Book Review: Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

By Rachel Zarrow

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion is the debut essay collection from The New Yorker staff writer, Jia Tolentino. In each essay she examines the ever-growing quagmire of self-delusion that faces us, humans living in the age of the internet.

The book opens with the essay “The I in the Internet,” and the author’s assertion that, “In the beginning the internet seemed good” (3). Tolentino quotes her ten-year-old self who, on an Angelfire subpage wrote, “I was in love with the internet the first time I used it at my dad’s office and thought it was the ULTIMATE COOL” (3).  Tolentino understands the age of the internet more deeply than most. Her relationship with the internet has metamorphosed over two decades.

Of the social internet, Web 2.0, she writes:

As a medium, the Internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive. In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet—for anyone to see you, you have to act. You have to communicate in order to maintain an internet presence. And, because the internet’s central platforms are built around personal profiles, it can seem…like the main purpose of this communication is to make you look good. Online reward mechanisms beg to substitute for offline ones, and then overtake them. (8)

In other words, engaging in the social internet as it’s designed means stepping into a trap, one that encourages us to waste time, and one that tracks our every move, selling us out to the highest bidder. The most dangerous trap of all is the self-delusion underlying it. Tolentino explains:

The everyday madness perpetuated by the internet is the madness of this architecture, which positions personal identity as the centre of the universe. It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection. (14)

This essay (as well as the entire collection) is dark, but so is the reality  of the internet. Tolentino concludes:

The internet is still so young that it’s easy to retain some subconscious hope that it all might still add up to something. We remember… [when it] felt like butterflies and puddles and blossoms, and we sit patiently in our festering inferno, waiting for the internet to turn around and surprise us and get good again. But it won’t. (32)

Tolentino has revealed the trick mirror for what it is. Not only does this love story lack a happily-ever-after, but it turns out that it’s not even a love story after all.

In “Always Be Optimizing,” Tolentino examines the evolution of the marketing around women’s beauty, exercise, and diet plans, which sell a female ideal. She writes:

Today’s ideal woman is a type that coexists easily with feminism in its current market-friendly and mainstream form. This sort of feminism has organized itself around being as visible and appealing to as many people as possible; it has greatly over-valorized women’s individual success. 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 toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image. (65)

Once proffered to women by mid-century magazines in service of our husbands, this ideal has been rebranded as a gift “for ourselves” (81, author’s emphasis), part of a “lifestyle myth” (81). Tolentino explores the small but concrete ways that this myth has become deeply engrained into the daily choices of many female earners. Tolentino examines barre classes, spandex (in the forms of shapewear and athleisure), and chopped salads, and states that, “Women are genuinely trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy—two systems that, at their extremes, ensure that individual success comes at the expense of collective morality.” (91).

Tolentino states: “Shapewear, essentially twenty-first century corseting, controls the body under clothing; athleisure broadcasts your commitment to controlling your body through working out. And to even get into a pair of Lululemons you have to have a disciplined-looking body” (83-4). And the cycle of self-delusion continues: “[T]he real trick of athlesiure,” Tolentino writes, “is the way that it can physically suggest that you were made to do this” (84).

Tolentino writes with an enviable authority, one that comes with having lived and breathed the very subjects about which she writes (she’s been an internet user for most of her life) and an authority built upon a long-held awareness of her writerly self. The latter appears in the form of snippets from various journals she’s filled and blogs posts she’s written since she was an adolescent. The mere fact that she still has these journals reflects her foresight. In the essay “Pure Heroines,” Tolentino, who holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, examines the stark contrast between the portrayals of female protagonists in children’s literature and those found in adult literature. She analyzes the protagonists she’s encountered in a lifetime of reading (This is a diverse list that includes Claudia from Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Jo from Alcott’s Little Women, Esther from Plath’s The Bell Jar, Anna from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Katniss from Collins’s The Hunger Games, among many others). Tolentino notices that the young protagonists “are all so brave, where adult heroines are all so bitter” (97) and posits:

If the childhood heroine accepts the future from a comfortable distance, and if the adolescent is blindly thrust toward it by forces beyond her control, the adult heroine lives within this long-anticipated future and finds it dismal, bitter, and disappointing. Her situation is generally one of premature and artificial finality, in which getting married and having children has prevented her from living the life she wants. (112)

Another dead-end, and certainly not a happy ending.

“The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” is the essay I would present to a family of extraterrestrials if they invaded and requested one seminal document explaining life in today’s capitalist American  . Tolentino actually examines eight scams—perhaps this is a scam of arithmetic in and of itself? And these are: Fyre Fest, the financial crisis of 2008, the student debt crisis, the advent of social media (namely Facebook), the concept of the #girlboss, Theranos, the venture capital funding of tech giants (particularly Amazon), and the 2016 presidential election. It’s a concise examination that could inform extraterrestrials and remind us mere terrestrial beings of the myriad madnesses we take for granted.

Throughout the book, the symbolic trick mirror and the theme of refraction appear beautifully and thoughtfully in Tolentino’s clear—and often skeptical—voice. She presents the traps of the world as she sees them and rarely attempts to provide solutions because there aren’t any. As we, the readers, participants in this crazy world, feed ourselves a steady diet of self-delusion, we grow and grow like the snake from the Snake game until we are trapped with just  two options: crash into ourselves or crash into our surroundings. Either way, we lose.

Rachel Zarrow writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various outlets including The Atlantic, BUST, and the San Francisco Chronicle.She is working on her first novel and screenplay. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @rachroobear and at