The Story of a Generation in 9 Essays: On "Trick Mirror" by Jia Tolentino

I'm still trying to get my old reading groove back, which was, for better or for worse, altered permanently by law school. I'm only recently easing my way back into my old habits of enjoying sentences, taking my time, and not feeling like highlighting everything in preparation for a recitation or an exam. Reading a new book with the purpose of writing a review about it - instead of being quizzed on it - hopefully readjusts my lenses.

(Photo credit: Porter House Review)

I chose this as my first book for 2020 because I felt like, with everyone closing out the previous year with "End of the Decade" lists and ten-year assessments, I needed a book that could re-calibrate the way I saw — and processed — the world, right in this moment, as a twenty-something woman. Everyone had so much to say, and yet somehow it all felt so shrill and... shallow. I wanted to book-end (hehe, pun intended) the 2010s with something that will hopefully serve as an anchor as I navigate through the 2020s. I was choosing between a powerful icon's memoir, an era-defining novel, or a historical book. Reviews from friends (and strangers) pointed me to the direction of Jia Tolentino's "Trick Mirror" instead.

I have no regrets.

I've already said this in my first post, but I feel like this bears reiterating: So much of our thoughts are already out there — on social media, on our friends' inboxes, out onto the ether — but we rarely ever get to really, truly process them. Worse, we hardly consider their consequences. Likewise, we don't give much thought about how we consume information, and how it slowly affects our choices. It's a cycle of taking in and regurgitating so much about infinitely so many things, that we end up feeling lost when we are confronted by the big picture.

"This??? Is what it has all come down to???" Yes. It's none of our fault, and everybody's fault at the same time.

The best way to describe this book is Jia Tolentino elegantly and accurately articulating what it means to be a person living in the age of the Internet, late capitalism, and scams: one filled with cautious optimism, but also, deep down, dread. In nine essays, she talks about reality television, social media, the financial crisis, the feminist movement — in a way that crystallizes all its crushing impact (be it advantageous or otherwise). These are the things that define our generation; this is how we emerged from the changes in societal and cultural infrastructures. Now what?

We live in a world that always pushes us to be better, to get better. But, as she writes in "Always Be Optimizing":

Figuring out how to "get better" at being a woman is a ridiculous and often amoral project — a subset of the larger, equally ridiculous, equally amoral project of learning to get better at life under accelerated capitalism. In these pursuits, most pleasures end up being traps, and every public-facing demand escalates in perpetuity. Satisfaction remains, under the terms of the system, necessarily out of reach.

And this — this inevitable crushing under the system — is what leads to the allure of both exposing our fears and capitalizing on them. In turn, selfhood buckles under this weight. How much of ourselves do we share to the world? Do we really have any other choice? In "The I in Internet," Tolentino says:

In the absence of time to physically and politically engage with our community the way many of us want to, the internet provides a cheap substitute: it gives us brief moments of pleasure and connection, tied up in the opportunity to constantly listen and speak. Under these circumstances, opinion stops being a first step toward something and starts seeming like an end in itself. 

This is particularly highlighted as she discusses feminism and #MeToo, in two of her essays. While there will always be virtue in raising female narratives, should one story come at the expense of all other stories? She gives a very personal and poignant take on the infamous Rolling Stone article about a rape that happened in the UVA campus, being a UVA alum herself. Feeling conflicted but also sympathetic, Tolentino encapsulates a very real dilemma (and frustration) when it comes to dealing with stories like this, especially when one grapples with the fact that despite the recent dramatic shifts in our broader social understanding of sexual assault, our institutions still mostly fail us. Sadly, good intentions can only bring you so far. In the same vein, "good intentions often produce blind spots."

She also provides a sharp take on how some people have co-opted the feminist movement as something to wave off any kind of valid criticism to other equally important issues such as race and class. “Feminism that prioritizes the individual will always, at its core, be at odds with a feminism that prioritizes the collective,” she writes. I can't underscore this enough, because so many "vocal" people in positions of power and influence forget (or rather, ignore) that looking at the world through the lenses of one ideology is not enough; we always have to be intersectional. Waving the feminist flag is not sufficient; it means nothing when you do so at the disservice of others who are more disenfranchised.

We all want to present ourselves as capable, true. Our generation stands on the shoulders of giants before us; we should already be able to make giant leaps towards better, greater things. And yet, we encounter bigger, sketchier roadblocks. More and more we realize, there is less time these days for anything other than survival. How do we get by?

Some people use religion, others use drugs. And some, just take advantage of other people. (The essay "The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams" is one of this book's highlights.) These are all just ways to survive. She makes a point that nowadays, the cause matters less than the effect — what matters is not the thing itself, but whether that thing moves you closer to success, or closer to damnation.

How sad to realize all this, huh. And quite frankly, Tolentino offers no solutions to these questions. She observed, she articulated, she put it out there for us to digest. Now what? Well, we're not really sure. But I find comfort in seeing the millennial generation in a more personal, realistic light. This is what makes us who we are — broken, jaded, but also, still cautiously hopeful for the future. It's a sobering way of realizing that "it would sometimes be impossible to differentiate between the pretext of an experience, the record of that experience, and the experience itself." I suppose the important thing is we allow ourselves to look back, recall, take what we can with whatever we remember — and learn from it.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the second essay "Reality TV Me," where she recalls her time in a reality TV competition. In one of the rare-off camera moments, they found themselves swimming in a bioluminescent bay off the coast of Puerto Rico. This struck me because I'm reminded of a trip to Donsol, where we navigated through the dark, quiet waters of a lake in search of bioluminescent fireflies. We had to be quiet, and we had to be still. We had nothing on the boat except ourselves, our bated breaths, and the stars. The moment was fleeting, which made it special — but it was precisely this realization that made this small pocket of joy in the trip all the more devastating. It was only a brief moment of transcendence. It couldn't — and shouldn't — last. But precisely in that moment: I felt I was a in a "brief whirlpool of metaphysical accident." These are the things that should keep us going; there still things that should make us feel alive.

"I told myself: Don't forget, don't forget."

I didn't, and I won't.

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