A breakout writer at The New Yorker examines the fractures at the center of contemporary culture, taking readers on a trip along the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives.
In this collection of always trenchant and at times luminous essays, [Tolentino] establishes herself as the important critical voice she has been on her way to becoming for some time, although comparisons with Susan Sontag and Joan Didion seem to me unhelpful—as if, for a woman writer, theirs are the only hills to climb ... Tolentino wants to have it both ways—to preserve her integrity while going along with the game. But having it both ways simply increases the difficulty of deciding where, in all of this, she belongs, and her awareness of this truth constitutes the unsettling core of her book. Tolentino knows she is implicated in the world she lays out here with such merciless precision ... Tolentino always has her eye out for the ugly history, the stain on the carpet that so many refuse to see ... It is easy to be lured by the exhilaration—the fun, even—of these essays, and to miss the depression, not to say nihilism—a word Tolentino uses—that runs beneath the stream ... Sometimes the energy and verve of Tolentino’s writing can feel slightly manic, oddly in sync with what it claims most passionately to hate. Just for a second, it can tempt you with the insane idea that you might be able to pole-vault over the horrors and injustices of the day. But only if you are blind and foolish enough, or have beauty and eloquence to spare ... Tolentino is especially cogent on how sex muddies the waters of reason and seems to have the power to turn the faintest hint of progress on its head ... Tolentino would not be such a gifted diagnostician if she did not at moments seem to hedge her bets on these matters. Her entire diagnosis of the ills of the world would be invalid if she pretended, like a bad psychoanalyst, to be immune to what she describes. It is because she is a self-confessed unreliable narrator that we trust her.
...[a] phenomenal essay collection ... a collection that feels somehow riskier than [Tolentino's] usual output, unburdened by the demands and constraints of a big, mainstream publication ... Tolentino finds...little truths in just about every corner of American cultural life. Her best pieces read like viral Twitter threads written by the Frankfurt School, seamlessly blending cynical humor with academic rigor ... As somebody who could be considered very online even during the early days of the internet, and who is now dependent on the internet for her livelihood, there are few forced to navigate it's machinery the way [Tolentino] is. 'I don't know what to do with the fact that I myself continue to benefit from all this: that my career is possible in large part because of the way the Internet collapses identity, opinion and action,' she writes. It's this kind of constant self-awareness and inward inquiry that give Trick Mirror its most chewable moments ... More often than not, the essays here end up concluding with a well-articulated shrug of the shoulders. If you're expecting feminist praxis, or ways of repairing the many broken and flawed systems being critiqued in Trick Mirror, you won't find much of either here. But there's an undeniable catharsis in seeing such a great writer lucidly communicate the conditions of our most absurd forms of misery.
[Tolentino's] voice here is fully developed: She writes with an inimitable mix of force, lyricism and internet-honed humor. She is the only writer I’ve read who can incorporate meme-speak into her prose without losing face ... This kind of fatalism, dispiriting but perhaps fair, runs through the book ... 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 ... 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.