Jia Tolentino has been dubbed the spokesperson for the millennial mindset. An established staff writer for The New Yorker, and previously an editor at the provocative feminist website Jezebel, Tolentino’s debut book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, has been highly anticipated. But what does it mean to be termed the voice of a generation defined by the transitions and upheavals of late capitalism – whose formative years are suspended between the dawn of a new millennium and the 2008 financial crisis, whose interactions are increasingly contained within the borders of a touchscreen?
As the era of social media and smartphones continues to define us, collapsing physical distances to connect us globally in ways that preceding generations could only dream of, the sense of a shared community one might expect to follow seems nonetheless elusive, ousted instead by a need to stand out often marked by unceasing competition with our peers. For millennials coming of age in this digital world, private life is now public in ways unprecedented. While people have always performed some form of ‘ideal’ self shaped by the mores of their times, those performances are now broadcast on the web for all to see and consume. What Tolentino’s essays collectively suggest is that the self-delusions we consider harmless or aspirational in this system – emulating millionaire celebrities as brief escapism, perhaps – occupy the same spectrum of self-delusion that has justified the rise of dangerous behaviours like ‘scammer culture’ and internet trolling.
Indeed, the trick – the self-delusion we tolerate – is that these hallmarks of modernity offer us freedom. Specifically, that through technology and online communication everybody with internet access has an equal voice and a receptive audience. As Tolentino frequently shows us throughout Trick Mirror, the exaggerated prosperity of our digital avatars is often caught up with the need to consume, to appear productive, in ways that merely mimic genuine autonomy. As she states in the book’s opening essay, titled ‘The I in Internet’, ‘capitalism has no land left to cultivate but the self’, distorting our not only our understandings of our culture and communities, but more destructively our relationships to them as individuals. While everyone has a voice, a platform, they’re mere white noise within mass consumer culture. What follows throughout Trick Mirror are inquiries into how that self-cannibalisation infiltrates all aspects of modern society, covering topics as diverse as reality television, literature, and sexual politics.
In a time where many of us are confined to our homes, and social media and reality television are standing in as one-sided imitations of human contact, it’s worth reflecting on how the tools that are meant to connect us can also disengage us from the needs and desires of ourselves and those around us, can distract us from our role as participants in systems of exploitation. What Tolentino’s collection does excellently is to use the essay form to flip the narrative; the trick she plays is to use the public as an entry-point for the personal, candidly facing the uncomfortable reality of her own imperfections and delusions. While the subject matter is often bleak, her self-deprecating humour offers an optimistic lightness, suggesting that it an embrace of one’s flaws is its own form of independence. Whether or not you find yourself agreeing with Tolentino’s analyses, this densely packed collection remains an engaging exploration of the culture we inhabit, one seeking not to offer liberal platitudes, but to gradually unravel the author’s own existence beyond the millennial collective.
Molly McCracken is a writer and research student based between London and Edinburgh. She will soon begin a PhD in English Literature funded but the Arts and Humanities Research Council. You can find her on Twitter @MollyGMcCracken.