Sophia Nguyen is an assistant editor of Outlook.
This is not a stand-alone episode. Again and again in “Trick Mirror,” Tolentino catches herself doing things she’s too smart and too feminist for. On a long drive with her boyfriend, she descends into a rant about just how much she doesn’t care what people think about her being unmarried. (He tunes out.) Another time, she yanks on a tube dress and a “$98 dollar punishment thong,” and realizes she resembles “someone whose most deeply held personal goal was to look hot in pictures.”
Tolentino, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has a knack for throwing herself into experiences that she finds ridiculous, even demeaning — and then, of course, thoroughly dissecting them afterward. That heedlessness, chased by total clarity, is what gives her voice such authority, like the coolest Big in your sorority. (Tolentino was a Pi Phi.) In her essays, she takes inventory of her conflicting impulses to reflect on the absurdities of modern life. Avidly anticipated and incisive, her debut collection chronicles various aspects of contemporary culture, from fraternities to the attention economy, that have shaped Tolentino’s sense of herself and her moment.
Through some combination of instinct, luck and breezy self-assurance, Tolentino has witnessed key cultural turns. She starred in that unscripted series during a “relatively innocent time,” before the dominance of reality TV and its credo that “ordinary personhood would seamlessly readjust itself around whatever within it would sell.” She set up an Angelfire subpage around 1999 and a Facebook account at the tail end of high school, when it was a “bona fide, aesthetically unembarrassing website, seemingly devoted to a better version of you.” She launched her career at sites including the Hairpin and Jezebel, when it seemed that “merely to exist as a feminist was to be doing some important work.”
Tolentino explores these overheated environments and their incentives, and how they derange our sense of ourselves and our values. In many online disputes, she observes, the sides depend on “mutual escalation”: An article about trolling attracts more trolls, boosting the writer’s profile and leading that writer to get trolled even more. Similar forces have warped feminist thought. The movement to include more types of bodies in ad campaigns and makeup lines might have its upsides, but it has also turned the pursuit of physical beauty into an ethical ideal. Feed those values into Instagram’s algorithm, and even independent-thinking women end up obsessing over how to perfect their images.
At times in these essays, the thesis gets swamped in examples. “Pure Heroines,” a survey of novel protagonists, and “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” get bogged down by one character or con too many. Elsewhere, we get play-by-plays of Twitter fights that unfolded over about four weeks in the spring of 2018, which supposedly demonstrate some key social dynamic. It’s hard to say which readers will find them more tedious: those who followed these controversies at the time or those who didn’t.
But Tolentino is winningly aware of her own excesses. In the middle of her study of the Internet’s evolution, she interrupts, “I’ll admit that I’m not sure that this inquiry is even productive.” After she goes through a decade-by-decade history of the institution of marriage, she declares that this knowledge “has not been particularly useful to me.” These days, it’s fashionable for essays to contain shards of meta-narrative doubt, usually to preempt criticism. Tolentino actually seems comfortable leaving a negative last impression. For all the energy and intellect she devotes to understanding her bad habits, she knows she’s unlikely to reform: “I have always accommodated everything I wish I were opposed to,” she confesses.
The collection is driven by that central paradox: Tolentino has thrived under the conditions she criticizes. As a kid, she did gymnastics and cheerleading, and so as an adult, she hopped on the boutique fitness trend, with its “brutally expensive” outfits and dogma of “endless work.” The social media landscape may have forced her into years of “flogging my own selfhood on the internet,” but she ended up with a book deal, and now, media outlets ask about her skin-care routine and eating habits and dog. Yet for all that she speaks from a position of comfort, her perspective doesn’t go soft-focus. After all, she points out, if this is the good life — getting to buy nicer fast-casual salads on your 20-minute lunch break — something has gone wrong.
The freshest writing in “Trick Mirror” comes out of physical experiences (a Peace Corps stint in Kyrgyzstan, doing drugs in the desert) that take Tolentino outside herself. Acid aside, though, she doesn’t offer much hope of breaking free of the systems she describes. Solipsism wins. “One of the most soul-crushing things about the Trump era,” she writes, is that “to get through it with any psychological stability — to get through it without routinely descending into an emotional abyss — a person’s best strategy is to think mostly of himself, herself.” This is both an accurate diagnosis of the national mood and a lousy prescription. If a person could think of others, or help them, or act collectively — if this could offer mental relief or moral ballast — that possibility isn’t explored.
We’re all stumbling through this cheap and nauseating funhouse, led by our desperate, earnest egotism. It’s reassuring to have Tolentino as a guide — even if, in her telling, there may not be any exits.
Reflections on Self-Delusion
By Jia Tolentino. Random House. 320 pp. $27