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‘Trick Mirror’ and these confusing times

| Thursday, September 12, 2019

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

If there’s a 21st century issue, Jia Tolentino probably has an opinion on it. Expensive workout classes. Rape on college campuses. Twelve dollar kale salads. Internet trolls. The Fyre Festival.

All of these — and so many other modern conundrums — are probed and prodded in Tolentino’s book “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion,” but she never claims to have solved them.

In her introduction to the collection, Tolentino writes, “I wanted to see the way I would see in a mirror. It’s possible I painted an elaborate mural instead.” And that she did. Her mural of modern life — painted in nine essays — highlights all its confusing, twisted and incomprehensible glory.

With smooth brushstrokes, she writes about the unbelievable “hell” that is the Internet, where a person can create a version of oneself that distorts reality and also purchases groceries from a company that “devalue[es]” its employees in order to keep its customers. This same Internet is where she, at 10 years old, posted an essay called “The Story of How Jia Got Her Web Addiction.” Details like this one move the work from compelling to downright entertaining at times.

No one is safe from Tolentino’s sharp words and astute criticism, least of all herself. She admits some level of complicity in a world where it seems like no one can begin to fix broken structures. There’s climate change to contend with, not to mention poor working conditions at Amazon and universities that don’t always punish perpetrators of sexual assault. She acknowledges her own “ethical brokenness” that comes from living in this world but maintains a “fantasy” — or maybe just self-delusion — that one day she might “behave thoughtfully.”

Cognitive dissonance runs throughout the essays as she invokes emotions and situations that don’t quite make sense together. This occurs in an essay about recent scams, including the Fyre Festival, the 2016 presidential election and Girlboss, a company that host events about women empowerment. It’s hard to hate on a company that calls itself an “unapologetic” supporter of women and girls, much less compare it to these massive controversies. Yet to Tolentino, it is in companies such as this one that feminism has morphed into something “self-congratulatory” that they “can get behind” and use to sell things— tickets to conferences, coffee mugs and even Dior t-shirts that cost nearly $1,000.

Another essay looks at the connection of religion and drug use. Tolentino recounts her childhood in a Houston megachurch, which she refers to as the “Repentagon,” and subsequent departure from the faith. She didn’t have trouble “severing ties” to the church’s “theatrics,” yet she wanted to feel devoted to something. Cue ecstasy and mushrooms. To her, both drugs and religion “provide a path toward transcendence.” She writes of seeing God during an acid trip and feeling youthfully “vulnerable” in the best possible way.

The collection might leave readers with more questions than answers. How does Jia Tolentino understand me so well? She doesn’t even know I exist. Do I feel attacked? Perhaps. Did I enjoy the essays that made me feel this way?

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