Book Review: Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

OUT NOW! Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Trick Mirror cover art. Image from Goodreads.com.

My girlfriends and I are in our early 30s. We have grown up in a strange time and continue to struggle to navigate an increasingly complicated society. Social and environmental consciousness, extreme debt, global connectivity, and political turmoil occupy our attention. Couple all this with internal conflicts specific to us at this time in our lives (the questions of marriage and motherhood, careers, our identities as grown women, the concept of permanence in a community), and it’s no surprise we felt drawn to Jia Tolentino‘s work at The New Yorker. We couldn’t stop talking about her piece “What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away”, where Tolentino attempts to live as analog as possible for a time.

It led us to additional questions…how had our childhoods informed our adulthoods? How much of our past has already been erased or made obsolete? How much will never be erased? Can we take a step back from the fast-paced world we live in, from technology? Can we protect our autonomy, our privacy, our free will? DO we know ourselves?

In her debut essay collection Trick Mirror, Tolentino asks these questions, compiles context, recognizes our struggles, and sympathizes with us. It is a masterful examination of the Millennial experience. Through smart examinations of social media, the Great Recession, the student loan crisis, Amazon and Facebook, reality TV, mainstream capitalistic feminism, and other hallmarks of a Millennial upbringing, she shows us a potential answers to the “why” questions many of us ask ourselves late at night with friends after a couple drinks.

The titular trick mirror is how Millennials are seeing ourselves, constantly distorted through the lens of our attention economy and consumer-warped brains in late-stage capitalism. It is advanced manipulation, the kind that relies on the subject to do the work. When weΒ put ourselves out into the world, we do so as a performance, and we are then fed our own image back to us, chewed up and manipulated, critiqued, unrecognizable. As Tolentino writes in the Introduction, “These are the prisms through which I have come to know myself. In this book, I tried to undo their acts of refraction.”

Anyone can and should read this book, but Tolentino is my age, and I feel that very strongly in these essays. This is a collection for women in their 30s who both love and hate the world, who can be painfully self-aware at times. It feels so much like she’s sitting with me on my friend’s porch or at our favorite bar as we have these conversations with each other,Β considering why we feel the ways we feel about ourselves and our lives. And, more importantly maybe, why it seems so different from other generations.

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Subject: Millennial women drinking our anxiety away on a stiflingly hot summer night. This is not without it’s pleasures.

In the haze of the world that we live in (with moving goal posts, massive breaches of privacy, manipulation rampant, corruption and broken promises, and constant over stimulus), many of us find ourselves lying to ourselves, confused about who we are, what we stand for, how to live.Β We can only be ourselves, but the dissonance between who we are and who we think we are is a huge cause of our personal dissatisfaction and constant anxiety. It takes a lot to see past that trick mirror.

One of my favorite essays in the collection is “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams”, where Tolentino succinctly lays out (using Fyre Fest as a sort of prelude) the housing crisis and global recession that followed, the student debt crisis, the eternal scam-monster that is social media, the infection of the #GIRLBOSS attitude that has scammed a generation of women into thinking they can win in our current system, the concept of “disruptors” and “innovators” who are revolutionizing our society into a dystopia, and ending with the 2016 election. Her treatment of these massive, generation-defining events and circumstances, is masterful. After reading it, as a millennial facing many large life problems, you look up and think, “no wonder.” It’s not that we don’t already know all this, we’re painfully aware, but the way Tolentino expresses it, lays it out, is so affirming and personal.

I am eternally grateful to Tolentino for being ruthlessly honest, not just about the world around us but about herself. It’s in the little things, like how she admits to being a politically incorrect Pocahontas one year for Halloween in college, or how she needs multiple apps on her phone to control her use of other apps on her phone, or how she unequivocally calls out performative social justice online. Her critique of mainstream feminism’s embrace of capitalism and whiteness felt just right, and her explanation of her personal choice not to get married had me feeling reaffirmed in the choices my husband and I made for our own wedding last month.

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Jia Tolentino. Image from mythosmag.com, taken by Elena Mudd.

Reading this collection, I felt all the rage and frustration I’ve experienced for over a decade validated. I felt incredibly understood and like I had permission to pursue a truer self. A lot of what my peers and I struggle with is based on fiction. It’s a mirage, lies. We are overwhelmed, and our time and money are constantly being stolen from us. It’s so bad that we feel powerless to stop it. We don’t even know where it’s coming from. Trick Mirror helps clear the dust.

“…I wrote this book 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 that truth,” Tolentino writes in the Introduction. I think she has landed on some kind of solid ground with Trick Mirror, and in the process she has led me to my own understandings. I feel lucky to have the privileged of Tolentino as the essayist of my generation. Please read this book!

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