Review of Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Chapters 1-3

After reading only three chapters of Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino, I must say that it took every fibre of my being to avoid putting it down altogether or ceremoniously throwing it into a pile of books to donate and never return to, ever again.

There are so many reasons why I dislike this book, but I am not entirely sure how to collect my thoughts, so I am writing them down here. I am hoping that this will enable me to make better sense of it. I want to caveat this by saying I am not attempting to “cancel” or “come for” Tolentino in any, way, shape or form so please put down your digital pitchforks. I really do not know her at all and have nothing against her.  Sometimes, I will admit, I am trolling her. But this is based purely on my thoughts on the book and what I felt the book was revealing to me as I read it. And in trolling Tolentino I am attempting to use the same “playful” style that she has been praised for adopting.

I came across Jia Tolentino on an episode of Otegha Uwagba’s podcast, In Good Company. Rather ironically, I chose to buy her book because I was unable to make sense of what she was talking about in her interview. I understood some of what she was saying, but she seemed to be talking about a lot of different things and I did not really get what the central purpose of her thoughts and musings was. I wanted to read her book to make better sense of what she was saying, however, I have unfortunately suffered the same fate while reading her book, except this time I have lost £10 worth of book tokens in the process.

One reason why I dislike like this book is the writing style. A lot of people have lauded the writing style, but I find it particularly difficult to get behind. Tolentino seems to write each of her essays as though she is a precocious and eager to impress first-year university student completing a series of essays for a course entitled “The damaging effects and intersections of 21st century popular culture, capitalism, and white feminism”. Every paragraph seems jam-packed full of references to economists, philosophers and writers who seem to be part of Tolentino’s overenthusiastic bid to make sure that each of her points is backed up by a reference, so she does not fall foul of Turnitin detecting any plagiarism in her work. I was also not a fan of the gratuitous use of several overly long, complicated, and unnecessary words. These appeared to add nothing to the arguments that she was making and made her writing less accessible than it could have been. It reminded me of the desire every keen university student has in their first year to show off every complex sounding word they had learned or pulled out of a thesaurus.

The second reason why I disliked this book is that the essays seem to be better suited for a series of medium blogs where one’s imagination and fixation on the ills of 21st century popular culture and society can run rampant and be re-shared, retweeted and reaffirmed by an army of self-obsessed girl bosses who have entered rehab to be cured of their need for acceptance from an incredibly patriarchal and misogynistic society which always makes them feel as though they will never be enough as they are.

The chapters read like a slightly fragmented stream of consciousness that contemporary journalists have reframed as “radical” and “an enlightening, fresh voice”, when it mainly comes across as a flurry of thoughts that can’t really make their mind up about what purpose they serve or where they are ultimately going. I think, as this is a book, it would have been much more effective to have used more plain English, and to have used more narrative analysis and fewer popular culture examples, and only a few pertinent scholarly quotes. The power of writing a collection of essays lies in having a clearly defined purpose with which to engage readers. In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde does not use examples from her life simply to talk about her life, but to talk about wider societal problems that black women face. I see that Tolentino is trying to do something similar, to some degree, but her laboured anecdotes about trivial pursuits such as buying food from an overpriced salad bar in New York, as well as overpriced workout classes which are based on internalised misogyny, make it seem like she is not trying to dismantle this way of life, but rather trying to shine a light on it for anyone who also lives a similar life, or who finds living this sort of life interesting.

Another thing that makes me feel as though these essays were made for the internet rather than for a detailed narrative non-fiction book, or a collection of non-fiction essays, is the fact that so many references to events and even phrases are not even briefly explained. To her credit Tolentino does explain a few. But there were several phrases and references to events, particularly in the first chapter, that were not explained. This meant that I spent an inordinate amount of time looking these up before returning to the book. This disrupted the flow of my reading and I found it very frustrating. It almost felt as if Tolentino did not feel the need to explain these things because she thought she was writing an op-ed where she could hyperlink these terms and events to articles that further explained these for the reader. I am not saying that I am unable to research something in more detail once I have initially come across a term or title, but I think the power of narrative non-fiction books lies in explaining historical events to some degree. I am always more than happy to delve deeper and do some further reading but having a brief introduction to the issues or events in question is something that I feel is important to have in narrative non-fiction books.

