Some books arrive on our shelves in a flurry of buzz and hyperbolic proclamations that can be simultaneously intriguing and off-putting. There are only so many times you can see the term ‘masterpiece’ in a slate of reviews for one title before you start to get just a tad cynical. It’s a sensation that becomes all the more overwhelming when the book in question starts earning honors of being ‘the voice of a generation’. Now, isn’t that just a term that sends shudders down your spine? You can practically hear the agonized hot takes being spewed out in response, not out of reason but sheer instinctive revulsion at the idea. So, what happens when you read that hotly anticipated book everyone seems to love and think is wildly important, and the hype pays off?
Enter Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, the first essay collection by Jia Tolentino.
TRICK MIRROR by @jiatolentino - out on Thursday.— 4th Estate Books (@4thEstateBooks) August 5, 2019
This debut collection of essays announces Tolentino as exactly the sort of voice we need to hear from right now - and for many years to come. pic.twitter.com/65UiXNNcVD
Tolentino, formerly of The Hairpin and Jezebel and currently a staff writer for The New Yorker, has practically been swimming in praise for her debut book these past few weeks. She’s been called this era’s Joan Didion, a piercingly perceptive writer whose crucial understanding of tough-to-decipher times has her standing head and shoulders above an oversaturated field of hot takes merchants. Indeed, she has always stood out from the crowd as a truly must-read creator of #content at a time when the market has forced everyone to view each mundane aspect of their lives as potential labor. Tolentino is one of those figures of such staggering skill that reading her work makes people like me want to pack it in and never write again. Trick Mirror is the perfect calling card of everything that makes her output so necessary.
The connective tissue of this collection lies in those notions of delusion juxtaposed against a world of ceaseless precarity. This is not a book specifically about millennials or their experiences, but each essay is bound together by an understanding of how simple and often pleasurable it is for that generation to accept the bullsh*t sold to us as empowerment. As long as you are seen to be doing something — as long as the performance of labor is on show and aesthetically pleasing — then it doesn’t matter if you actually do anything. Indeed, the system is set up in a way that makes active participation in battling against it near impossible.
The essays in Trick Mirror tackle topics as wide-ranging as the new visual language of a woman’s ‘perfect life’ and its upkeep to Tolentino’s time on a teen reality show to the poisonous allure of the scam. Readers of her work will be familiar with Tolentino’s savvy ability to form expansive contextual understandings on topics that seemingly demand nothing but pure shallowness. She takes seriously that which is designed to be ignored or dismissed, and she gets that these are the elements of society that can be the trickiest to detangle. Of course, she also makes that daunting task seem ridiculously easy, thanks to her command of tone, language, and ability to reign in the most stubborn of subjects.
It helps that Tolentino is, as she herself notes, a creation of the internet content age. She’s written almost exclusively for online consumption and has carved her career out of those tricky intersections of empathy and virality. It’s one of the things that makes her so thrilling to read, that lightning-in-a-bottle sensation she captures that manages to convey a moment in time and how it can end up being more timeless than it’s given credit for. She makes connections that suddenly seem incredibly obvious once she’s made her case, from dissecting the corporatized version of feminism that celebrates ‘difficult women’ without true action to wrestling with the institution of marriage. Specifically, she takes on this array of issues in the context of now, and what it’s like to navigate such treacherous waters with the knowledge and tools we currently possess. Her real talent is in finding the clarity amidst smudged times, although, as she also admits, this is something of a bind as well@ ‘I don’t know what to do with the fact […] that my career is possible in large part because of the way the internet collapses identity, opinion, and action — and that I, as a writer whose work is mostly critical and often written in first person, have some inherent stake in justifying the dubious practice of spending all day trying to figure out what you think.’ Reader, I felt that.
The essay that sticks with me the most is ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman,’ in which Tolentino outlines how the radical and often discomfiting ethos of feminism has been diluted by the mainstream and capitalist forces into something that looks pretty and does as little as possible. Anyone can wield the basic tenets of feminism for their own insidious purposes, be it companies wishing to make a quick buck from fashion choices that rely on exploited workforces to right-wing politicians and their mouth-pieces who scream that any criticism of their harmful policies is anti-women. What the hell does feminism mean if we allow Melania Trump, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway to wield it as a battering ram? As Tolentino puts it, ‘I have wondered if […] the legitimate need to defend women from unfair criticism has morphed into an illegitimate need to defend women from criticism categorically.’
Trick Mirror is a document of the times as they are happening, and it takes some serious talent to pull that off without things seemingly horribly dated or instantly insignificant. It’s not an essay collection that will leave you with much hope, though. As Tolentino notes, the real trick of these deluded moments is in how the offered solutions are anything but. However, what she does provide in its place is an earnest and clear-minded guide through this labyrinth we cannot help but find ourselves utterly lost in.
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion is available now wherever you buy your books.