Inquirer.net/Asia News Network
American writer Jia Tolentino. (Jia Tolentino/Inquirer.net/File)
Every decade or so, a nonfiction book arrives that is so good that it causes a seismic shift in the way people think about everyday occurrences. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000’s The Tipping Point (about critical mass) is one such book. Michael Lewis’ 2010 The Big Short (about finance) is another. At the very end of the 2010s, you have Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion (Random House, 2019, New York, 300 pages).
It would be too reductive to classify Tolentino as an edgier, Millennial Gladwell, though she shares Gladwell’s love for data and understanding of access. But Tolentino is a writer who locates herself in her own milieu, a child of the internet, conflicted, passionate and authentic.
Born of Filipino parents in Toronto, Tolentino grew up in Texas, studied in Virginia and cut her teeth as an editor at the cutting-edge Jezebel platform before becoming a staff writer at the New Yorker. Trick Mirror is her first book, and there are nine essays in the collection. “These essays are about the spheres of public imagination that have shaped my understanding of myself, of this country, and of this era,” she writes.
Trick Mirror tackles the internet, Tolentino’s time as a contestant on a reality TV show, the concept of “optimizing” your life, literary heroines, drugs, American scams, campus rape, the idea of “the difficult woman” and her issues with marriage. The first essay, “The I in Internet”, is the most eye-opening, eye-popping one and establishes exactly where Tolentino is coming from: She is only 30, making her both prodigious and perceptive and in this essay she explains how she feels both corrupted and inspired by the internet, “a world in which selfhood has become capitalism’s last natural resource.” She goes to write that “to communicate an identity requires some degree of self-delusion”.
From there, she moves from essay to essay, from topic to topic, entangling her identity in each one, unraveling her American existence amid a global identity crisis.
Tolentino arrives in each essay armed with often painful personal experience; she then builds a fortress around her with information and, always, such beautiful prose. The scale with which she writes doesn’t make her the easiest writer to read; she doesn’t shy away from the truths and academic density. But she constantly puts it together in a breathtaking high-wire act.
The final essay, “I Thee Dread”, is thus the most personal and powerful of the essays in the collection. When Tolentino talks about the spreadsheet her boyfriend uses to keep track of all the weddings they’ve been invited to (42 in the last nine years), it’s a detail matched by the amazing other details she’s gathered. Did you know it was Queen Victoria who made popular the white wedding dress in 1840? Or that the department store Marshall Field’s invented the wedding registry in 1924, just as two million Americans got married in 1942 alone? Yet when Tolentino talks about why she doesn’t want to get married, your heart breaks yet your brain makes sense of it.
This is how a generational codifier arrives, easily one of the “difficult women” she writes about, full of contradictions but never afraid to think and write about. She grapples with the aforementioned self-delusion everywhere. This is why Trick Mirror is the smartest book of the year.
“Here, the more I try to uncover whatever I’m looking for, the more I feel that I’m too far gone,” Jia Tolentino writes. “I can feel the low uneasy hum of self-delusion whenever I think about all of this—a tone that gets louder the more I try to write and cancel it out. I can feel the tug of my deep and recurring suspicion that anything I might think about myself must be, somehow, necessarily wrong.”
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