My other problem is the intention and self-reflection within the book, or lack thereof. In Sister Outsider, Lorde never seems to recount her own experiences in a self-serving or gratuitous way, and she always seems to be angry or tired about the negative experiences or reactions that she has had. Ultimately, she longs for barriers to be broken down and for black women to empower themselves. Tolentino just seems to be saying “there are a lot of deluded, superficial and vacuous women in this world and maybe I am one of them – that is all”. There seems to be no desire to smash these structures or ways of being on her part. This is probably indicative of her background as a journalist, a job which requires her to report what is happening in the world, but not necessarily to challenge it or advocate for changing it. Perhaps my comparison with Audre Lorde is cruel and redundant. Tolentino is not trying to be an activist or advocate for change as Audre Lords was. Not all essayists want to empower and change the world, and this is fine.

There is no need for all essayists to be activists. I think ultimately my problem with the format and style of this book, at times, is that there is too much emphasis on the memoir writing side and too little emphasis on the actual narrative non-fiction part. Akala strikes the balance between these two things perfectly in his book Natives, where he recounts an experience from his childhood briefly before explaining how this points to wider societal issues pertaining to race and class. I find that in dwelling too much on her own experiences, rather than setting these up only very briefly to set the scene for a wider societal problem that she wishes to elaborate on, the tone of the book veers all too often into the territory of a self-serving autobiography. This is a departure from essay collections that use autobiographical information to highlight and expand on wider issues within society.

Another problem that I have with this book is that I had no idea who the intended audience was before I bought the book. If I had known I could have spared myself the experience of reading it. I had thought this book was going to be an incisive examination of the pitfalls of 21st century life and the internet, as this is how it was marketed when I was looking into it, but it seems to be an examination of the sort of American women who read Glamour magazine and spend an inordinate amount of money on worldly possessions that Glamour tells them they should buy to make themselves feel better. It is not necessarily an indictment of this way of life, or a call to overthrow this way of thinking (this brings me back to my earlier point about the book not really serving a purpose and it not intending to provoke a response). I find the lack of a rallying cry particularly frustrating, mainly because it means that I am just reading a book about Tolentino’s superficial life pursuits, and the pursuits of other women who exist in the same space. She does attempt to provide some context for why women live like this, but in doing so she does not expose any radical or paradigm shifting ideas. The one thing I was surprised to find out and that I think I never understood, because I have tried to remove myself from the realm of women who care a lot about makeup for a long time, is that women wear make-up because they think it will make them more successful.

My follow up question was and is, how exactly and why does this make women more successful? Is the issue that men will not promote women in the workplace until they look “pretty” because they need to be surrounded by pretty women? Is it that women themselves only want to be surrounded by pretty women à la Mean Girls? Why does beauty equal success? And who dictates what beauty means? What happens if, even if you wear makeup, you do not neatly fit into Eurocentric beauty standards?  This could have veered off into another conversation about how patriarchy, white supremacy, and misogyny have turned women into mere props, and this is a question that I personally desperately wanted an answer to. I am aware that a book cannot be all things for all people, but this was a point that I felt would have been interesting to expand on. I have seen a lot of articles that simply explain that women who wear makeup are more successful, but none of these articles have provided detailed explanations about why this is. At best they simply say, “women who wear make up look more attractive and likeable, and women who don’t wear makeup might look ill”. Such statements are shallow and repugnant in ways I cannot even bring myself to fully describe. Phrases like this beg the questions, why do women have to look a certain type of way to be successful at all, where did this norm come from and who does it truly serve? I just want to know why; this is what I am getting at. I do not just want to be told “it is what it is”.

