Back when she was 16, Jia Tolentino appeared on a reality television show called “Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico,” in which a group of eight teenagers were set against each other to compete in a series of tasks in pursuit of a large cash prize. This was the fourth season of a show that began airing in 2003 — “the heyday of reality television,” Tolentino writes, “a relatively innocent time, before the bleak long trail of the industry had revealed itself.”
Tolentino, who is now 30 and a staff writer at The New Yorker, writes about the show in one essay in her debut collection, “Trick Mirror.” One of her costars, after she tracks him down, reminds her that they all wanted to be actors, except her. “You were like, ‘I don’t want to get famous for this [expletive]. I want to get famous for writing a book.’ ”
Whether or not the book makes Tolentino famous, it certainly announces a major talent in the art of the essay, an old form recently revitalized by such voices as Rebecca Solnit, Zadie Smith, and Leslie Jamison.
The pieces gathered here relate to her work for The New Yorker (and her previous gigs at Jezebel and The Hairpin), but all are new for the book. “These essays are about the spheres of public imagination that have shaped my understanding of myself, of this country, and of this era,” Tolentino writes. Demonstrating a mind alert to both high and low culture, they range in topic from religion, politics, race, and gender, to barre classes, ath-leisure wear, and social media. Anything can be grist for her pen, but these, she writes, “are the prisms through which I have come to know myself.”
In an essay titled “Always Be Optimizing,” Tolentino looks at “the ideal woman,” the one you see posting about her workouts, children, and garden on Instagram. Trapped at the intersection of capitalism, patriarchy, and the panopticon of social media, she responds by constructing an identity out of skin-care routines, exercise classes, and clothing that demonstrates her perfectly optimized body. She looks beautiful without makeup. She wears spandex, not to hold the fat in, but to show how little fat she carries.
Tolentino isn’t mocking such women — she writes (often hilariously) about her own experiences in yoga and barre class and wolfing down yet another chopped salad. What makes the essay more than simple cultural observation is Tolentino’s critique of the economic and societal forces that twist women into such an unsustainable set of contradictions: “It is very easy, under conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organizing your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible,” she writes. “Women have known this intimately for a long time.”
“In the beginning the internet seemed good,” Tolentino writes in one of the book’s strongest pieces, “The I in the Internet,” about a time, which coincided with her own childhood, when “discovery on the early internet took place mainly in private, and pleasure existed as its own solitary reward.” The essay asks how the Internet became “so bad, so confining, so inescapably personal, so politically determinative” — in short, “an ecosystem that runs on exploiting attention and monetizing the self.”
Her inquiry feels different than the usual critiques of life online, perhaps because, as she freely acknowledges, her own life and career have been so bound up in the Internet, for better and worse. “[M]y career is possible in large part because of the way the internet collapses identity, opinion, and action,” she writes, adding that “as a writer whose work is mostly critical and often written in the first person, [I] have some inherent stake in justifying the dubious practice of spending all day trying to figure out what you think.”
The attention economy has devolved into a kind of cannibalism of the self, she adds. “The internet is still so young that it’s easy to retain some subconscious hope that it all might still add up to something,” Tolentino writes. “But it won’t.” Pessimism about false promises might turn out to be the cultural legacy of Tolentino’s generation, the much-maligned millennials. The best essays in the collection aim directly at these outrages — the few that stray from it tend to work less well.
In “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” Tolentino draws a line through the 2008 financial collapse to the Fyre Festival to the election of Donald Trump. “We are what we do, and we do what we’re used to, and like so many people in my generation, I was raised from adolescence to this fragile, frantic, unstable adulthood on a relentless demonstration that scamming pays,” she writes.
If anything can save us, it just might be the snap of Tolentino's humor, the eloquence of her skepticism.
By Jia Tolentino
Random House, 320 pp., $27
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.