I love Tolentino best when she’s lyrical and there’s more in that vein in the collection’s second jewel, Ecstasy, an essay that riffs on Tolentino’s teenage religious experiences in a Houston megachurch (nicknamed the Repentagon) and her later love affair with the drug Ecstasy. A gorgeous description of wading through a swimming pool, high on cough syrup, listening to distant hip-hop filled me with the urge to head to Boots and bulk-buy Calpol.
Tolentino’s success lies in yoking together the contemporary and the classical. From social media to the gig economy, she writes about modern mores with studied hipness. She favours first-person narration over the scrupulous detachment of traditional New Yorker reporting. An alumna of the spiky, “supposedly feminist” website Jezebel, her writing remains impressionistic and intimate.
[D]eep dives into internet culture provide the collection with many of its most profound moments. Morphing mere trivia into quietly devastating blows, [Tolentino] talks of how the architecture of the internet has led to its worst impulses... Always Be Optimising, arguably the strongest essay here, is outwardly about the cult of athleisure wear, its odd relationship with class and its hypersexual undercurrent (“Athleisure can be viewed as a sort of late-capitalist fetishwear,” she writes). But it also delicately unfurls as it goes, roping in discussion of female beauty, the psychology of the chopped salad, Tolentino’s time in the Peace Corps and the history of the Barre Method. It’s in these moments where Tolentino’s background is most apparent – in her work, she represents the language of the internet, its dizzying distractions and its abundance of information, thoughts spiralling into other thoughts. And it’s only through her authorial control that Trick Mirroris all so endlessly captivating, themes gliding into one another rather than messily piling up.
These are distinctly millennial sentiments, the complaints of a generation that has come into political consciousness only after investing so much in false meritocratic promises. Tolentino’s earnest ambivalence, expressed often throughout the book, is characteristic of millennial life-writing, and it can be contrasted with boomer self-satisfaction and Gen X disaffection in the same genre. Though she never presumes to be anything like the voice of a generation, Tolentino is a fair representative: Now 30, she graduated from college into an economic recession, watched her parents sink into debt and from the age of 16 has worked multiple jobs simultaneously. In many ways, “Trick Mirror” is a cri de coeur from a writer who has been forced to revise her youthful belief in American institutions...As a reader (and a fellow millennial), I could have done with more essays like “Ecstasy,” in which contradiction felt enriching, or generative, rather than imprisoning. I credit Tolentino for examining her complicity in the structures she critiques, but at times I wished she would go easier on herself, or that she’d keep working to transcend the contradictions she observes. I’m not sure that criticism is always a form of amplification, as Tolentino fears it is, or that the line between feminism-as-politics and feminism-as-branding is as “blurry” as she at one point suggests.
Supple and incisive, with a gift for unexpected intuitive turns and juxtapositions, she was formed online, in the years she spent as an editor and writer for the Hairpin and Jezebel before becoming a New Yorker staff writer. And her work is marked by that environment – in which you must be swift, bold and flexible, playful but persuasive, willing to perform yourself close-up and ready to be attacked for it, constantly aware of how you’re seen, competing for elusive attention, preparing for immediate counterargument. It would be easy to call this a context in which reflection, robbed of the requisite time and space, simply can’t exist, but Tolentino is one of several examples to the contrary; she’s learned to reflect differently, and part of what her pieces reveal is that harsh, seductive, disorienting environment itself, as bleak and fragmented as it is glossy.