Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
Random House, August 2019
320 pages / Amazon
Trick Mirror is the first official book by Jia Tolentino, currently a staff writer at the New Yorker and formerly the deputy editor at Jezebel. A compilation of nine essays, this work is situated at a delicious intersection of cultural criticism and memoir, oscillating between humor-saturated personal diatribes and cunning excavations of cultural artifacts. Tolentino’s topics range from the deranged social arena of the internet (“self-hood has become capitalism’s last natural resource”), athleisure, and weddings, to spiritual reverie as experienced through both evangelical Christianity and the drug Ecstasy. Relentlessly well-researched, the glossy and humorous quality of these essays contributes to their digestibility; their self-reflexivity perpetually swats away any overarching thesis.
After all, the title of the book is Trick Mirror. The book opens with a reflection on Tolentino’s paradoxical intent in its composition: the desire to assemble a cohesive understanding of an endlessly fragmented present, but also “because I am always confused, because I can never be sure of anything, and because I am drawn to any mechanism that directs me away from the truth.” While reading, I found myself thinking about the many ways that the metaphor of a trick mirror applies here. Though Tolentino articulates its stake in the project of writing itself and the deceptive nature of narrative certainty, the objects she places under her lens also lend themselves well to it—they all tend to distort depending on how you look at them.
“Ecstasy,” saturated with the humid, dystopian landscape of Tolentino’s hometown of Houston, stands out to me as especially gorgeous writing. In it, the tale of Tolentino’s upbringing in an evangelical mega-church (and subsequent atheism) is sewn to explorations of the genre Chopped and Screwed and psychedelic drugs, all towards a philosophical analysis of contemporary spiritual reverie. Capaciousness is one of the great strengths of Trick Mirror—in its consolidation seemingly disparate objects, certainly, but also the role that Tolentino’s personal experience plays in probing questions of collective significance. “Ecstasy” is a prime example of effective and unpredictable narrative propulsion through objects and experiences she constructs as related. The essay is conceptually dense but felt satisfying to read for its literary and introspective qualities.
Due to my own interest in investigating self-care fadism (and also my frustrating attraction to it), I also gravitated strongly towards “Always Be Optimizing,” a hard-hitting essay about athleisure and feminine optimization. Tolentino uses her personal familiarity with chopped salads and Barre workouts to articulate them as methods which help one adapt to the disembodiment and “arbitrary, prolonged agony” of life in capitalism—not to mention gendered forms of self-imposed discipline which are experienced (deceptively) as a pseudo-spiritual project of self-care. The essay is full of productive divergences and a sense of contradictory involvement in something you can’t ethically (or intellectually) believe in, while still moving towards it out of impulsive (and perhaps useful) desire or ambition. Tolentino writes, “Feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier. These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking towards the idealized mirage of her own self-image.” It felt wholesome and satisfying to trace the lineage of this cultural phenomenon that I am both drawn to and repulsed by back to its roots in more overtly patriarchal manifestations of misogyny and beauty standards. To see it articulated as even having a lineage at all was satisfying, and contrasted with my despondent tendency to feel contemporary culture as a hopelessly tangled bundle of obscurity and deception.
On the subject of deception: I am a Millennial, and close in age to Tolentino; a lot of what is investigated in Trick Mirror are objects that seem to fit within the “Millennial” sectors of culture (and their influence upon American culture as a whole). Despite being one, I am not sure what being “Millennial” even means—what is its essence? That confusion doesn’t seem at all incidental to its substance, which I think of as being marked by hyper-awareness and hyper-sentimentality so extreme that it neutralizes itself; it feels founded on an absence of continuity with the past and future. The surface appearance of meaning and the emptiness beneath that is conducive to a kind of warped disingenuousness through which anything can be turned into its opposite—starving yourself and enduring heinously tedious workouts becomes “self-care,” for example, or elevating female members of the Drumpf cabinet above legitimate criticism becomes a “feminist” impulse. In its absence of fixed values and sense of historicity, the shape-shifting that marks this epoch basically seems like pure capitalism to me. At its worst, this Millennial ethos is rooted in nothing besides commerce and its thrills, where intelligence functions only spectacularly. But despite its title (and its perpetual refraction of its subjects), I don’t think that Trick Mirror is actually unreliable like that; its analysis feels thorough and ethically-rooted. The objects that Tolentino parses don’t actually come from nothing, and to me Trick Mirror felt concerned with their investigation in a way that I appreciated both politically and emotionally. It felt invested in historicizing the present.
Even so, I suspect Tolentino would personally reject an identification of her writing as a form of political resistance. In holding up a mirror to our present circumstance, Tolentino doesn’t offer a clear line of action. As a reader I felt vaguely disappointed by that disavowal of a “next step.” I’m also pretty skeptical of my hunger for writing to provide that. It should be clear by now that previous models of political resistance have expired—if for no reason other than the massive role that nihilism itself plays in politics (even electoral politics). This leaves some pretty vast questions to tackle. What shape does community—the foundation of political action—even take in the present, and what are the physical and psychic locations of any action requisite to change our circumstances?
I’m reminded of something Lauren Berlant said about politics and about teaching: “We’re alive together but we don’t exist in the same historical present.” The work of a classroom (and arguably of a text) is to enter into the same historical time so that we can “generate the present together—that’s politics and that’s also literature.” This task requires a “slowing down” in order to step outside of the crisis and understand what is actually going on. I’d personally categorize Trick Mirror in relation to that project. Its pessimism isn’t entirely cynical: in articulating what’s actually happening in the present, it actually provides an opportunity for us to step into a comprehension of our shared reality. Of course, I’m not suggesting it’s the only thing you ever read, but Trick Mirror offers an insightful and multi-valent perspective on the present in a way that, in my mind, expands what can now be said on each of the topics that has been outlined here. It is rigorous, it is personal, it is elegantly crafted to contain the sharp angles of critique and the soft spots of memoir, and it shimmers with insight.
Siloh Radovsky is a writer currently living in San Diego, where she is pursuing her MFA at the University of California. She works primarily at the intersections of memoir, experimental fiction, and personal essay. Siloh’s research interests include medicine and objectivity, especially the perimeters between pseudo-science and spirituality in contemporary health fadism. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Teen Vogue, Alchemy, Inkwell, and Sundae Theory. Examples of her zines and work can be found at Silohradovsky.net. She can also be found on social media @essence_of_toast.