In Naomi Wolf’s 1990 book The Beauty Myth, a woman walks into a department store. “To reach the cosmetics counter,” Wolf writes, this woman “must pass a deliberately disorienting prism of mirrors, lights, and scents that combine to submit her to the “sensory overload” used by hypnotists and cults to encourage suggestibility.” Confusion makes her the perfect customer.
Today we permanently live in that deliberately disorienting prism of mirrors and lights. Thanks to the internet, “commerce has filtered into our identities and relationships,” writes Jia Tolentino in the first essay of her book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, as the web constantly overwhelms “our frayed neurons in huge waves of information.” It is out of this moment that Trick Mirror has been written, and it is this moment that it tries to capture, through nine essays that range across the glossy fitness culture, the modern wedding-industrial complex, her teenage experience on a reality TV show, and much more. “These are the prisms through which I have come to know myself,” she writes. “I tried to undo their acts of refraction.”
For many, Tolentino is the perfect person for the job. A staff writer at the New Yorker who built her reputation writing for esoteric and viciously funny women’s sites The Hairpin and Jezebel, Tolentino’s cultural criticism encompasses everything from pop music to rape culture, literary fiction to memes, the rise of youth vaping to the Westminster Dog Show. Her work is marked by forensic attention, generous insight, a tone that is both conversational and lavishly descriptive, and an absurd, sparkling sense of humour crystallised by the internet’s heavy layers of irony and meta-jokes. She is the kind of writer that is talked about with a mixture of rapturous admiration and pained envy.
Over the course of her promotional circuit for this book, such adoration has reached a fever pitch. The queue to get into its launch event at a bookstore in NYC was so long that more than a hundred were turned away. Over the past few days, I’ve read social media posts exclaiming: “jia tolentino is proof that it is possible to be universally liked in 2019”; “I want Jia Tolentino to step on my throat” and “My new place of worship is Jia Tolentino’s brain.” Zadie Smith has praised her “enviable style”, while Rebecca Solnit describes her as “the best young essayist at work in the United States”.
At the New Yorker, Tolentino mostly writes taught web pieces that zoom in on a cultural artefact or trend with a dismantling gaze, and in doing so extracts a broader observation. In a time when cultural criticism is keenly invested in the political, works are ever more regularly declared “radical” or “problematic”; Tolentino never overstates a work’s positive or negative influence on society, but magnifies its specific qualities until you see it fully contextualised, and begin to understand the structures that formed it. So Kanye West’s hyper-commercialised Christian worship ceremonies, which she accurately describes as “extravagantly normcore and vaguely cultlike”, prompt her to note: “So many things today seem, upon reflection, like a cry for help disguised as a demonstration of cultural capital.”
Here, her challenge is more daunting: from the outset, this is a book that promises contemporary American politics and culture as its subject. These essays, spanning memoir and criticism, are distinct from her journalism as a result. Though still crammed with startlingly precise sentences, they are longer and more discursive, tangential and unexpected.
The opening essay, “The I in Internet”, begins with a ten-year-old Tolentino writing “I literally am addicted to the web!”, before moving into discussions of Gamergate, Erving Goffman’s theory of identity, Bari Weiss and feminist hashtags, and ending with an image of Tolentino sat scrolling on her phone, “masturbating through the nightmare until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme”. A history of the heroines of Tolentino’s childhood and later reading effortlessly dips in and out of over 80 different texts. “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” links traces the infamous influencer disaster Fyre Festival back to the 2008 financial crash, exploring Jeff Bezos’s Amazon empire and the 2016 election to paint a convincing portrait of late capitalism as the ultimate scam of the millennial generation. The final essay, “I Thee Dread”, places the modern wedding against the misogynistic history of the institution, and Tolention’s own conflicted feelings about attending dozens of weddings in a tightly compressed period.