I also thought it was very strange when Tolentino talked for one short paragraph about her time in the Peace Corps. This was a part of her life that I was interested in finding out more about. Was she there to be a white-adjacent (a phrase Tolentino uses to describe Asian Americans) saviour? Did she want to find herself? Was this part of some virtue signalling exercise? Why did she choose to go to Kyrgyzstan of all places? Everything that I had learned about her life up until this point seemed to be incongruent with someone who would join the Peace Corps, and that is exactly why I wanted to find out more.

One thing I will say is that I enjoyed that Tolentino was willing to be somewhat honest about the person she feels she is and was at various points in her life throughout this book. She shows that she has a few personality traits that a lot of other people would prefer to keep behind closed doors, especially in today’s Instagram-ready version of reality. Maybe this is linked to the aims of the book. Maybe her honesty is an attempt to expose what happens when you remove the veneer of social media prosperity, or when people dare to be somewhat authentic. Or maybe this is another trick, one that Tolentino herself has planted into the book as the final surprise. Or perhaps none of this is true and I am simply reading too much into it.

Chapters 4-6

Only one of the next three chapters really stood out to me as pure journalistic excellence. It should also come to no surprise that this was the chapter (thus far) in which Tolentino seems to talk about herself the least. In “The story of a generation in seven scams” Tolentino astutely observes how several white men, white women and a few South Asian “entrepreneurs” have lied their way to the top before being pulled up for their fraud, after having already raised several millions of dollars in investment capital. Not only does she profile individuals who have done this (she finishes the chapter on a crescendo with the ultimate scammer of this generation – Donald Trump), she also explores institutions and companies that have made millions from scamming people, and who have made individual gains at the expense of the collective good and from underpaying legions of powerless people to make millions, and sometimes billions, for themselves. Tolentino still falls foul of her own self-confessed narcissism on a few occasions. She needlessly mentions that she attended Bacardi Triangle and was featured in the Hulu documentary about Fyre Festival. She also recounts her own experience with using Facebook – I didn’t feel this was necessary as I feel 90% of all Gen X-Gen Y people in the Western world at least have used Facebook – and how early users were familiar with its precursors, including MySpace. Tell us something we don’t know Jia.

Perhaps because I am not American, I was not as familiar with some of the scammers that she mentioned (i.e. Elizabeth Holmes) but I found it really interesting to read about all of these people. This chapter is also relatively free of gratuitous academic quotes (thank God). When Tolentino does use quotes, it does seem to be for the purpose of driving the narrative forward, rather than just for trying to show off how smart she is, which is what I felt she was trying to do in previous chapters. I really felt as though this was the best essay of the book thus far, shortly followed by chapter 1. I also felt this chapter was funny at times. I did think, however, that she missed a great opportunity to quote Audre Lorde (in a way that would serve the narrative of the chapter). While reading chapter 6 I kept thinking about how apt Lorde’s famous words “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” were when she spoke about how women and minorities simply seek to gain the power that white, cis, heterosexual men have always had, and how this very individualist pursuit never creates real and tangible change. I also thought that she could have quoted several feminists of colour when she contrasted Sheryl Sandberg’s individualistic white feminism with feminism that focuses on access to affordable or free healthcare, reproductive rights, affordable housing etc.

I was less impressed with chapters 4 and 5. The chapter on ecstasy just felt like pure self-indulgence and gratuitous narcissism that served no real purpose. Again, Tolentino could have told us about the connection between drinking cough syrup with sprite and religious mysticism without talking about herself. I don’t think I ever got the impression that she felt like she was on ecstasy when she was religious. I more so thought the innocence of youth may have made her feel that being in a Southern Baptist environment with lots of energetic praise and worship was somewhat akin to being on drugs. I say this because as someone who grew up attending Evangelical churches before the age of 16, I find this type of church-based euphoria very familiar. I also found her comparison of being on ecstasy to a religious experience quite cliché, and I found it uncomfortable to see her trying to make a connection between Black Hip Hop culture and non-Black middle-class teenagers’ desire to do drugs. This is yet another cliché that I dislike because it shines a light on how non-Black people never want to be Black or even engage with Black people, they only want to emulate the things that some Black entertainers do that the capitalist, white supremacist society that we live in has co-opted into the realm of “cool”.

