Trick Mirror is a collection of nine essays by millennial writer and cultural critic Jia Tolentino. And these are ESSAYS. At times, I felt like I was reading a succession of a particularly insightful and eloquent student’s final papers.
Thoroughly researched and vaguely connected by the theme of the line between introspection and narcissism, the essays examine everything from the ecstasy of the highs brought on by religion and drugs, the wedding industry, rape on college campuses (her alma mater of UVA in particular), her reality TV show experience, in the time right before reality TV blew up, and the life of the literary heroine (this is the one that felt most like a school paper to me).
I admit, when I picked up Trick Mirror, I thought I was going to be reading a collection of humorous memoir-style essays, something like Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life or Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy. Re-reading the summary on the jacket’s inner flap, I see that the reader is told that they are about to take a “trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives.” I just assumed that we’d be watching Jia’s trip and taking it through her, rather than with her, as the essays invite us to do.
Tolentino is an excellent writer, and has a subtle talent for taking complicated and far-reaching topics and reframing them in a sharp and decisive way. This stuck out to me in particular when she writes about feminism as an ideology versus feminism as understood by pop culture and the resultant cultural dialogues, and the way that the history of female subjugation can’t be separated from female criticism, but can’t eliminate it either. Basically the whole chapter on “The Cult of the Difficult Woman”, whether you agree with everything she says or not, is a thoughtful exploration of the backlash to the backlash to the backlash (as the title suggests, there is a whole lot of meta running through this book) and I will be thinking about it for some time.
However, for a book written in 2019, a lot of the central arguments aren’t exactly new (we know how artificial and stifling the Instagram Influencer Lifestyle is – I got more value in the sense that I felt like I was reading something new from a similar piece she published in The New Yorker – and we’ve talked to death about what reality TV and celebrity and Uber and Amazon and the Internet have done to society), and her well-written and well-researched essays don’t always add a whole lot to the dialogue. Basically, I want Jia to teach me things, with her perceptive eye and vibrant prose, but not things I already know and have read 100 times before. That’s probably why I enjoyed the personal stories – of her time on Girls v. Boys, serving in Kyrgyzstan with the Peace Corps, attending UVA, coming to terms with rejecting the institution of marriage – best.
So if you’ve read Tolentino’s stuff and love her writing, I’d recommend it. If you’re interested in some good old pop-culture crit, I’d suggest borrowing it from the library and reading the chapters that interest you, because the essays run long, and it’s a lot to skip.
As an aside: I started reading Trick Mirror last year, and misplaced it, picking it up again 9 months later. I didn’t check my reading history on Goodreads until I started writing this review, and I’m amused that I felt the need to highlight this early quote both times I read it: “Where we had once been free to be ourselves online, we were now chained to ourselves online.” Evidently it really resonated with me.