Both Jia Tolentino’s career (she started out as a writer for the Web site the Hairpin, then was the deputy editor at Jezebel) and her voice are inextricably tied to the frantic merry-go-round of Internet discourse. In her first book, a collection of original essays, her descriptions of digital life might seem shockingly dystopian to those who don’t spend a big chunk of their time online (or, more specifically, in the impenetrable, often incoherent world of media Twitter). It’s a “festering inferno” and a “feverish, electric, unlivable hell,” she writes. Scrolling through the void of social media, she’ll “sit there like a rat pressing the lever, like a woman repeatedly hitting myself on the forehead with a hammer … until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme.”
In The New Yorker, where she is now a staff writer, Tolentino has written about topics as varied as Juuling, abortion legislation in the South, and the pop singer Robyn’s new album. In Trick Mirror, she casts a similarly wide net, presenting a set of often hilarious essays about subjects that are both personal and broadly captivating: rape culture at her alma mater, the University of Virginia; her bizarre stint as a reality-TV contestant; mixing Christianity and hallucinogens in Texas. One essay, on the cultural re-framing of “the difficult woman,” is a revelation: “The ride from Britney Spears getting upskirted on tabloid covers to Stormy Daniels as likable political hero has been so bumpy, so dizzying, that it can be easy to miss the profundity of this shift.”
Tolentino’s voice is inextricably tied to the frantic merry-go-round of Internet discourse.
Stripped of hyperlinks and the constantly fluctuating context of what people are arguing about online right at this very moment, Tolentino’s work occasionally loses a bit of its shimmer. There were a few moments in reading it where I got the sense that an editor had begged her—please, for the olds—to explain what the hell she was talking about. In a history of self-presentation on the Internet, she lays down too much foundation and attempts to tackle a topic so enormous that it’s hard to figure out what point she’s actually trying to make.
Tolentino’s greatest strength lies in her ability to vividly call out the absurdity of things many of us do but don’t ever really take the time to critically examine. In “Always Be Optimizing,” she writes, barre class “offers you the opportunity to repeatedly clench your left butt cheek in a room full of women experiencing mute, collective, seven A.M. agony while listening to an EDM song about banging a stranger at the club.” It’s also “what a ballerina might do if you concussed her and then made her snort caffeine pills.” Her one-off descriptors are just as satisfying: the tempo of the music genre chopped and screwed is “sludgy,” the athleisure brand Spiritual Gangster is “ghoulish.”
In terms of both style and subject, Tolentino’s closest analogue is probably Nora Ephron, whose columns in Esquire combined biting cultural analysis with self-aware, self-deprecating self-reflection. But where Ephron picked at the absurdities of the world around her in an attempt to make sense of her generation, Tolentino looks within herself to try to make sense of the world. Like most of the things we laugh at online—or, more likely, respond “LOLOLOL” while staring, stone-faced, at the devices in our hands—her writing is funny because it’s true. And, as the title suggests, because we see a warped version of ourselves in it.
Andrea (pronounced like Bocelli, not Mitchell) Whittle is a writer living in New York City.