REVIEW: The Next Didion or Sontag? Perhaps. Certainly an Astute Chronicler of Our Time

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Trick Mirror

Jia Tolentino

Random House 320 pp.

By Joan Silverman

Pity the author who, on the eve of her first book, is being compared with Joan Didion, on the one hand, and Susan Sontag, on the other. As if one literary icon isn’t enough, this double barreled expectation leaves little room for error.

But Jia Tolentino needn’t worry. Her new book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion is a gem. The thirty-year-old New Yorker staff writer has produced nine long-form essays that are, at once, erudite and visceral, sharp, witty, and very much her own. She proves to be equal parts cultural critic, memoirist, and political pundit. Her targets include, among others, the wedding industry, generational scams, difficult women, reality TV, and the business of “optimization.” Tolentino is a cynic, with an explorer’s curiosity and zeal. She writes not because she has answers, but in search of them.

Tolentino is both a novice and an old hand. To date, her career path has included editorships at the feminist websites Jezebel and The Hairpin, before landing at the New Yorker in 2016. Yet, as we learn in the book, she’s been plying her trade for years. She first wrote about her encounters with the internet at the age of ten, when her dominant online activity was visiting Beanie Baby sites. She learned HTML, and set up an Angelfire page and an AOL account. Even as a tween, she was bemoaning her addiction to the web — that, in 1999, when the internet was still relatively benign.

Fast forward to the present, and the author deconstructs the internet’s decline in a series of dark observations: “As more people began to register their existence digitally, a pastime turned into an imperative: you had to register yourself digitally to exist,” she says. Then later, “The internet already is what it is. It has already become the central organ of contemporary life . . . It has already built an ecosystem that runs on exploiting attention and monetizing the self.”

These last two details worm their way through the book, an insidious fact of modern life. Case in point: For those who wonder about the surreal empty fame of Kim Kardashian, the book suggests an obvious, if easily ignored, explanation. Self-objectification is itself a talent, perfectly suited to our moment.

Trick Mirror includes a number of standout pieces, among them Tolentino’s scathing critique of the internet; her account of growing up Filipino American in Houston’s Southern Baptist Church; and her colorful sketches of millennial cons and hustles. Her report on the tainted Rolling Stone story of a gang rape at University of Virginia, the author’s alma mater, is as much about a time and place as it is the portrait of a young journalist coming of age.

“At twenty-five, I was closer to my time at UVA than I was to the age I am now — closer to the idea of being the subject than the idea of being the writer,” Tolentino says. “I didn’t know how to read the [Rolling Stone] story. But a lot of other people did.”

What distinguishes Tolentino’s writing is, in part, her skill at the balancing act that is the hybrid essay. Many of these pieces are data-driven accounts interwoven with personal narratives. Tolentino shines in these settings, often admitting her own complicity in the issues at hand.

“My own career has depended to some significant extent on feminism being monetizable,” she says.

Or, “As the value of speech inflates even further in the online attention economy,” she says, “I don’t know what to do with the fact that I myself continue to benefit from all this . . . and that I, as a writer whose work is mostly critical and often written in first person, have some inherent stake in justifying the dubious practice of spending all day trying to figure out what you think.”

Nonetheless, Tolentino has figured out how to weigh in seamlessly throughout the book. In the essay, “I Thee Dread,” the author, who is happily coupled but defiantly unwed, plays a starring role in a larger story about the history of the wedding industry. In others, she’s an observer who disarms us just by showing up. In “Pure Heroines,” one reads along, enjoying a tour of literature’s feminist throughways, when Tolentino casually throws out this reminder: Have we noticed that all of the characters in the preceding 30 pages are white and straight?

Only time will tell if Tolentino will be the next Didion or Sontag. For now, readers can defer such speculation, and focus on the teeming intelligence of her book. At the least, she is an astute chronicler of our time.

Joan Silverman’s work has appeared in numerous publications including The Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, and Dallas Morning News. Her book, Someday This Will Fit: Linked Essays, Meditations & Other Midlife Follies, will be available in October from Bauhan Publishing.)