Tom MacWright

I read Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino on


Trick Mirror gratuitously cites essays, film, and articles that have crossed Tolentino’s path. She’ll cite one academic for a particular term, cite a single sentence from a book, cite the existence of a film. I’ve noticed this pattern in the writing of people with graduate degrees - probably the result of widespread citation-shaming when folks don’t get that CiteseerX link. But I’m astounded to see the over-citing style run amok in a such a buzzy piece of literature. The citations wreck sentences, do nothing to inform, and leave me with a lingering question: why? Citations are so overused that they fit most of the place where otherwise there’d be an original sentence. Many paragraphs begin with “In __, __ wrote that”.

A representative example:

In 1985, Neil Postman observed that the American desire for constant entertainment had become toxic, that television had ushered in a “vast descent into triviality.”

(This is the first and last reference to Postman’s work. And I’d bet other people observed that too.)

If Tolentino was able to weave together these cultural references in some way that was greater than the sum of the parts, the citations would make sense. But the vast majority are mentioned and then immediately disposed, never to be mentioned again, never synthesized into an original thought.

And then there’s the content. Much of Trick Mirror is devoted to the kinds of things that you learn when you’re Extremely Online. Being Extremely Online, I usually caveat a review by saying that the book is valuable to folks who aren’t as online - like, for example, New Dark Age. But Trick Mirror doesn’t just repeat the pop culture of the internet: it tells you about Uber. Trump. Amazon. Weddings being expensive. And not deep research or new angles or new analysis: it just says what these things are.

One of my notes as I was reading this was “I do not like being told the same thing twice.” This stuck in my head: I started to think that this isn’t a book for people who are unaware of Amazon’s labor practices or Trump’s bankruptcies or the ‘raw water trend’: it’s for people who know about them and would like to hear about it again. For whom the novelty doesn’t wear off so easily and the feelings of anger or outrage recur. Which I suspect is a lot of people, as evidenced by the rave reviews for Trick Mirror: we like to read about what we’ve heard about, again. Perhaps Tolentino’s habit of citing other authors every few sentences dresses up these topics as more literary than they would be in a blog post - both increasing her cool as a gatekeeper to the book list, and making the reader feel like they’re becoming somehow well-read.

For me, the highlight of Trick Mirror is the essay We Come from Old Virginia, an analysis of the analysis of the infamous UVA rape article in Rolling Stone. It benefits from a specific topic, and provides a means to discuss some of the properties of this current wave of feminism. That doesn’t save you from Jia re-quoting a source that another source quotes, or the relentless return to self. That return to self, peppered into the body with questions about how she’d feel, and then taking over the story in a final anecdote about being forcefully and non-consentually kissed in Kyrgyzstan, feels less like empathy or processing and more like a core inability to let someone else’s story be told uninterrupted.

Other chapters never seem to resolve. The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams includes so many disparate phenomena under the word “scam,” briefly summarizing each and doing little to tie them together, analyze, or do much other than say look at this! Are Juicero and Facebook really that similar? And who is so uninformed that they haven’t heard about the CEO-to-worker pay gap? Reality TV Me is a fine essay but is absolutely lifeless compared to folks like Sloane Crosley or Patricia Lockheart. Always Be Optimizing is a lot of generalizing around the class-ascendant New York exercise lifestyle, constantly making the mistake she warns against in The Cult of the Difficult Woman - “it’s always tricky to generalize in the collective first person.” And she introduces the idea of “enclothed cognition” - citing Moira Weigel citing Hajo Adam & Adam D.Galinsky, of course - as the groundbreaking idea that we behave differently when we’re dressed up.

Beyond structure and content, there’s… the writing. A lot of the rave reviews mention the lyrical or fresh writing style. This is very hard to square with my experience: where she has leeway to make great sentences or phrases, the opportunity is wasted. Her description of Houston includes “nondescript suburban houses, cheap bungalows behind patchy lawns and wire fences, in a handful of harshly bland neighborhoods.” In Reality TV Me, she writes

During filming, when Paris was crying, Jess would lend her her iPod to cheer her up.

It computes: Microsoft Word won’t decorate this with squigglies for grammar or spelling, but this is a rough sentence. There are plenty like it, like

The N. shut down in 2009, taking its website, with its Girls v. Boys bonus clips and fan forums, down, too.

Commas verbatim.

So, yeah. I’ve written too much, probably because I was surprised that this was the book that has gotten lots of rave reviews. I’m sure there’s something there, either under my aesthetic and functional disappointments, or to either side of my particular experience and interests. But I couldn’t find it.