Chapter 5 was slightly better, until it wasn’t. She started off strong. She only briefly talked about herself before discussing heroines in books and the seemingly predictable path that they all take throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Tolentino superbly and thoroughly analyses these heroines and the major plot points in their respective books. Many of these texts were American so a lot of the references would have been lost on me had she not elaborated on them slightly, which I appreciated. Through doing this she also usefully references Simone de Beauvoir’s work, The Second Sex, in a way which is not merely gratuitous. Tolentino herself notes the absence of characters of colour and in doing so explains that books by men are written for everyone, books by white women are expected to relate to all women, yet books by ethnic minority women are not expected to be relatable to anyone but the ethnic minority women that they are about. I felt that given how much Tolentino spoke at length about works by white women she could have done more than just briefly list a bunch of books that were written by African American authors at the end of the chapter. This felt almost insulting given how much airtime she had given white women writers earlier in the chapter. I wonder if she would have discovered a different narrative trend had she also read and elaborated on works by African American, African, South Asian, or East Asian women authors. But once again I feel that she does this deliberately to serve her chosen narrative. If this was the case, I feel it would have been better to have left the list of African American authors out entirely.

Chapters 7-9

In chapter 7, Jia Tolentino delivers what I felt was a true journalism masterclass. “We come from old Virginia” exquisitely details the history of sexual assault, toxic masculinity, fraternity culture – and how these are all inextricably linked – with slavery, at the University of Virginia, Tolentino’s alma mater. As well as highlighting one journalist’s failed attempt to uncover the truth about one sexual assault victim, Tolentino relevantly weaves in some of her own experiences, and the experiences of some of her friends, at fraternity parties while a student at the University of Virginia. I had no idea how rampant and grotesque this history was. It made me think how pervasive sexual assault and sexual violence against women is at other universities in America, as well as other universities around the world. One cannot finish reading this chapter without feeling completely enraged at how often the men who are the perpetrators of these crimes are never made to answer for their crimes because they are perennially protected by the white supremacist and patriarchal world that we live in. This was the chapter that stayed with me the most and which enabled me to bear witness to the writing prowess that has enabled Tolentino to garner her reputation as one of the foremost millennial journalists of our time.

The last chapter that I will review in Trick Mirror is “I thee dread” and I simply want to explain why I felt as though Tolentino’s argument in this chapter did not hold up. The main argument that Tolentino seems to be making in this chapter is that couples spend several thousands of dollars on a wedding which lasts one day and after marriage women’s lives get significantly harder. However, when dissecting this further, it is clear to see that it isn’t necessarily marriage that makes women’s lives extremely difficult, but the advent of children. The advent of children causes women’s unpaid labour to increase exponentially. While reading it I thought that women often have children without getting married, and so it isn’t accurate to state that marriage makes women’s lives harder if the thing that makes women’s lives harder is something that can happen regardless of whether you are married or not. Obviously, this would undermine the point of this essay and so this was not illustrated, but while reading it I thought it was glaringly obvious that stating this point would essentially make the final essay of Tolentino’s collection redundant.

In sum, there were aspects of Tolentino’s essay collection that I enjoyed but I struggled with a lot of it. Tolentino is clearly a very gifted journalist, but I felt as though I struggled to get to grips with her approach to writing essays, particularly the way in which they never seemed to have a conclusion or summary, but instead felt like a compendium of lots of thoughts centred around nine different taglines which focused on an aspect of delusion that is particularly relevant to 21st century. As I have said before, I understand that I am not the intended audience of this book. This seems to be targeted to middle-class, white and white-adjacent millennials who enjoy the works of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Elena Ferrante. So, if you find yourself within this group you might be in for a treat.

Rating – 2/5

Published by morethoughtsfromyaa

A millennial with far too many thoughts and opinions about books, film and tv which nobody asked for, but which are nonetheless much appreciated. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!

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