Jia Tolentino interprets hypocrisies and contradictions between cultural trends and shared experiences with dexterity in her first book, “Trick Mirror: reflections on self-delusion.” The nine original essays tackle familiar topics — expectations of women, forming personal identity through the internet, reductive literary heroines — but the analysis articulates what perpetually exists just below the surface of common discourse and behavior. She deciphers omnipresent yet inconspicuous cornerstones of society with clarity that can only be fostered through deep awareness of the lenses different aspects of a culture can offer. The thematic weave is summed up concisely on page one: “These essays are about the spheres of public imagination that have shaped my understanding of myself, of this country, and of this era.”
When she reflects, Tolentino blatantly spotlights the most regularly accepted hypocrisies, alluding to the book’s subtitle, and backs each claim with developed analysis, ample literature, cited statistics and personal experience. When the news cycle is constantly unearthing stability that was once taken for granted, Tolentino breaks down familiar ideas in a manner that is both accessible and deeply insightful.
At times, she strays from her general coverage of millennial memes (as frequently seen in her work in The New Yorker) and delves into topics that are blatantly serious and complicated, like the essay “We Come From Old Virginia.” Tolentino writes about the 2014 Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus,” which sparked huge national discourse and told a graphic account of a gang rape at University of Virginia, Tolentino’s alma mater. Tolentino interlaces the personal — her draw to the university and the context for which she understood the Rolling Stone story — as well as the disturbing racist and sexist history that has been ingrained from the campus’ founding that continues today. She tastefully spells out how the author’s reporting could have been flawed and the impacts of inaccurate reporting both specifically and generally. It is cohesive and, much like her other essays, her evident intelligence is backed with research.
The timing of these essays brings crucial reflection on the perspectives in which we have come to know our collective, ever-changing landscape. Tolentino clarifies half-jokingly throughout the book that she is unable to develop or process thoughts without writing about them. This explicates the way most of the essays feel up in the air as they come to a close. Yet somehow, the central ideas are enriching and developed enough that they invite reflection of oneself and, in its own way, that illumination feels like enough. As Tolentino writes in the book’s introduction, “The last few years have taught me to suspend my desire for a conclusion, to assume that nothing is static and that renegotiation will be perpetual.” None of this knowledge comes with any definitive answers, but maybe that’s not the point.