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Review: Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror

If there’s any book worth picking up before the flood of course readings, midterms and assignments begin, it’s Jia Tolentino’s first collection of essays — Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. 

Through nine essays, Tolentino, a 30-year-old staff writer at The New Yorker, considers what it means to be self-aware in the 21st century.  

Tolentino reflects on how it’s been worthwhile “just trying to see clearly, even if it took [her] years to understand what [she] was trying to see.” This statement is the best way to understand why students should read Trick Mirror. Tolentino’s insights are crucial to finding comfort as a student, no matter what point one is in their degree.  

In this image: The cover of Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror.
Jia Tolentino’s first collection of essays urges readers to look inside themselves for answers. Photo by Nelly Bateman

Being part of the system 

In her third essay, “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” Tolentino writes that since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, she has “felt so many times that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional.”  

Tolentino uses the example of shopping on Amazon: despite knowing about its horrific labour practices, she still shops on the website because it’s often cheaper than shopping at a store. As a writer, she doesn’t always have the money to shop elsewhere.  

What’s interesting in this example is that Tolentino never slips into a self-deprecating tone. She does not blame herself for being complicit in a system that she has had no choice but to participate in.  

In another essay, “Ecstasy,” she writes that “to articulate [a] desire to vanish” — a desire to exist outside of mainstream culture — “is always to reiterate the self once again” as part of that culture. In other words, her profession as a writer complicates her desire to remove herself from the systems she makes a living commenting on. In order to comment on the horrors of morality in the 21st century, there needs to be horrors of morality in the first place. 

Tolentino’s recognition of this double-bind demonstrates the self-reflection seeped into this book: one that seeks to understand the consequences of existing in the world without drowning in either narcissism or self-hatred. A demonstration of this kind of honest self-reflection is a true revelation, especially for students. 

The internet and pressure to save the world 

About the internet, Tolentino says there is “no limit to the amount of misfortune a person [can] take in” online. She says this generation has not been given a way to “calibrate” the information they receive online, or in other words, “no way to teach ourselves to separate the banal from the profound.” For example, receiving a poor grade on an essay can feel as disastrous as reading a Twitter update about forest fires in the Amazon rainforest.  

This illustrates a larger problem that underlies Toletino’s book: the current generation is faced with the dilemma of trying to balance their personal, solvable problems with the pressure to resolve complicated, international crises.  

In the face of this problem, Tolentino ends Trick Mirror on this note: “the more I try to uncover whatever I’m looking for, the more I feel that I’m too far gone.” This sentiment highlights perfectly the critical insight Tolentino has for students who struggle with this generation-wide dilemma.  

As people turn inwards, they face the possibilities of being horrified or horrifyingly fascinated by what they see. Despite this, Tolentino suggests there is still value in simply trying to know oneself, and doing so can be a useful step toward a better understanding of the world at large. That is, so long as people remember “in the end, the safest conclusions might not actually be conclusions.” In other words, there may not be simple answers.  

The solutions to catastrophes like environmental collapse and political isolation may not exist in the simple ways society wants them to. But as long as people keep attempting to understand themselves within this increasingly complex world, Tolentino suggests they have done all they can.  

There is at least comfort in the fact that no one is in this self-reflection journey alone. As Trick Mirror shows, even someone as intelligent as Tolentino can struggle with navigating the complicated world of today.  


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