But What if the River is Made of Glass? A Review of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror

by Zach Nickels

The landscape of contemporary serialized nonfiction collections is, to put it mildly, in a strange state of affairs. On the one hand, the proliferation of nonfiction—especially online, where digital media companies have exploded in influence—has turned the consumption of the essay into a fairly mundane experience. On the other hand, this expansion has not come without cost: serious, considerate writing has come under the thumb of capitalistic interests (as it so often does), with staff writers facing internal pressure for immediate gratification via click-throughs and mass feedback, with the process repeating itself ad infinitum.

This is the reality facing the modern essayist. And this is the environment that Jia Tolentino dives into, headfirst, with her discerning debut collection, Trick Mirror.

Averaging roughly 30 pages per piece, the essays contained in Trick Mirror each follow a familiar, successive structure: Tolentino begins by excavating a point of entry for the reader (e.g., the origins surrounding her own reality TV experience or a detailed exposition of female literary archetypes) and deepens her inquiry through an interweaving of facts, statistics and related personal experiences. This approach has the effect of fleshing out the initial inspection, broadening it to allow for a multitude of perspectives. Like an author of a fiction collection, Tolentino does her own world-making.

At their best—as in, the aforementioned “Reality TV Me”—Tolentino’s essays are precisely crafted; they give the reader the simplest, albeit most vital version of what an essay has to offer: the time to sit with an argument and just think. At their least realized—such as “Ecstasy” wherein Tolentino discusses Houston megachurches, hip hop and recreational drug use—the sections don’t quite stitch together properly. That piece, in particular, is the first time in Trick Mirror where woven threads begin to show.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. Random House, 2019. 303 pp. $27.00

Those threads are worth examining more closely, starting with the title: the O.E.D. does not contain an entry for the term ‘trick mirror’; nor does Merriam-Webster or Cambridge, or even an index as lexically-hip as the Urban Dictionary (a search of which provides only a shrugging emoticon—a result, no doubt, which brings Tolentino endless joy). If the reader is not careful, s/he may assume the title refers to a physically distortive mirror, like in a carnival funhouse. But this associative term is different than what Tolentino is aiming for. “Trick Mirror is an enlightening, unforgettable trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives,” [inside jacket]. Rivers are a sort of mirror. So, too, is self-delusion a trick. And look: the collection’s subtitle is ‘reflections on self-delusion’. But the careful reader might still suspect a linguistic sleight of hand.

Much of Tolentino’s professional life has been crafted around essays; her debut demonstrates a deep care for them—what they are and what they can be. Etymologically, the ‘essay’ is rooted in the Baconian conception of an attempt or an experiment. Original usage posited it as an unfinished attempt, something to be inevitably fixed. Modern usage embraces the idea of a reflection, the writer is assaying (note the turn of phrase) some portion of the world via subject and providing commentary. It is not unfair to say that this accurately describes the ‘mirror’ portion of Trick Mirror: the river running through this collection carries all of us with it.

Whether it be the social evolution of the internet; cultures of sexual assault on college campuses; societal conceptions of the ‘ideal woman,’ societal conceptions of the ‘difficult woman,’ the decision to marry, et cetera, Tolentino exhibits a sharp understanding of our current cultural era and the events that led us here. The collection itself is rarely prescriptive—mirrors do not provide suggestions, nor do they hint—and, in fact, Tolentino occasionally appears unsure of whether she has gone too far in her analysis: “I benefit from it… I am complicit no matter what I do,” “maybe I’m extending sexism’s half-life now, too” and so on. The resulting image is that of an author who is not wholly convinced of where she—the essayist—starts and where the product eventually ends.

And so, the real question here involves the trick: what exactly is it, and what does the answer say about us? At first, it seems as though the subtitle’s invocation to self-delusion is aimed at Tolentino’s subjects: idealistic internet users, barre aficionados, corporate grifters, her sixteen-year-old self and more. But this verdict fails to account for the full breadth of the tricks being played. When you look closer at Tolentino’s work, you discover that she is simultaneously asserting the reader’s self-delusions while extending the space to reflect upon them. It seems evident that she is asking us to accept these delusions as our own; after all, she is, admittedly, as complicit as any one of us. Thus, we find the phrase ‘trick mirror’ to be linguistically reversed. The trick is not altering our reflection in the mirror: it is the mirror that is clearly reflecting the tricks we play on ourselves.

Delusions are not always a terrible thing, however. Sometimes they are necessary. Sometimes they lead us to greater achievements and realizations—our misplaced beliefs pulling us through otherwise uncharted waters. One might say the same about Trick Mirror. Not every essay in this collection is a beautiful experience. But the reader may find that Tolentino’s work can help them get to the other side.