Tuesday 17 September 2019

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: A slice of millennial life, from athleisure to Mary Wollstonecraft

Fiction: Trick Mirror

Jia Tolentino Fourth Estate, hardback, 320 pages, €20.99

First book: Tolentino, a writer for the New Yorker, explores internet culture and what it means for women
First book: Tolentino, a writer for the New Yorker, explores internet culture and what it means for women
Trick Mirror

Jia Tolentino's book of essays show a picture of the author next to Potato Jesus, a painting of Christ that was ruined by an amateur Spanish art restorer. In 2012, it became an internet sensation, a ridiculous moment in which Jesus was turned into a badly-drawn monkey.

This all makes sense when you read the book. Trick Mirror is drawn from Tolentino's immersion in internet culture; memes are her weapon. She now works at The New Yorker, but before that she wrote for Jezebel, a scrappy, forthright feminist website based in New York. Tolentino's snarky, witty pieces on everything from campus rape to reality TV demonstrated that you could write thoughtfully about difficult topics while also making jokes, that it's okay to absorb pop culture and think about it loftily - or not.

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Trick Mirror, her first book, is made up of essays on gender, sex and power explored through topics such as literary heroines, the internet and scamming, with the same potent mix of low and highbrow. They reflect the breadth of her reading.

In 'The Cult of the Difficult Woman', she flits between Mary Wollstonecraft, Lena Dunham, the Kardashians and Rihanna. Simone de Beauvoir, Lucian Freud and John Berger pop up elsewhere.

Here she is on athleisure, the trend for wearing workout clothes all day, not just at the gym: "Much like stripper gear, athleisure frames the female body as a financial asset: an object that requires an initial investment and is divisible into smaller assets - the breasts, the abs, the butt - all of which are expected to appreciate in value, to continually bring back investor returns. Brutally expensive, with its thick disciplinary straps and taut peekaboo exposures, athleisure can be viewed as a sort of late-capitalist fetishwear: it is what you buy when you are compulsively gratified by your body's performance on the market."

Tolentino says she wrote these essays to help her make sense of the world as it is, that writing is her way of working out what is true and real. There's no argument and no particular story; nothing links them apart from a "millennial" thread, the worries and addictions of a generation. This gets quite exhausting, and the book would have been better if it had more of a structure. Even so, its disparate parts burst with fresh ideas. 'A Story of a Generation in Seven Scams' recalls the stories of daring grafts such as Fyre Festival and the bizarre projects coming out of Silicon Valley. Tolentino revels in the hilarious details along the way, such as the social network set up for people with curly hair, which raised $1.2m (€1.1m) in funding.

In Trick Mirror, the essay format becomes an addictive medium. And for all Tolentino's erudition, the book is accessible. Few writers have such a grasp of what the internet means for women, for our minds. We keep "waiting for the internet to turn around and surprise us and get good again", she writes. "But it won't." This chimed for me, as we're around the same age and so the internet has shaped our lives in a similar way - that is, entirely.

The best essay, 'Ecstasy', is a wonderfully drawn semi-love letter to Houston, Texas, the US city where Tolentino grew up. She describes the huge highways that encircle it, the oppressive heat, her all-girls Catholic school and her growing aversion to the mega-church she had to go to, called "the Repentagon", its huge parking lots and TV screens and corporate structure suggesting it might be more interested in moneymaking than God.

She recalls escaping the church to the car, turning on the radio and discovering Houston's hip-hop speciality, known as "chopped and screwed". This music, its heavy beats slowed down so that the rapping elongates into slow-motion, awakens the young author.

From here, she grows up and discovers life beyond Bible studies. In other pieces, we learn that she appeared on a reality TV show aged 16, served in the peace corps in Kyrgyzstan, and returned to the University of Virginia, her alma mater, to report about rape on campus. But I wanted to learn more about her journey from conservative, God-fearing Texan cheerleader to a writer who baited the internet with her feminist views.

Trick Mirror is challenging at times, such as when Tolentino cites theorists such as Erving Goffman to illustrate how we perform our identities online. But it's enjoyable to think through these ideas with her. For millennials, the book reveals something deeper about the shared environment we inhabit; for older readers, it may offer a glimpse into the lives of that so-called snowflake generation.

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