(Random House, 2019)
Jia Tolentino doesn’t seem to write essays so much as drop them, like hit albums, or bombs. They land in eager inboxes, Twitter feeds, and group texts, where they quickly crystallize into new entries on the contemporary culture syllabus.
For years, Tolentino has been mapping the new social landscape with increasing fidelity—first as a contributing editor at The Hairpin and deputy editor at Jezebel, and now as a staff writer at The New Yorker, where her voice has been canonized. For thousands of young people who are confused about where we come from and where we are going, she has been a revelation. Tolentino’s debut collection of nine essays, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, comes at a crucial point where the internet chimera of identity, culture, and politics has mutated beyond recognition. Where many of us recoil in terror, Tolentino buckles up and enters the fray.
In Trick Mirror, Tolentino’s writing is not just deft and insightful—it’s thrilling. It’s edifying. It has the effect of making you feel smarter and sharper without diminishing your sense of recreation or discovery, like a very good study drug. It feels like self-improvement, and you can’t get enough.
In the opening essay “The I in Internet”, Tolentino interrogates the internet. More specifically, she questions how we got from the internet many of us entered through—an affinity-based space teeming with Angelfire blogs and blinking glitter dolls—to the one that we are all now familiar with, where hegemonic social platforms trade in the currency of our attention and identities. Driven by financial incentives at odds with moral governance, today’s internet, Tolentino contends, “moved to an organizing principle of opposition, [and] much of what had formerly been surprising and rewarding and curious became tedious, noxious, and grim.” This structural shift has been responsible for Kafkaesque new horrors: online misogynists hurling rape threats at female gamers under the guise of “noble ideals,” a toddler eaten by an alligator twisted into a fable on white male entitlement, and at its magnificent and humiliating peak, a lifelong scammer elected to the highest office in America. As Tolentino notes, “Trump’s rise to power is inseparable from the existence of social networks that must continually aggravate their users in order to continue making money.”
What is so compelling about Trick Mirror is that Tolentino does not stop her interrogation where it is neat and convenient to stop. It’s easy to grasp how the distinction between our digital and analog lives is collapsing, how online reward mechanisms are overtaking offline ones. But in a genuinely surprising insight, Tolentino posits that the phenomenon of making yourself desirable online, of calibrating your personal appeal and treating your digital self as the best reflection of who you hope (and think) you are, is nothing new. It has simply generalized to the entire online public an experience long inhabited by women, who have been socialized to make themselves desirable “at great expense and with sincerity for all time.” This introduces a major thread in Trick Mirror: the ways in which society has failed women, and all the self-delusions necessary to make these failures look like success.
In “Always Be Optimizing”, Tolentino examines the evolution of a new ideal woman, a market-friendly feminist who engages in “self-care”, who strives to optimize her body through barre classes (which Tolentino admits she attends, despite feeling like “my body is a race car that I’m servicing dispassionately in the pit”), sweetgreen salads, and $90 athleisure leggings. Through the rose-colored lens of pop feminism, female optimization can feel empowering, valuable, and a lot like progress—or at least an acceptable facsimile of one in place of real change. In “Pure Heroines”, an exploration of literary heroines from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, Tolentino finds that “bravery and bitterness get so concentrated in literature, for women, because there’s not enough space for them in the real world.” In “I Thee Dread”, Tolentino considers how “planning a wedding is the only period in a woman’s life where she is universally and unconditionally encouraged to conduct everything on her terms.” On her wedding day, the bride looms powerfully, commanding attention and celebration—but soon after, she shrinks into submission. “Underneath the confectionary spectacle of the wedding is a case study in how inequality bestows outsize affirmation on women as compensation for making us disappear.”
They’re all tricks, she warns. But some of the delusions are beautiful, maybe even irresistible. Tolentino knows this intimately: after all, it’s why she wrote the book.
While Tolentino’s cultural criticisms shine in their clarity, it is her personal essays—charismatic, magnetic, at times dazzling—that I consumed like candy. “Reality TV Me,” an essay about Tolentino’s brief stint on a reality show in high school, is entertaining yet lucid, and autographed with a moment of sublime beauty. While swimming on a bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico, one of five in the entire world, Tolentino recounts:
We touched one another’s shoulders and watched our fingers crackle with light. After a long time, we got back in the boat, still dripping in bioluminescence. I squeezed glittering water out of my hair. My body felt so stuffed with good luck that I was choking on it. I felt caught in a whirlpool of metaphysical accident. There were no cameras, and they couldn’t have captured it, anyway. I told myself, Don’t forget, don’t forget.
In “Ecstasy”—an essay about Tolentino’s religious upbringing in a Houston megachurch, experimental drugs, and hip hop—I found myself rereading sentences in a loop, intoxicated. In a swimming pool one night, after sipping cough syrup from a styrofoam cup, she recalls:
Suddenly the song sounded like it would never end—like it had been screwed down to the Sunday tempo, like it was thick enough to carry me. The water felt like I could grab it. The sky was enormous, eternal, velvet. I looked up, the stars blanketed by the perpetual glow of pollution, and felt as blessed as I ever did when I was a child.
More than anything else—her clarity of insight, or brilliance with words—Jia Tolentino has a talent for evoking an uncanny feeling that she has read your mind. Trick Mirror somehow feels as much an extension of my own life as it is of hers. The common denominators here are undoubtedly the internet, our relative youth, and consternation at the drama we have both inherited and invented—all fixtures through which our worlds constantly overlap. But for me, and I predict for many others, it’s what brings Trick Mirror out of the territory of “good point” and into the territory of “holy shit, yeah.”