Ever since Montaigne promised that “my defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed”, the essay has seemed a uniquely risky and pleasurable proposition. Not everyone enjoys its online spread and glut and, especially now that it’s practised so often and with such popularity by young women, many have loathed and fetishised by turns the self-exploration that was always at its heart.
Yet what is strikingly new in contemporary essays is not so much subject matter or approach as the social and economic conditions in which they are produced. Since the essay is inherently an experiment, results will vary, depending on whether you undertake it up in the book-lined tower of your castle, in your cabin by a tranquil pond or, let’s say, smack in the middle of a hall of two-way mirrors. The title of Jia Tolentino’s debut collection, then, is apt.
Supple and incisive, with a gift for unexpected intuitive turns and juxtapositions, she was formed online, in the years she spent as an editor and writer for the Hairpin and Jezebel before becoming a New Yorker staff writer. And her work is marked by that environment – in which you must be swift, bold and flexible, playful but persuasive, willing to perform yourself close-up and ready to be attacked for it, constantly aware of how you’re seen, competing for elusive attention, preparing for immediate counterargument. It would be easy to call this a context in which reflection, robbed of the requisite time and space, simply can’t exist, but Tolentino is one of several examples to the contrary; she’s learned to reflect differently, and part of what her pieces reveal is that harsh, seductive, disorienting environment itself, as bleak and fragmented as it is glossy.
One of many forms of widely shared self-delusion she cops to in Trick Mirror is the “fantasy” of non-complicity in a ludicrously unjust global economy, the belief “that I can make it out of here. After all, 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”. That’s from a particularly direct assault on the way we live now, The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams: the first scam is the one that caused the 2007/8 financial crisis, the last is Trump’s rise to power, and in between she also takes down an insidious breed of “market-friendly feminism” that she notes is hard to disentangle from her own career. But even the essays on other topics usually contain at least a gesture toward such paralysing double binds, as when, in I Thee Dread, about the wedding industry, she remembers leaving her Peace Corps assignment in Kyrgyzstan depleted and confused “by the awful juxtaposition between my obscene power as an American and my obscene powerlessness as a woman”.
Tolentino has clearly made efforts to give her book thematic cohesion – though several of the essays recapitulate some previously published material, all were written or substantially revised in the wake of the 2016 election – but if the focus on Web 2.0, pop feminism and other familiar outcroppings of late capitalism appears a little claustrophobic, there is more to be discovered here. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two of the strongest essays, the most sinuous and expansive, examine turf she has known intimately and returned to after an absence, as opposed to waters she still swims in. Ecstasy, which connects the wilder shores of religious feeling with those of recreational drug use, is mostly set in Houston, Texas, entwining an account of the evangelical megachurch Tolentino grew up in, nicknamed the Repentagon, with a history of the local hip-hop scene that produced the technique known as “chopped and screwed”. The essay blends its various registers and concerns with a rare combination of flamboyance and restraint. While its ostensible subject is inward experience (the longing for transcendence; how the author lost her religious faith), much else is elegantly conveyed. Tolentino observes, for instance, that Houston has “no zoning laws, which means that strip clubs sit next to churches, gleaming skyscrapers next to gap-toothed convenience stores. The freeways are, in effect, the only truly public space in the city”. This observation returns later, transformed and enriched, in her evocation of the influential music of DJ Screw, who died in 2000, at 29: “The sound that mimicked the flow of all these substances, darkening the wide, anonymous, looping highways, a secret and sublime desecration that seeped through the heart and veins of a city, that set the pace and the rhythm of its people slipping past one another in their cars.”
The other essay that cuts deepest – less lyrical but more trenchant – is We Come from Old Virginia, which looks at the UVA in Charlottesville, where Tolentino went to college. Revisiting the media scandal around a poorly reported 2014 Rolling Stone feature about an accusation of gang rape at a fraternity party, she cracks open the university’s fiercely guarded image: Charlottesville, she writes, “sells itself … as a sort of honeyed Eden, a college town with Dixie ease and gracefulness but liberal intellectual ideals”. Like other pieces here, this one enacts what it describes, allowing the reader to accompany Tolentino as she works to reduce her own blind spots, as well as the denial and bad faith reinforced by both individuals and institutions, and uncover a fuller picture of UVA’s history, from its 1819 founding by Thomas Jefferson, still “creepily” and insistently adored on campus. She emphasises “a fact that had not surfaced either in Rolling Stone or in the exhaustive coverage that followed it: UVA’s first reported sexual assault occurred in 1850, when three students took an enslaved girl into a field and gang-raped her”. Since “violence against women is fundamentally connected to other systems of violence”, she writes, “it’s not possible to capture the reality of rape – or even of fraternities – at UVA without writing about race.”
Not every essay quite earns its keep alongside these more ambitious efforts. The Cult of the Difficult Woman showcases her sharpness and dedication to the tricky public service of correcting absurdities in online and media discourse, but might not need to be immortalised. Likewise, by the time I reached I Thee Dread, its extended skewering of wedding culture and its contradictions felt too similar to her explorations earlier in the book of what women are encouraged to do to themselves, such as Always Be Optimizing, in which she recalls opening her eyes on a yoga mat to “catch the twinkle of enormous diamond rings caught in shafts of sunbeam, blinking at me in the temporary darkness like a fleet of indoor stars”, or mistaking another woman’s pelvis for her own in the mirror of a barre class as they all “lay on our backs and thrust our hips into the darkness with a sacrificial devotion that I had not applied to actual sex for years”. (The horrifying Mommie Dearest backstory of the barre method, begun by former ballerina Lotte Berk and continued by her daughter Esther, is worth the price of admission on its own.)
Most striking are the moments that fully transcend the logic of a think-piece, the embodied metaphors that break beyond explicit argument. In a brief scene in her amiable memoir of her teenage summer on a forgotten reality TV show called Girls v Boys: Puerto Rico, the contestants, off-camera for a night, go swimming in a bioluminescent bay, one of five in the world, whose microscopic creatures sparkle when intruders move through them – swimmers were banned soon after to protect the creatures, too thoroughly intruded on, from going permanently dark. The kids are “glowing like jellyfish, glittering like the ‘Toxic’ video”, until, climbing back on the boat, Tolentino “squeezed glittering water out of my hair. My body felt so stuffed with good luck that I was choking on it”. So much is compressed in this one page: the sense of compromised, private, temporary magic; of a cultural and a natural world in a precarious state, at that time when reality TV was an eerie, impermanent experiment whose ethos hadn’t yet eaten up much of social and political life; the fear that there may be no outside any more – except that there is, just about, and you fleetingly glimpse it, right before it’s gone.
• Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian