Trick Mirror – Jia Tolentino

Jia Tolentino has become a peerless voice of her generation, tackling the conflicts, contradictions, and sea changes that define us and our time. Now, in this dazzling and entirely original collection of nine essays, written with a rare combination of give and sharpness, wit and fearlessness, she delves into the forces that warp our vision, demonstrating a stylistic potency and critical dexterity found nowhere else.

Trick Mirror is an enlightening, unforgettable trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives. This is a book about the incentives that shape us, and about how hard it is to see ourselves clearly in a culture that revolves around the self. In each essay, Tolentino writes about a cultural prism: the rise of the nightmare social Internet; the American scammer as millennial hero; the literary heroine’s journey from brave to blank to bitter; the mandate that everything, including our bodies, should always be getting more efficient and beautiful until we die. Gleaming with Tolentino’s sense of humor and capacity to elucidate the impossibly complex in an instant, and marked by her desire to treat the reader with profound honesty, Trick Mirror is an instant classic of the worst decade yet.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is an outstanding collection of essays examining different aspects of our society. I really enjoy Tolentino’s sharp, incisive cultural critique, even if it tends to digress into side topics and lose the original train of thought, and her writing is very distinctly hers. In particular, her writing is dense. She comes off as intimidatingly intelligent and well-spoken through these essays (and she is – she went to UVA and was accepted to Yale) – the kind of writing that makes you wonder if you’re just not smart enough to understand what she’s saying – and doesn’t shy away from tackling complicated topics with sophisticated language and strong opinions. At the same time, she’s quite graceful in admitting when her perspective is limited, whether because she’s young and attractive (not her words, she’s too diplomatic for that), or because she’s Asian and can’t speak to the white experience, etc.

This is not a book to speed through. The density alone prevents that, but even if not for her writing style, her ideas are engaging enough to make you pay attention as well. I particularly liked the essays Always Be Optimizing (The Guardian has an excellent shortened version of it) about the pursuit of perfection by today’s millennial woman, and We Come from Old Virginia about the 2014 UVA rape case and the countless other unreported rapes that occurred on the one campus alone. The book was most readable when Tolentino made it more personal – sharing her anecdotes from being on reality TV and what it was like growing up deeply religious in Houston (I’m from Houston and recognized a lot of the references!). To help on the accessibility front, I think Trick Mirror could have benefited greatly from a paring down. Simplicity is always preferred over convolution. And there’s no need to rehash stories and events that are public knowledge – I was almost annoyed to see retellings of how Facebook was founded and how the 2008 financial crisis occurred.

This is well-worth the read because her life experiences – Asian in a deeply conservative, religious part of Texas, reality TV exposure, Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan during the coup – give her unique perspectives and she channels them into this furious onslaught of words. But make sure you have the time and patience before you dive in.

P.S. Isn’t the blurb more than a little fatalist though? I mean, “Trick Mirror is an instant classic of the worst decade yet”? And this was published in 2019, before the whole pandemic!