It’s such a joy to read a book where you feel as if the author is a long lost friend who just gets you. This is how I felt reading Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (and not just because I think she might be the only other person I know who’s read the incredible and hilarious Hey Ladies! by Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss). Reading this book felt as if someone I knew and trusted had heard all of the complicated feelings and thoughts that are bouncing around in my head and articulated them more intelligently and eloquently than I could have ever hoped to.
Trick Mirror consists of a series of essays all based around the themes of self-deception and delusion, examining the way in which modern society allows and encourages us to view ourselves and our actions through a distorted lens. Trick Mirror is Tolentino’s debut collection of essays though she has had a long career in journalism, most recently as a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her journalistic skills are clear throughout her essays, each piece is expertly plotted and researched, but it’s Tolentino’s sharp mind and biting wit that compelled me to read long passages of this book aloud to whichever poor soul was unlucky enough to be sitting next to me (sorry James).
I was drawn in from the very beginning by the book’s first essay The I in Internet, which highlights the way we have grown to conflate expressing an opinion on social media with actual meaningful social action and the detrimental effect this has had on modern life. Tolentino’s arguments were persuasive, well-researched and forced me to think long and hard about the ethics of my use of sites like Facebook and Amazon. I also thoroughly enjoyed I Thee Dread, a sharply written piece dissecting modern wedding culture in which Tolentino ponders if any woman would sign up for marriage (something that statistically leads to them being more unhappy, earning less and dying sooner) if they didn’t also get a wedding (a day in which they are encouraged to be completely self-centred without judgement).
Another standout was The Cult of Difficult Women which challenged a recent trend in modern, pop-feminism of praising women purely for being ‘difficult’ and viewing any criticism of ‘difficult’ women, however valid, as being anti-woman and unfeminist. This is an absolute pet peeve of mine (I have shouted ‘Just because she’s wearing a blazer doesn’t mean she’s a feminist’ in the recent past) and I relished seeing Tolentino expertly expose this phenomenon as being utterly nonsensical. Describing Kim Kardashian, Tolentino says ‘It is not “brave” strictly speaking for a woman to do things that will make her make her rich and famous. For some women, it is difficult and indeed dangerous to live as themselves in the world, but for other women, like Kim and her sisters, it’s not just easy but extraordinarily profitable’. It was at this moment I concluded that Tolentino and I had to have been friends in a past life.
All that being said, my favourite essay in the collection was Always Be Optimising, which examines the pressure that young women feel to be an ideal version of themselves and the huge amount additional effort and anxiety that this generates. I found this essay hugely relatable and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it made me fundamentally re-examine the way I think about myself. Rather than attempt to summarise it, all I can do is desperately implore you all to read it, as it is available in its entirety here. You won’t regret it.
What I think made this collection of essays truly special was how self-aware Tolentino was about her complicity in the self-delusion that she highlights. She discusses how she rose to prominence in her career by writing opinion pieces for Jezebel in The I in Internet, how she has sweated her way through many a punishing barre class in Always Be Optimising and how she too has been thrilled by the audacity of scammers in The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams. Rather than preaching from on high about the ills of modern society, Tolentino is just as confused as the rest of us. Her gift is not to give her readers a clear map of what should be done, but to point out the ‘mirror’ is indeed a trick. What we do with this information is up to us.