I was first introduced to the writing of Jia Tolentino through her 2018 New Yorker piece ‘The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul‘. It’s a fantastic work of reportage in which Tolentino just hangs out with a bunch of teens to try to explain (to those of us who aren’t sixteen) exactly how huge vaping is among that generation. I first learned what a Juul is from that piece and subsequently, despite being born in 1996, I felt practically antediluvian. I instantly became a Tolentino fan.
Just over a year later, Tolentino publishes her first book, a collection of essays. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion comes at a time when the essay collection, as a format, could not be bigger. One could probably trace the current cultural obsession with essay collections back to Roxane Gay’s totemic 2014 work Bad Feminist, but she simply just enlivened a form that had already been perfected decades before by Sontag, Didion, and Ephron.
(Whilst writing this I give pause to the fact that the essay collection seems to be one of the few genres entirely dominated by women. I struggle to name a single straight, male essayist. How refreshing.)
Tolentino’s essays are largely personal, and when not writing from her own point of view, she is writing about her generation, namely Millennials. I know, another essay collection about Millennials. However, Tolentino rarely caused me to eye-roll as often as a book like this usually would.
I’ll start with an essay I really enjoyed. The second essay in the collection is called ‘Reality TV Me’, in which Tolentino decides to embrace her very brief stint as a reality television contestant. For three weeks when she was sixteen years old, Tolentino was flown to Puerto Rico to take part in a battle-of-the-sexes show called Boys v. Girls: Puerto Rico. A team of four boys battled against of team of four girls in hopes to win $50,000. It’s very 2005. For the best part of a decade after the show had aired, Tolentino had not been able to force herself through the series.
The essay covers her experience of finally watching the show for the first time, getting in contact with her fellow contestants all these years later, and even chatting with one of the producers of the show. It’s a fascinating ‘I was there’ account of mid-00s reality television when the genre was nearing its height, but before the invention of YouTube, where shows like this lived on forever.
Another essay which I thoroughly enjoyed is ‘Pure Heroines’, and yes, the title being a Lorde reference did help swing my opinion of it. In the essay, Tolentino (who is of Filipino heritage) recounts the day when her childhood friend insisted that she had to play the Yellow Power Ranger. When she realised her friend was deadly serious about this rule, an anger came over Tolentino that was ‘almost hallucinatory.’
If she couldn’t be the Pink Power Ranger that meant that she also ‘couldn’t be Baby Spice [or] Laura Ingalls [or] Claudia Kincaid’. She then explores all the literary heroines who influenced her after this period, despite knowing that ‘things were [now] different’. Discussion of Anne of Green Gables, the Ramona and Beezus books, and Anastasia Krupnik leads into a discussion of The Second Sex. The essay snakes along to encompass other works spearheaded by young women like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Bell Jar, and The Virgin Suicides. Whilst I wouldn’t say Tolentino offers anything particularly new to say on any of these topics, it’s refreshing to read her perspective on these works.
Then there are a couple of important essays in Trick Mirror. I say important because they’re very Zeitgeist-y and act as the alternative to the more fun and pop culture-y essays in this collection.
The first of these is ‘The I in the Internet’ which is the first collection in the book and is generally about the abject horror derived from partaking in any form of online activity in 2019. ‘We Come from Old Virginia’ is about rape culture in American universities. And finally, ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman’, which is about the ‘feminist obsession with “difficult” women’.
These were the essays that I least cared about, not because I’m adverse to the topics or anything, but because I feel Tolentino didn’t add much to the veritable libraries of opinions already out there about these topics. At times their inclusion in this book even seems strange, as I’m left wondering exactly of the overall tone Tolentino aims to convey with her book.
I had presumed that this collection, like many other essay collections, was simply just a handy printing of Tolentino’s previously published works. But in the acknowledgments she states that all of these essays were written for this book. Which means that she purposefully put an essay about the rise of athleisure in the same book as an essay about campus rape. One essay could have me genuinely grinning whilst the next had me wincing with discomfort.
It’s this weird tonal melange that causes me difficulty when I try to have an opinion of this book. Overall, I did enjoy it, but perhaps not as much as I had hoped I would, given my initial impression of Tolentino’s work at the New Yorker.
Another criticism, which is my own geographical problem I guess, is this book is very American. Tolentino discusses the 2016 Election as this great epochal event which changed the History of The World, when in reality it was a domestic issue.
I still like Tolentino a lot. I just don’t think this is the best presentation of her work. There are really good essays in here, which hopefully have lives outside the book. But I don’t think I’d recommend Trick Mirror as a place to start with Tolentino. Try her Juul piece.