The first time I encountered Jia Tolentino’s writing was through an essay published in the now dead The Awl, entitled “Notes on 21st-Century Mystic Carly Rae Jepsen.” Jepsen’s 2015 nuclear blast of an album Emotion would go on to inspire, thanks to the devotion of its extremely online fanbases, a slew of thoughtpieces and critiques that refracted the blinding dazzle of thought through the prism of philosophy and critical theory. But Tolentino was one of the first, if not the first, to get so discursively adventurous. She spoke of totipotency and Simone Weil in a way that explained Emotion more pinpointedly than most, with an intellect that seemed to be deeply in touch with the pulse of pop culture but also above it.
But this isn’t about Carly Rae Jepsen. I say this because it behooves me to mention Tolentino’s position as a singular voice above the din of the wild digital publishing landscape, an industry that ruthlessly requires its writers to capture the zeitgeist all day, everyday. Find the hot issue; write the hot take; publish the hot take; publish clicks. And for sure, Tolentino’s been there—she’s written about everything, from incels and Brett Kavanaugh, to why exactly Beast from Beauty and the Beast is so attractive in his cursed animal form (admit it). But Tolentino, who has written and edited for feminist website Jezebel, The Hairpin, and currently works for The New Yorker (it is no small miracle, by the way, for her or anyone at all to make a living mostly from writing), demonstrates an awareness of our times—and the way we talk about our times—that might paralyze the lesser writer.
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It is perhaps this stark awareness that characterizes her debut book Trick Mirror, a collection of essays subtitled as “Reflections on Self-Delusion,” and is something she makes no bones about problematizing. The book’s first essay “The I in the Internet” lays the thematic bones of project in plain view, as a thing that wrestles with the precarious post-truth, ideologically loaded, spill-the-tea-sis condition of our times, by trying to trace when the internet stopped being a thing we could look at as a generative, connective network and start becoming a hellscape. She writes:
“Like many among us, I have become acutely conscious of the way my brain degrades when I strap it in to receive the full barrage of the internet—these unlimited channels, all constantly reloading with new information: births, deaths, boasts, bombings, jokes, job announcements, ads, warnings, complaints, confessions, and political disasters blitzing our frayed neurons in huge waves of information that pummel us and then are instantly replaced. This is an awful way to live, and it is wearing us down quickly."
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It is a wonder, then, for any writer or promulgator of information of any kind, to live and think in such conditions. The average citizen is already bogged down enough by the obligation to be so informed of every terrible thing, to untangle every loose, thorned thread. And yet, Tolentino does this.
Going through Trick Mirror feels almost triumphant—like watching a soldier come out of the battlefield in one piece after firing shot after shot at everything we think we know. In “Always Be Optimizing,” she dismantles the concept of the #girlboss and the consumerist forces that form the modern woman, describing athleisure as “late-capitalist fetishwear.”
In “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” she detects and contours the common thread of farce that runs through the great lies of our day and age, from the schadenfreudian debacle that was Fyre Fest to the election and presidency of Donald Trump, and everything in between.
Numerous articles have praised her as the voice of a generation, the millennial Joan Didion or Susan Sontag, but that approach not only flattens Didion and Sontag’s contributions to the literary tradition, but also prevents us from appreciating the nuances of Tolentino’s voice.
In Trick Mirror, Tolentino is in top form, unshackled by word counts, or the sugar-addled impulse of digital publications to react immediately to every single hot topic that pops up on our feeds.
But one would be grossly mistaken to reckon Tolentino as merely a Hot Take God Among Men. Numerous articles have praised her as the voice of a generation, the millennial Joan Didion or Susan Sontag, but that approach not only flattens Didion and Sontag’s contributions to the literary tradition, but also prevents us from appreciating the nuances of Tolentino’s voice. Like, yes, Tolentino is better than most when it comes to scalpeling, autopsy-style, the cadaver of our zeitgeist, but to me, she is at her highest powers when in memoir mode.
In “Reality TV Me,” she recounts her time as a contestant in the reality show Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico, in a way that not only appropriately acknowledges the artifice of popular media, but also questions the authenticity of her own memory. Recalling a note card of self-imposed rules she promised herself she wouldn’t break during her time on the show (like not having her first kiss there), she notes: “Was I bullshitting? I have no memory of rules on a note card. Or maybe I’m bullshitting now, having deemed that note card to be incongruous with the current operating narrative of my life.” This unflinching self-examination is also at work in “Ecstasy,” where she illuminates the interstices of her conservative religious education in a school nicknamed “the Repentagon,” the transcendent effects of hard drugs, the power of hip-hop, and the sublime bliss of faith.
And even though both these works, and others in the book, question the intellectual and moral integrity of the self, Trick Mirror strikes me as a project that could only have been written by someone whose sense of self has not been obliterated by the contradictions of our social and political climate. And because this sense of self is--for all its baggage and fluctuating memories--intact, Tolentino can look at the world in a way that no one else can.
Tolentino has stated in interviews before that she is embarrassed when others call her the voice of her generation (“Like, this is the best we can do?”) so I won’t. Still, the millennial condition is one starved of reliable metarratives and intellectual anchors—I cannot be blamed for the impulse of viewing her as someone who makes sense of the BS me and my friends can barely comprehend.
I wish I could send this book to every single influencer in the country and make them reconsider the powers of Lululemon and barre. I wish I could force-feed it to my friends who exhaust themselves working and commuting and thinking about impossible futures and have managed, up till now, to not question the capitalist order.
I wish I could send it to the person I was when I was 21, a fresh grad who, operating on the naive notion that writing for a living was a good idea, watched print die and then resurrect as the mangled zombie of the ad-driven content machine. None of these hapless audiences, even after they read the book, may come closer to clarity. But maybe Trick Mirror can help us take responsibility for our delusions.