In Lauren Oyler’s acclaimed comic novel, “Fake Accounts” (Catapult Books), a woman discovers her boyfriend’s online persona of anonymous conspiracy theorist, and responds by creating fake online identities of her own.
When I was seven years old my mother took me to see the film adaptation of Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 classic children’s novel “Harriet the Spy.” The movie starred Michelle Trachtenberg as a sixth grader who keeps a notebook of “spy” observations, which include field notes on “missions” (breaking and entering) as well as mean commentary on her friends and family. The notebook is a classic black-and-white marbled composition book with the word PRIVATE taped over the front; this mandate is ignored by the rich popular bully, Marion Hawthorne, who finds the notebook while Harriet and her friends, Janie and Sport, are playing in a park. Marion, in a precocious houndstooth blazer, gathers the class around and begins to read aloud, to the tiny Michelle Trachtenberg’s freckled distress. “The only thing more pathetic than being Marion Hawthorne,” Marion begins, in her taunting nasal singsong, “is wanting to be Marion Hawthorne.” Janie and Sport try to stop her, but their entreaties only spur Marion to flip to the pages detailing their own shortcomings. “Janie really creeps me out. I wonder if she’ll grow up to be a total nutcase.” “Sport is so poor he can’t even afford food. Why can’t his father just get a real job?” “If I was the boy with the purple socks, I’d hang myself.” Etc. Harriet’s friends abandon her, joining a collective “Spy Catcher Club” to prevent her from carrying out her missions. Her parents confiscate her notebook after her grades drop; eventually, there’s a “Carrie”-esque scene involving blue paint. Harriet begins to enact cruel, specific revenge, made possible by her sleuthing campaigns, on all the kids individually, deepening their animosity toward her. It sounds dark, and it is. The resolution happy ending only arrives after Harriet’s former nanny, Rosie O’Donnell, advises her to apologize to everyone and to lie about how she didn’t mean the cruel things she wrote.
When I saw this as a child, I didn’t take away the lessons intended, which were that lying or omitting the truth is sometimes necessary to maintain friendships, and that if you’re going to keep a private notebook you should be careful about where you leave it. Instead, I began to fantasize about undergoing Harriet’s dramatic ordeal myself. The idea that everyone I knew might care about my private thoughts was appealing, as was the possibility of people knowing my negative internal monologue without my having to tell them. When the class became obsessed with making Harriet miserable, all I could see was that they were obsessed. I asked my mother to get me a black-and-white composition notebook and began to write down all the mean stuff I could think of. My report focused specifically on one friend, Kayla, who lived down the street; I wrote that she had stringy hair and that I never had fun when my mom made me spend the night at her house. We had recently begun painting our nails ourselves, and I wrote that I found it disturbing that she painted her toenails with horizontal strokes instead of vertical ones.
A day later, I went over to Kayla’s house with my notebook ostentatiously guarded at my chest. “This is my private notebook,” I told her. “I got it yesterday. You can’t look at it.” She asked what I wrote in it. “None of your business,” I said. After we spent some time on her swing set, I left the notebook in the yard and went home. Soon after, my mother received a call from Kayla’s mother, saying that Kayla had read my abandoned private notebook and was crying. I can’t remember if I was punished – it’s possible I wasn’t – but I do remember panicking as soon as I realized that what I’d done would have consequences beyond being sent to my room. I had ceded my thoughts in exchange for becoming the focus of attention, and now I had less control over who I was to other people. Kayla and her mother would forever see me a certain way – a careless little bitch who didn’t know what she was talking about. But a careless little bitch who didn’t know what she was talking about is not as bad as what I actually was: someone who would rather other people think of her as a careless little bitch who didn’t know what she was talking about than not think of her at all.
Excerpted from “Fake Accounts,” copyright © 2021 by Lauren Oyler, reprinted with permission of Catapult Books.
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