“Trick Mirror” – Jia Tolentino

My first reaction upon finishing the book was – what the hell did I just read??!! The 9 chapters that make up the book felt so much all over the place that it felt like I’ve read 9 short different books. The topics ranged from the author’s personal stories about her disinterest towards marriage, her adolescent participation in a reality TV show or her years at university; to more general ones such as feminism, capitalism or our addiction to the internet among others. My feelings of confusion of what I should think of “Trick Mirror” persisted, even after an in-depth & a very engaging book club discussion, so that I’m still struggling to decide on which rating I want to give the book.

While trying to get a better understanding of my judgement, I decided to grade each of the 9 chapters individually. What I ended up with, was literally the entire scale from 1/5 to 5/5 for all the stories with an average mark of 3,1/5. So you know what, let that be it & I’m rating the book with 3/5 ★.

What personally bothered me as a reader, was the fact that so many references didn’t speak to me at all. Be it childhood heroes, movies or “well known” news stories, just like in the case of “How To Do Nothing“, which I recently read, I once again came across a very americentric book with “Trick Mirror” (& yep, that’s an actual term, even if my source of the urban dictionary isn’t the most official one, I was happy to stumble across something that described my feelings exactly 😛 ). The biggest difference between the styles of writing were that Jia Tollentino dispersed a hopeless state without concrete suggestions for improvement, whereas Jenny Odell managed to inspire you towards actionable change. As an example within “Trick Mirror”, during the chapter Pure Heroines, I couldn’t wait to get it over with, when out of a list of 10 books & 12 movies, I have only ever come across two of them before.

“[…] Let’s say we’re just talking about books here: […] Merely being alive is an adventure for Laura Ingalls, for Anne Shirley, for Anastasia Krupnik, for Betsy Ray; […] Teenage heroines in fiction are desired and tragic […]: take Esther Greenwood, or Lux Lisbon […]” (p. 95)

“Girls are raped, […] as in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), or V. C. Andrews’s My Sweet Audrina (1982), or John Grisham’s A Time to Kill (1989), or Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991), or Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys (1996), or Stephen King’s The Green Mile (1996), or Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), or Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002), or Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (2011), or Gabriel Talent’s My Absolute Darling (2017).” (p. 99)

One topic in the book very topically coincided with the current news revolving around the police killing of George Floyd in the state of Minnesota, the consecutive riots which have arisen all around the world & the global attention towards the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Whereas this event has played a big role in putting the topic of anti-racism into the focus of everybody’s conversations, it has also resulted in some unique confrontations, as in people being called for choosing not to post about that topic on their social media channels. Being called racist because you decided to stay silent instead of posting a black square on “#blackouttuesday” & being judged for what your own way of dealing with racism is, if it wasn’t public enough. Within “Trick Mirror” I came across exactly the words I was looking for during this time.

“[…] The internet brings the “I” into everything. The internet can make it seem that supporting someone means literally sharing in their experience – that solidarity is a matter of identity rather than politics or morality, and that it’s established at a point of maximum mutual vulnerability in everyday life.” (p. 26)

The parts that I enjoyed the most, were the ones that were personally eye-opening. I haven’t yet taken the dive into feminist topics in literature & was curious to read about how the author portrayed the complexities of this world. She was the first one from whom I got the confirmation about my suspicions of all the #girlboss terms & “lean in” circles as being the pop versions used to monetise the success of actual feminism. It’s also through this book that I was finally confronted with the facts behind Amazon’s, Uber’s & Airbnb’s ways of working, whereas I’ve been denying myself this research before out of comfort & privilege.

“Bezos is the richest man in the world, but his warehouse employees often made just enough to clear federal poverty line. […] The new Amazon trackers even vibrate to warn workers that they’re moving too slow, […] managers time their workers’ toilet breaks – there are many stories of workers peeing in water bottles to avoid punishment […]. Uber and Airbnb have been similarly ‘disruptive’ Where Amazon worked to avoid state sales taxes, Uber ignored local transportation regulations, and Airbnb ignored city laws against unregulated hotels.” (p. 186-187)

“No matter what she says or does… she will be criticized in bluntly sexist terms because she is a woman. I’d add that she also likely knows that, on the terms of contemporary feminism, she will be defended in equally blunt terms too.” (p. 256)

Even though I wanted to mention how I did enjoy the author’s style & that she managed to bring across even the most complex topics comprehensively, her narrative simply wasn’t concise enough for my taste. I often felt like the ideas she presented were really relevant & interesting, but instead of following through with them, she often drifted off into unnecessary additional topics. I was captivated by the chapter Ecstasy, where the comparison between ecstatic experiences with the drug itself & religious epiphanies were drawn, but why water it down with some additional tales of a DJ Screw, who used cough syrup as his drug of preference?

A successful book in my point of view needs to be more than just a heap of essays. What “Trick Mirror” basically achieves is to have you either agree or disagree with the author’s opinion but not necessarily broadening your own knowledge. I feel like the book might be really well received among North American readers who have become fans of her New Yorker articles & who want to hear more of her world views. From my own experience it’s comparable to the book “Starkes Weiches Herz” that I read in 2019, which is written by the Austrian blogger Madeleine Alizadeh. She transitioned from a classic fast-fashion promoting influencer, to one of the most impactful German voices promoting the importance of environmental topics & sustainable living. I really appreciate the author as a human being, so that’s why I rated the book really highly. At the same time, I can also see how someone who isn’t acquainted with her life wouldn’t have gotten the same enjoyment out of her story.

Whereas the general narrative of the author gave off narcissistic vibes, what I did appreciate was how honest & sarcastic the author managed to stay throughout her writing. She often presented ideas about what needs to be changed within our current society but also openly admitted about not being at that ideal point of being active herself.

“People are making the world better through concrete footwork every day. (Not me – I’m too busy sitting in front of the internet!)(p. 18)

“[…] It only took about seven years of flogging my own selfhood on the internet to get to a place where I could comfortably afford to stop using Amazon to save fifteen minutes and five dollars at a time.” (p. 194)

“The problem is that it is so easy today for a woman to seize upon an ideology she believes in and then exploit it, or deploy it in a way that actually runs counter to that ideology. That is in fact exactly what today’s ecosystem of success encourages a woman to do. I know this because my own career has depended to some significant extent on feminism being monetizable. As a result, I live very close to this scam category, perhaps even inside it […].” (p. 179-180)

On a final note, there were parts within the book that I really enjoyed, others that I absolutely hated. Similar to the review on the book of “The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree” that I wrote just before, you’ll have to fight your way through the bad to get to the good. So if you’re still curious about this book after this review, do give it a try. You might enjoy it, if you encounter some of the approached topics for the first time, but don’t expect it to be life-changing. I myself have made a mental note to stay away from this type of non-fiction books like “Trick Mirror” & “How To Do Nothing” in the future. They do a bit too much of philosophising around already known topics, without providing the reader with new knowledge. At least in this case, it was done with a sense of humour, which among others showed in this description of Amazon’s favourite digital gadget, Alexa:

“Voice controlled Amazon hardware that will tell you the weather, and play you Tchaikovsky, and turn over evidence to the police if needs to ($39.99 to $149.99).” (p. 185)

“Trick Mirror” – Jia Tolentino

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

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