment. Every one of us simply has, in our liquid-glass pocket devices, an elaborate and expensive new venue in which to process, as they say rather a bit too frequently, our trauma. It’s what’s inside you that is so rotten.
“After about two weeks I woke up one morning and decided: I needed to meet people.” To advance her own character arc, corrupted by betrayal and the Internet and the soundtrack of her E•MO•TIONs, our heroine begins dating. On these dates she cannot stop lying about who she is. She decides to assume personalities based on signs of the zodiac. Her Aries persona is a zealous acupuncturist, obviously. The men, though, seem unable to notice her elaborate and under-researched passions: “These people just wanted to talk about themselves. They weren’t giving me a chance to talk about my characters.” She doubles down. She does know who she is, probably, even as she tells everyone she’s someone else. It just occurred to her with some finality that she doesn’t like herself that much.
This is a portrait of a person made incredibly ill by the Internet. She may be going mad and trying to take us down with her. “What can we learn from literature? Sometimes things may feel like they’ve been going on forever, but really it’s only been about forty pages,” she tells us around this point. She is the kind of person who requires something terrible to happen to her before it is too late to do anything about who she is. Some of us are. We’re probably the lucky ones.
It’s now been four years since what can seem from here the quiet and unchaotic American days of Fake Accounts’s moment, late 2016 and early 2017. What a golden age! By Q4 of 2020, I could no longer reliably perform simple assessments of the operations of my self, not only deciding if I was important to the story of my life or the story of the lives around me but even identifying if I was hungry. I could not reliably say if I was sick, lonely, or resentful. This was a skill I thought I’d mastered decades ago, as all Gen Xers must, in our mandatory outpatient rehab sessions. But here I was again. All around me, others were hitting this wall as well, each at her own pace. Plunk, plunk, another friend bites the dust.
Sometimes I would need to pause in my workday to ask: Was I happy? Or was I, instead, very sad? After a probing self-exam, I would find that I was experiencing not an emotion but instead a physical sensation, such as tooth pain or over-caffeination, or maybe a state that is not an emotion but an emotionally tinged or hued thought (rue, shame), as if the candle-scent chemists from diptyque had gone full pandemic and then shoved their latest foul creation inside me.
It has only gotten harder, the arrival of Oyler’s book now shows us, to cancel the degradations of the self with the care of the self.
I once sat in a meeting about the meaning of self-care with a group of young women and one straight (I guess!) middle-aged man. The question was: What do you do to take care of yourself each day? “Well, I wash my face,” the man tried. Each of the women present related how she began her day with a regimen of journaling followed by a full-time-job’s worth of emotional and physical maintenance. I was impressed, since my basic state is doglike torpor, and I wondered how much suffering each of them would experience without these practices. Maybe they would be locked up raving somewhere. Or maybe, freed from the burdens of our anxieties and skin suits, each would be running a Fortune 500 company. Which fate would be worse, anyway? Who were we, I couldn’t help but wonder (insert Carrie Bradshaw–typing sound effect), behind the Korean skin masks we showed one another?
The question of our time is not, unfortunately, about how America created a system of poorly regulated militias that respond, instead of social workers, to people in distress, or why canned pumpkin isn’t even pumpkin, or why we insist on carrying phones that identify us so readily to advertisers and the government, but: Who is the most important person in my life—it’s definitely me, right? Social media and the self-care industries, colluding and kinky partners in capitalist crime, say you must always put yourself first. They tell us that every other place is last. Any life spent assessing and asserting your ranking in this world will take you to some truly ugly places.