Tolentino is deeply and rightly pessimistic about our current era: “this feverish, electric, unlivable hell.” In one of the collection’s more painful essays, “We Come From Old Virginia”, Tolentino retrospectively questions her happy time as a student at the University of Virginia, exploring the unviersity’s long history of campus sexual assault. Her reflections are sparked by the high-profile story of rape printed in Rolling Stone, later discovered to be spectacularly inaccurate in its reporting. “I hate the dirty river I’m standing in,” Tolentino writes, “not the journalist and the college student who capsized in it.”
Perhaps the most incisive and depressing essay is “Always Be Optimizing”, in which Tolentino questions her own taste for $12 salads, $98 shapewear, and rigorous exercise classes. It explores how wellness industries have coalesced to create a new ideal for women, requiring the “optimization” of both their performance and their appearance. “Feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier,” she writes. “It some-times seems that feminism can imagine no more satisfying progress than this current situation – one in which, instead of being counselled by mid-century magazines to spend time and money trying to be more radiant for our husbands, we can now counsel one another to do all the same things, but for ourselves.”
But Tolentino is always alert to the seductive pleasures of these phenomena. In the best of her more personal essays, “Ecstacy”, Tolentino links the joys found in the Texan megachurch she grew up in with the highs of recreational drugs. “There are feelings, like ecstasy, that provide an unbreakable link between virtue and vice,” she writes. Taking ecstasy “can make you feel healed and religious, it can make you feel dangerously wild. What’s the difference? Your world realigns in a juddering oceanic shimmer.”
Trick Mirror has a deep understanding of the sick pleasure of pressing a spectacular, marbled bruise, and the compulsion to do it again and again. Tolentino’s fascination with the subjects of each essays stems from the simultaneous repulsion and desire they provoke in her. Her critique of UVA is built on the “instantaneous, overpowering longing” she felt on her first visit. “At this school, I thought, you would grow like a plant in a greenhouse. This dappled light, the sense of long afternoons and doors propped open and drinks poured for strangers, the grand steps leading up to the Pantheon dome of the Rotunda – this was where I wanted to be.”
She allows for cognitive dissonance: the book is littered with asides like, “I’ll admit that I’m not sure that this inquiry is even productive”, or “I can feel the low, uneasy hum of self-delusion whenever I think about all of this”. As Tolentino rejects confident assertions, this is a book that deliberately resists definite conclusions: instead, her essays frequently end on a note of uncertainty, glimpsing new and at times uncomfortable revelations that often problematise more than they resolve.
The book is saved from being bleak by two things. One is, of course, Tolentino’s sense of humour. No opportunity for a good joke goes unused. She describes the 1990s as “the You’ve Got Mail era, when it seemed that the very worst thing that could happen online was that you might fall in love with your business rival”. She observes in detail a woman’s “queef attack” in a yoga class, and recalls of a snorkelling trip in Puerto Rico: “I couldn’t concentrate on the brilliant rainbow reef around us because I kept torching the inside of my snorkel with mayonnaise burps.”
The other is a sense of wonder at the beauty and the gentleness of life that occasionally intrudes on the narrative like a dazzling but uninvited guest. During her time on reality TV, she finds herself off-camera in a “bioluminescent bay” full of glowing plankton, and swims in the glittering water with her castmates. “My body felt so stuffed with good luck that I was choking on it,” she writes. “I felt caught in a whirlpool of metaphysical accident.” Tolentino writes with tenderness about the relationships that make life worth living: in an aside about her “funny and brilliant” goddaughters, she notes, “Some days I feel crazed with hope and certainty that the world they grow up in will be unrecognizably different.” The cinematic memory of her salutatorian speech, in which she poked fun at her hyper-Christian high school to the cheers of her classmates (she “turned in a different speech for approval”) is recalled by her with guilt, but by a friend as “an act of love”.
Towards the end of the book, she remembers a moment early on in her relationship with her partner, Andrew. “One morning we woke upon a deflated air mattress in my friend Walt’s apartment, hungover, with light filtering through the dust like magic, and when I looked at him I felt that if I couldn’t do this forever I would die.” Though only ever glanced at, with admirable restraint, these moments add depth and a personal stake to the terrifyingly astute analyses of a distinctive, lasting voice.
This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy