“I have felt so many times that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional — to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck,” Jia Tolentino writes in “The Story of a Generations in Seven Scams,” an essay from her debut book “Trick Mirror.” This is the kind of observation that sets “Trick Mirror” apart from other recent cultural commentaries. In a sentence, Tolentino names one of the defining dilemmas of modern life, and in doing so she offers her readers a double-edged sword: She sees us, but that means we are seen.
Do you remember that awful weekend in the beginning of August, when Beto O’Rourke acknowledged that the shootings in El Paso and Ohio might have something to do with President Trump’s violent and racist rhetoric? “What the fuck? Hold on a second,” he said, when a journalist asked him what President Trump could do to make the situation better. Finally, he had lost it with the bullshit, and it was a painfully gratifying to see someone express the raw anger I felt. That’s what “Trick Mirror” feels like: Relief, because finally someone has taken up the Herculean task of articulating all the complication of being alive right now.
In “Trick Mirror,” subtitled “Reflections on Self-Delusion,” Tolentino explores a number of topics: Feminism, politics, capitalism, religion, technology, marriage. The book is at turns biting and heartbreaking, and Tolentino never lets herself — or her reader — off the hook. In what appears to be her strongest essay, “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” Tolentino meticulously describes how scamming has become an integral part of American life. Deception is woven into the fabric of American mythology. It’s the basis for nearly everything: Joanne the Scammer and President Trump, Elizabeth Holmes and LuLaRoe. Scamming, Tolentino argues, scales itself out from the personal to the structural and back again. We’re taught that scamming is how to get by. It’s how we play the system, but it’s also how we play ourselves.
Tolentino zeroes in on a hard truth of capitalism in “Seven Scams”: In an economy like ours, trying to buy responsibly is nearly impossible. You buy something from Amazon — because it’s cheap, and you’re poor or you’re busy or you have a disability — and you’re directly contributing to a whole host of bad things that will soon befall another human being, another person who is also poor or busy or disabled. This is America, where we’re all screwing each other over in a million different ways.
“Trick Mirror” doesn’t offer any answers to the question of how we might begin to break this cycle. Still, there’s something immensely satisfying in hearing the problem described so well. Tolentino is a superb writer; she manages to accurately characterize most complex social problems of our time with an ease that is unmatched. Best of all, she always implicates herself. The book is as much a reflection on culture as it is on her own relationship to it, and it’s a pleasure to read about how Tolentino herself has struggled to understand the world and her place in it.
Her essay “We Come From Old Virginia,” about sexual assault on the University of Virginia’s campus, is an especially personal piece, since Tolentino attended the school as an undergraduate. She approaches the topic of the now-retracted Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus,” with both empathy and anger. In the article, written by Sabrina Erdely, a woman (referred to as Jackie) describes a horrifying story of sexual assault. Much of the article was fabricated, however, and Erdely was sued for defamation.
“There’s a part of me that feels as if Jackie and Erdely inadvertaently sentenced me to a life of writing about sexual violence — as if I learned to report on a subject so personal that it imprinted on me, as if I will always feel some irrational compulsion to try to undo or redeem two strangers’ mistakes,” Tolentino writes. Simultaneously, she understands something about the two women’s mistakes. Jackie reminds her of her time in the Peace Corps, about which she writes, “I felt, monstrously, that there was no boundary between my situation in the larger situation, between my injustices and the injustices everyone faced.”
This dilemma is at the core of “Trick Mirror”: What is personal? What is political or structural or cultural, and to what extent can we hold ourselves and others responsible for the wrongdoing caused by our involvement in these larger systems? “Trick Mirror” avoids attempting to answer these questions and instead tries simply to articulate them. It’s clear upon reading “Trick Mirror” that part of the problem is that the questions themselves are so obscured.
In this sense, “Trick Mirror” is more a work of philosophy and less a book of solutions. It left me with the feeling that simply understanding the many dilemmas of modern life would itself be revolutionary. After all the scamming, all the delusion and uncertainty, what we’re left with is the task of naming the vague, ever-present feeling of chaotic wrongdoing. Luckily, “Trick Mirror” isn’t a trick mirror at all. It shows us just as we are.