Can a Novel Really Capture the Spirit of the Internet?

Man holding computer cable, close-up

Man holding computer cable. (Photo by Getty / Stringer)

Over a century ago, E.M. Forster wrote his memorable phrase “Only connect!” into Howards End, reemphasizing it as the novel’s epigraph. The phrase might seem quaint or even corrupted today, when most “connecting” is done online—you could plausibly see the words as ad copy in your feed, selling you a phone or a new mattress—but its terse ambiguity poses a question: What is connection, really? Is it something that fiction has a unique power to cultivate? “Only connect” is not a critic’s phrase, although Forster was a good one; instead, it’s a moral imperative, a plea. A beautiful but fuzzy thought, it expresses the difficulty and the fragility of building relationships, both between people and in a person’s inner life. If we could explain how to do it, it would be easy; the phrase safeguards the hope that connection might extend as far as our power to imagine it. As the novel’s protagonist says to herself just after her insight, “Live in fragments no longer.”

Lauren Oyler, an incisive critic whose work has appeared in a laundry list of major publications, is a prominent inhabitant of our hyper-connected world, an influential tweeter and forthright diarist of her Internet habit, and an unsparing reviewer of millennial contemporaries such as Jia Tolentino and Sally Rooney. In a recent essay for Bookforum, Oyler outlined what she sees as one shortcoming in contemporary fiction: a fixation on the morality of fictional characters, a readerly imposition that results in a literary landscape where “most books are judged on everything except aesthetic terms.” Apparently, contemporary fiction’s desire to teach us how to behave—you could call it “virtue signaling”—is bringing it down. It’s hard not to read a critic’s novel as a corrective to her critique, and Oyler’s debut, Fake Accounts, is resolute in its indifference to do-gooding. What the author thinks the novel should be doing instead, however, is less clear. With formidable defenses of irony and sarcasm, the novel’s pugilistic voice is determined to never be caught off guard.

Consider the opening, which teases the idea that the book might have something to say about the global crises that loom over our personal lives:

Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon, if not by exponential environmental catastrophe then by some combination of nuclear war, the American two-party system, patriarchy, white supremacy, gentrification, globalization, data breaches, and social media. People looked sad, on the subway, in the bars; decisions were questioned, opinions rearranged. The same grave epiphany was dragged around everywhere: we were transitioning from an only retrospectively easy past to an inarguably more difficult future; we were, it could no longer be denied, unstoppably bad.

The finality of this arch cynicism is arresting, but perhaps a bit too easy. The narrator immediately excuses herself from having to feel invested in these issues, the implication seeming to be that the reader secretly would rather not think about these things either. The novel, written during the Trump era’s invasion of our attentions, expresses a desire to be released back into private drama, scorning the self-importance of believing that reading the news and tweeting about it is a political act. It’s an understandable mood, and not every book has to be an overt political statement, especially when we’re so often being sold something on the sly, but the degree of emphasis placed on this refusal seems overzealous, a poster’s hedge against being seen as too sincere.

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