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Book Club: Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino

A brilliant collection of essays on millennial existence
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IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY
IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror is much more than a bundle of 4,000-word papers. I never thought to purchase additional essays on top of the stapled New Yorker magazines that arrive at my doorstep weekly; but giving Tolentino’s breakout novel a read was easily one of the best decisions I made last month. Commentary on topics that are so relevant alongside writing so concise is as hard to come across as snow in July.

For the unfamiliar, Tolentino is a staff writer on pop culture at The New Yorker. Her labelling as the “Joan Didion of our time” by Vulture is apt; she speaks on seemingly mundane things like gifs and “cursed energy” on the internet with an impossibly great deal of insight and conviction.

Tolentino acts as the omniscient eye on behalf of us drooling app-addicted adult-babies. She reminds us of what we are doing and what it all means. Though she seldom proposes solutions for the problems she explores, her works by no means are inconclusive. The theme of her every article — and in this case, her every essay — suffices as a conclusion in and of itself.

For instance, one of Trick Mirror’s chapters in “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” is on the presentation of wealthy scammers in the media. Though it has been made clear by the likes of Netflix and HBO that Fyre Fest founder Billy MacFarland and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes were both unethical and deceitful, I had never regarded them as scammers.

I do believe, however, that they manipulated the public’s beliefs to pursue lofty goals while neglecting transparency. Yet, this practice is not unique to scammers; similar techniques were and are used by revered masterminds like Larry Ellison of Oracle and Elon Musk of Tesla.

Even Uber, the ride-hailing app everyone has come to hate but still habitually use, was populated by software engineers, executives, and managers whose paychecks depended on scamming. They secretly ran Greyball: a software tool that allowed them to deny service to officials in cities where they were illegally operating Uber vehicles. If the practice of deceit and unethical practices made one a scammer, then it seems that most — if not all — of Silicon Valley is run by scammers.

Tolentino encourages readers to reconsider who and what is a scam, then bluntly concludes: “The choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional — to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck.”

In sum, her collection of essays is strung together by the theme of the digital age, which carries along subthemes like capitalism, religion, and feminism. She is able to speak critically on popular ideas without brashly offending anyone — a skill I still struggle to hone.

She calls out the hypocrisy supporting marketable feminism by asking how we can have She-EOs and no federally-mandated child care. She calls herself out on the share of scams she practiced to get where she is today. At the start of her journalism career, she rode on the capitalistic wave of feminism to break from writing wealthy high schoolers’ college essays: another scam.

Tolentino’s gripping commentary on the state of Western life in the twenty-first century is woven together with personal anecdotes and current news. The essays stand to help us transcend one step closer to her level of enlightenment, to push us to analyze popular practice more critically.

Independent thinking is priceless, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to do in digital spaces where unpopular opinions are attacked and censored. Tolentino reminds readers of how to formulate arguments against conventional thinking, as well as how such arguments can bear logical and valuable insights. She speaks with no hidden agenda.

The bundle of essays she offers us proves her competence in crystal-clear thinking and writing. If you’re a fan of her witty work in The New Yorker, be sure to add Tolentino’s Trick Mirror to your reading list. Get ready to have your woes articulated into essays so clever that they would knock the socks off of even your toughest teaching assistant.