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Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion

por Jia Tolentino

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A breakout writer at The New Yorker examines the fractures at the center of contemporary culture with verve, deftness, and intellectual ferocity--for readers who've wondered what Susan Sontag would have been like if she had brain damage from the internet.
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The rise of Online as its own distinct space for writing, thinking, and living has presented as many challenges for writers as opportunities, in purely literary terms. It's often difficult for a lot of writers to use the weird, performative, enchanting-but-dispiriting nature of the internet as a platform for self-discovery without shading into navel-gazing. Is posting an inherently interesting act, or, equally plausibly, is it just a big waste of time that has an even lower probability of being interesting to hear about than someone's dreams? Tolentino neatly threads the dangerous needle of using the internet directly as a subject, managing to be in it but not of it, and never coming across as too self-absorbed even when she's trying to place her own life in the context of a world which often doesn't make any sense at all. She has a lot more to talk about than just the internet's effect on discourse and self-image, but whether she's discussing reality TV, Millennial-vintage scams, drugs and religion, or the many questions posed to contemporary feminism, she exactly captures that sense of coming up with a bunch of neat epiphanies and relating them to other people, with the resultant burst of pleasure when your thoughts finally strike a chord with someone else.

For me these essays seemed to group themselves into 2 loose clusters. One focuses on her personal life story. "The I in Internet" is a thoughtful analysis of why exactly the internet, which theoretically could be a nonstop delight to use, instead so frequently feels awful to use, particularly for writers like her who both hate and yet depend on it (as she says, "first, how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity; second, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions; third, how it maximizes our sense of opposition; fourth, how it cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and, finally, how it destroys our sense of scale."). "Reality TV Me" is both a rumination on her experience on one of those amazing trashy early-2000s reality TV shows, in hindsight one of our most enduring cultural innovations, and also a discussion of how your own view of yourself can be warped by exposure to the lure of celebrity. "Ecstacy" is about growing up in the hothouse environment of Houston evangelical Protestantism, surrounded by sex, drugs, and chopped and screwed hip hop, and what that's done to her own personal sense of enlightenment and creativity. "The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams" uses the peculiarly Millennial scam of FyreFest, which she appeared in a documentary on, as a particularly emblematic example of how young people's lives have been warped by an entire culture of scams: predatory banks in the financial crisis, onerous student debt for useless degrees, duplicitous social media and its emphasis on obsessive self-presentation, "girlboss" corporate feminism, openly fraudulent companies like Juicero or Theranos, "disruption" and the gig economy's creation of a new precariat, and of course Donald Trump, who if history is in any way just will eventually be as eponymous for scamming as Elbridge Gerry is for unfair redistricting.

The other essay constellation focuses on various facets of feminism in the modern era. "Always Be Optimizing" is about how capitalism intersects with the beauty arms race, as in the phenomenon of expensive, regimented fitness programs like barre, and the always-tricky politics of sex-positivity; I was frequently reminded of Virginia Postrel's excellent book Glamour. "Pure Heroines" explores the struggles of identifying with female characters in literature, with a particular focus on children's literature (I think one of the first things I ever read from her was her wonderful review of Gordon Korman's oeuvre in Jezebel; she has a real gift for putting into words exactly what makes certain books stick in your mind through the years). "The Cult of the Difficult Woman" tackles the profound ambivalence many women (and men too) feel about criticizing terrible women in a culture where misogyny is still potent; I was reminded of Molly Ivins' spectacular takedown of Camille Paglia in her piece "I Am the Cosmos". "I Thee Dread" involves her own complicated feelings about not being married to her long-term boyfriend, but her melange of sentiments will be very familiar to anyone who's been in a perfectly happy long-term relationship and had to field "so, when's the big day questions?", which of course are typically directed to women. The final essay, "We Come from Old Virginia", puts Sabrina Erdely's fraudulent Rolling Stone campus rape story at UVa, her alma mater, in the context of a culture of sexual assault which is all too real, and how it's possible for scumbags like Brett Kavanaugh to sail through life without any consequences at all while at the same time countless women face nothing but bad options for dealing with their own experiences in a society which treats each false accusation as the equal of countless accusations which never got made.

In the Introduction she mentions a throwaway line she once wrote that what women often seem to want from feminist websites is a "trick mirror that carries the illusion of flawlessness as well as the self-flagellating option of constantly finding fault." No one's perfect, but not an inch of the extra space she uses in these essays goes to waste. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Well-curated and researched essays that examine views on American life as a millennial college graduate. Tolentino could go on about commodification for days and I’d read it all: commodification of the self, gender, sex, identity, all through the lens of the Internet. Each essay had excellent insights but the narrative flow would meander at times before being lassoed back for a quick conclusion. The religion and wedding essays were the least interesting (though it could just be I’m uninterested in those topics). ( )
  jiyoungh | May 3, 2021 |
Well written observations on the changes in conceptualization and experience of self that are the result of the digital age, commercialization of identity, and the shifting role of women. ( )
  brianstagner | Apr 25, 2021 |
Nicht meine Welt, ich war froh, als ich durch war ( )
  Patkue | Apr 3, 2021 |
The author hives some interesting perspectives of women, discrimination, and culture. ( )
  addunn3 | Mar 6, 2021 |
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A breakout writer at The New Yorker examines the fractures at the center of contemporary culture with verve, deftness, and intellectual ferocity--for readers who've wondered what Susan Sontag would have been like if she had brain damage from the internet.

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