‘Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion’ by Jia Tolentino has been highlighted in several best of 2019 non-fiction book lists recently. The New Yorker staff writer’s debut collection of nine essays are pieces of cultural criticism about modern life today with its relentless focus on performance, productivity and optimisation. In ‘Trick Mirror’, Tolentino explores what this means for the development of the Internet and the current wave of feminism amongst other things.
In the opening essay, ‘The I in Internet’, Tolentino notes that 1999 was “the You’ve Got Mail era, when it seemed that the very worst thing that could happen online was that you might fall in love with your business rival”. By around 2012, however, the less romantic and more sinister consequences of social media had become more apparent and Tolentino is incisive and articulate in her analysis of how these platforms have changed the way we behave and perceive ourselves and others.
‘Reality TV Me’ is an engaging essay about the summer when Tolentino starred in a teen reality TV show filmed in Puerto Rico in 2005, before the technology existed for such content to go viral online so easily. Other topics covered in ‘Trick Mirror’ include women in modern literature (‘Pure Heroines’), how sexual assault cases are investigated on university campuses (‘We Come From Old Virginia’) and the prominence of scams in modern culture from the Fyre Festival to the election of Donald Trump (‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams’). The final essay, ‘I Thee Dread’, is an excellent take-down of the wedding industry and is among the strongest in the collection in my view.
The essays all have complex structures, often going off in tangents. As a themed collection, ‘Trick Mirror’ is maybe too broad in its “focus” on modern life to be entirely cohesive, but it is brimming with clever and original ideas, even in the absence of solutions to some of the more troubling aspects explored here. I am pleased to see that Zadie Smith has championed this book too, because much like Smith’s best fiction, ‘Trick Mirror’ is intellectually engaging rather than dry and academic.