Mirabella Miller ’23
Staff Writer / Music Columnist
March 12, 2020
On Feb. 24, Jia Tolentino expanded on her new book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion in conversation with Mary Routt Writing Chair and bestselling novelist R.O. Kwon. Kwon opened her interview by telling the audience gathered in Balch Auditorium, “Almost everyone I know reads Jia Tolentino.” It’s true that Tolentino may be the most widely read essayist in the United States today, and for good reason. Scroll through her recent work on her staff page on The New Yorker’s website, and you’ll find some of the most relevant and insightful cultural criticism around. From critiquing the current obsession with minimalism, investigating what she dubs “sassy mom merch”, and evaluating the loving relationship between millennials and their houseplants, Jia Tolentino has her finger directly on the pulse of American culture, and translates the beating she feels effortlessly.
Yet, as her debut novel Trick Mirror demonstrates, she communicates her inner world with just as much clarity as she does societal and cultural phenomena. Trick Mirror is a collection of nine riveting essays revolving around capitalism, identity, feminism, faith, technology, and more. The essays are a blend of journalistic reporting, research, and personal experience. Tolentino is incredibly witty, her voice and candor underscoring every sentence of every essay. Her affinity for complexity and contradiction guides her construction of intricate and thoughtful arguments, never essentializing and always questioning.
When Kwon asked Tolentino to outline the path to the book’s creation, Tolentino discussed taking a deeper dive into subjects that had prompted some of her previous work, and exploring subjects tangential to her previous work that she found interesting. She described conceptualizing the essays in terms of what subjects were meaty enough to necessitate long-form essays. “I think the essays are too long, but I wanted them to be too long,” she said. “I wanted them to be things that you couldn’t read on the internet.”
Because Tolentino has such obvious writing prowess, every essay is outstanding in its own way. But perhaps none are more powerful than “Ecstasy,” a reflection on her upbringing in an evangelical church in Houston, and her subsequent search for transcendence in her post-religious life. She renders the city of Houston so vividly the reader can almost feel the heat and sprawl, can almost hear the DJ Screw Tolentino remembers hearing on the radio, and can almost taste the cough syrup she recalls drinking at a pool party. Characteristically, she concludes the essay on a meditative note rather than a conclusive one.
“I can’t tell whether my inclination toward ecstasy is a sign that I still believe, after all of this,” she said, “or if it was only because of that ecstatic tendency that I ever believed at all.”
This essay is incredibly intimate, with Tolentino revealing more of herself to the reader than she does at any other point in the book. In the Q&A portion of the talk, Charlotte Cowan-Ruth PZ ’22 asked Tolentino how she decides when and if to get personal in her writing. Tolentino said that it is all about what answers the central question of the piece best, pointing out that sometimes, you are the best authority on something.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, the essays in Trick Mirror are stitched together by a common thread of self-delusion. Through a vast range of subjects, Tolentino attempts to render the current reality, in all its dysfunction, to the reader in a concrete and understandable way. She explains how the intricate systems we have assembled such as capitalism, feminism, and technology confine us just as forcefully as they hold us together. “These are the prisms through which I have come to know myself,” she said in the introduction to the book.
She continues, saying that “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 created an elaborate mural instead.” Tolentino, in her quest to see clearly, has only become more confused, with knowledge and experience seeming to lead away from reality instead of toward it. One would be hard-pressed to find a better summation of life in 2020 than this one she offers.
But a crucial part of Tolentino’s appeal as both a person and a writer is how she flirts with nihilism while never descending into it. One of her central assertions, communicated both in Trick Mirror and in her talk at Scripps, is that seeking truth is worthwhile even if it seems impossible to find, even when the particulars are confusing, even when your subjective experiences seem like the only truth there is. “I began to realize that all my life I’ve been leaving myself breadcrumbs,” Tolentino says in the book’s introduction. “It didn’t matter that I didn’t always know what I was walking toward. It was worthwhile, I told myself, just trying to see clearly, even if it took me years to understand what I was trying to see.”
Image Credit: The Guardian