“These [essays] are the prisms through which I have come to know myself. In this book, I tried to undo their acts of refraction. I wanted to see the way I would see in a mirror. It’s possible I painted an elaborate mural instead.”
So begins Trick Mirror, the debut essay collection from New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino. There is much more sharp prose and startling honesty to feast on. The book flip flops artfully between apt cultural criticism/reportage and personal essay. Tolentino lays bare the 2019 cultural touchstones of Fyre Festival and Outdoor Voices. In a more intimate register, she recounts how, as a young adult, she found the thin line between religious ecstasy and chemical ecstasy (that is, our beloved club drug MDMA).
Trick Mirror is a book that only a millennial could write, but one who is smart enough to be able to see our lives objectively, and thus critique us with ease. In the book’s third essay, “Always Be Optimizing,” Tolentino wonders why it is that people — women in particular — are always “compelled to optimize,” hurtling towards perfection only as it seems to get further and further away. If there is such a thing, though, Tolentino certainly comes closer than most. At 30, she is one of the youngest staff writers at The New Yorker. She holds an MFA from The University of Michigan and she moonlights as a writing teacher and public speaker. She is the epitome of that person who can be both smart and cool.
In the most affecting essay in Trick Mirror, “We Come from Old Virginia,” Tolentino tells the infamous story of the fraternity gang rape at University of Virginia, which unfurled a string of investigations into sexual assault claims at fraternities across the country. Tolentino is also an alumna of the school. She grapples with this and the fact that in America, the most beautiful places seem to hold the most harrowing secrets: “Charlottesville has been named the happiest city in America by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the best college town in America by Travelers Today, and the number-five US community for well-being, according to a Gallup index … A comment on UVA’s College Confidential message board reads, ‘Girls here dress very well and are very physically attractive. The key to get them is alcohol.’”
It’s this cognitive dissonance that lays at the heart of Trick Mirror. What Tolentino does brilliantly is acknowledge those ironies and admit to the paradox in which she (and all of us) lays at the center of those ironies. Tolentino knows the ridiculousness of reality TV and yet she appeared on a reality television show for a full season. In the book’s first essay, “The I in Internet,” Tolentino tells us that she’s been blogging since she was a preteen. As a full-time staff writer, she is still doing something similar and yet still finds herself questioning everything around her.
The takeaway of all of this dissonance seems to be that we pretend that nothing matters, that we are all typing and watching into an external abyss that bears no relation to what goes on in our minds and, to be trite, our hearts. But Tolentino reminds us that that just isn’t true. At the end of the book, she writes, “… the ‘thee’ that I dread may have been the ‘I’ all along.” This, she deftly convinces us, is who we are now.