When you look into a funhouse mirror, and your body appears stretched out or warped, you believe that reality is being distorted. You are confident that what you’re seeing in front of you is not how things really are. But what happens when you’re no longer looking into a mirror? What if you’re looking into a computer screen, or a book, or someone else’s face? Suddenly, it’s much more difficult to delineate what’s true from what’s not.
Jia Tolentino’s debut Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion deals with exactly this: the blurred boundaries between reality and distortion, and how self-delusion operates within that murky space. In a collection of nine original essays, Tolentino tackles subjects from the internet to weddings to literary heroines to scams.
The thread that connects all of these essays is selfhood. The definition of that ‘self’ changes throughout the book and, more often than not, throughout individual essays. At certain moments, Tolentino is interested in analyzing herself. At others, she’s interested in critically thinking about a generation’s collective understanding of self. Still, at others, she’s interested in writing about the self in relation to identity—there are multiple essays in the collection which touch on what it means to be a woman today, or what it means to grow up in a culture which privileges whiteness.
One of the most striking qualities of Tolentino’s essays is her intense self-awareness. She’s able to sharply cut through entire structural systems, expose their self-deluded shortcomings, and then point to her own complicity within them. For instance, she admits that she used Amazon for years “with full knowledge of its labor practices,” and that her own career exists in the grey space “between ‘woman who takes feminism seriously’ and ‘woman selling her feminist personal brand.’” These moments are refreshing; Tolentino isn’t afraid to self-criticize, which stands in stark contrast to the online virtue-signaling she writes about in her essay on the internet.
Tolentino doesn’t just use her self-awareness to critique herself, however. She uses it to examine and unpack her behavior and her beliefs, giving the reader the impression that Tolentino understands herself to an intense degree. Throughout the essays, she is a witness to her own self-delusion and layered performances. In an essay about her time on a reality TV show as a teenager, Tolentino recalls coming across an open casting call in a mall while with her parents. Her parents tease her, and egg her on to audition. Tolentino is reluctant, but when her father offers her twenty dollars to try out, she grabs the money and goes to the casting call. In her initial recounting of the event, Tolentino’s audition is presented as incentivized, but, later on, she complicates that presentation. “It’s true that I ended up on reality TV by chance,” she writes. “It’s also true that I signed up enthusiastically, felt almost fated to do it. I needed my dad’s twenty dollars not as motivation but as cover for my motivation.”
There are two stories operating in the essay, two versions of events. Reading the later version, we watch Tolentino unpick her own self-delusion. What was really going on is more complicated than a single, easily absorbed sentence. This is a theme for Tolentino—she’s skeptical of the tight, pat story. For instance, there’s a moment in her essay on the internet when Tolentino is critical about how the #MeToo movement, with its neat hashtag, streamlined individual stories into one digestible category. Tolentino prefers the messy; she prefers to give each story its own space to breathe.
In her essay, “A Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” Tolentino attempts to dismantle that exact streamlined model—she lays out long descriptions of individual stories or events as a way to make a claim about how our society functions. She writes about monetized feminism, the 2016 election, and “The Really Obvious” scams, like Mast Brothers chocolate, outlining why all of these phenomenons constitute scamming. Although Tolentino’s identification of these scams is collectively interesting—especially when considering how late-stage capitalism has allowed certain scams to thrive under a veneer of generic positives, such as innovation or female empowerment—the essay feels more like a descriptive catalogue than anything else. For me, thinking about the motivating idea behind the essay (that late-stage capitalism is the ultimate scam) was far more engaging than actually reading it. And yet, I can appreciate Tolentino’s impetus to run a comb over the scams and discuss them at length, in order not to generalize, so that she doesn’t force them all into a uniform mould.
Tolentino’s interest in capitalism runs throughout the book. In her essay on the internet, she writes about how the internet has allowed capitalism to monetize the self through social media. In another essay, she writes about how the ideal woman has essentially become a product of capitalism that simultaneously props up the system. According to Tolentino, the “ideal woman” eats at Sweetgreen, wears ludicrously expensive athleisure wear, and takes barre classes. All of these lifestyle choices help her “function more efficiently within an exhausting system.” And, perhaps more importantly, through these lifestyle choices, she becomes a support to the system by buying into it, one overpriced salad at a time.
Of course, one of the greatest issues with capitalism, and one that Tolentino discusses throughout her essays, is living morally in a morally-compromised world. In her essay on the internet, Tolentino writes: “our world—digitally mediated, utterly consumed by capitalism—makes communication about morality very easy but makes actual moral living very hard.”
Sally Rooney, another millennial writer critical of capitalism, often speaks about the same issue. Specifically, she has spoken on multiple occasions about how she finds it difficult to operate within a capitalist book publishing world. “I feel somewhat conflicted about my participation in the system of publishing because it’s a profit-making industry,” Rooney said, during a podcast with the London Review Bookshop. “I feel very uncomfortable with that, but yeah I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what artists, writers, critics, or whatever can do outside the system which seems so capable of accommodating every fundamental gesture of resistance to it.”
Like Tolentino, Rooney struggles with the moral implications of capitalism and her position within the system. Whereas Rooney finds it difficult to conceptualize meaningful acts of resistance to an all-encompassing capitalist structure, Tolentino deposits small-scale solutions that individuals can perform in order to push back against an unfair system. These solutions can seem limited, but Tolentino’s project is to point out how things are, not how they could be under an alternative system. And yet, it’s affirming to see that Tolentino has thought through solutions where it matters, and is happy to dwell in contradictions where it’s less important.
Indeed, Tolentino is at her best when she’s dealing with the messy, when it feels like her ideas are developing on the page, when her convictions haven’t yet been solidified—and maybe never will be. In the final essay of the collection, which sifts through Tolentino’s feelings about marriage, she closes the piece, and the book, by saying: “In the end, the safest conclusions may not actually be conclusions.”
I’m grateful for Tolentino’s writing, her honesty, and her comfort with complication. Her message is simple, but infinitely important: not everything can be explained cleanly, and that’s okay.
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
by Jia Tolentino
Random House; 320 p.