a tale of two book clubs: trick mirror by jia tolentino
Jia Tolentino’s debut novel, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, is a grim yet nihilistically optimistic opus for the millennial generation
I am rarely compelled to write full reviews of books, but Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion is a noteworthy exception for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not a novel, but a collection of nine distinct essays that dive deep into social and cultural ecosystems from the perspective of a Brooklyn millennial that habitually overanalyzes in retrospect, something I find deeply relatable. And second, the author is the absolutely wonderful Jia Tolentino, a staff writer at The New Yorker. I’ve followed Jia for a while, and she’s become one of my favorite writers on the internet — a whip-smart cultural critic praised as “this generation’s Joan Didion” that writes about everything from the existential anxiety that fueled the rise of Korean skincare to the capitalistic appeal of your favorite children’s books.
I was already reading Trick Mirror when Girls’ Night In announced it as their September book club pick, so I immediately bought a ticket. And then The Cosmos announced that it was also their book club book for September. So, intrigued by the chance to discuss it with two different demographics, I attended both. And since it’s an essay collection rather than a novel, there’s a lot to unpack.
TRICK MIRROR: REFLECTIONS ON SELF-DELUSION
This book was a surprisingly long read, not because it was particularly challenging to understand, but because the reading of each essay necessitated a healthy dose of self-examination which is, of course, the point. But I honestly cannot say enough good things about this book. Jia’s grasp of language is always just…masterful. Her sentences are crafted in such a way that they are beautiful and evocative but also deeply inquisitive and laser-focused; she writes equally well about systematic oppression as she does meme culture, and accomplishes the difficult task of marrying the two in a cohesive way. It’s truly delightful to read such articulate and expressive writing, and she has a gift for writing things that at first blush feel very specific, but unfold into a world of other complex questions.
What I appreciated about this book, especially as I sat down to analyze it, was that, intentionally or unintentionally, all of the essays had themes interwoven with one another. Naturally, the main theme was the importance of questioning what you know, but there were also subtler ones — the social incentives that dictate human behavior, the inherent opposition of capitalism and feminism, the necessity of seeking joy in life.
The Cosmos Book Club was first, hosted at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, an arts and events space devoted to Asian-American literature, which was appropriate given the mission of The Cosmos: to help Asian-American women flourish and thrive — professionally, creatively, mentally, and emotionally.
I was interested to see how other Asian-American millennial women would interpret the book, especially given that there’s nothing in it that specifically relates to racial identity. It would be an interesting experiment of whether or not stories written by Asian-American women can be connected to the larger universe of feminine discourse without expressly discussing our cultural identities, and to what extent our experiences are shaped by those identities; it would reveal whether or not our experiences are truly universal regardless of upbringing or degree of acculturation.
I sensed that many of the women felt weighted by expectations, either external or their own, a familiar feeling to any Asian-American millennial woman. Much of our discussion was about the projection of the self and the necessity for reflection in everyday life — a mental ledger of our desires and our actions and an ongoing checks-and-balances of how those things aligned. “I now accept that social media is an extension of me, however aspirational,” one woman remarked as we discussed the merits of “The I in the Internet,” an exploration of the ways in which the online self has become both incongruous to and inseparable from the personal self (this is why I love book clubs; you always meet such thoughtful people). We concluded that however many pressures placed upon us as women and millennial women and Asian-American women, we felt an equal amount of pressure from our tendencies to police our own behavior.
We also got to hear from Jia herself, who is wonderfully articulate in person (she at one point described the mood of the nation as, “There’s this tension between wanting to die and wanting to feel alive”). I identified most with her approach to life in general, which is a kind of optimistic nihilism: essentially, that nothing in life really matters, and therefore, everything matters exactly as much as you personally decide it matters.
The Girls’ Night In Reads event was also interesting, but for different reasons. We gathered on a Monday night at Pop Up Grocer, described by the founder in her honeyed voice as “a traveling pop-up grocery store, curating the most innovative natural food brands.” Everything in the store was wrapped in eco-friendly packaging with cheery pastel colors and minimalist branding, adorned with stickers proudly announcing the absence of gluten, GMOs, and parabens.
The sentiment among this book club was much different — many women were dissatisfied with the book, wanting more answers than it provided, wanting to know more about Jia herself. Naturally, the essay that received the most attention was “Always Be Optimizing,” a passionate deconstruction of capitalism and the way it informs how women behave, under the constant pressure to self-optimize and conform to feminine ideals and the desires of men. Some of the women admitted that they had been eating Sweetgreen salads at their desks while reading it (the essay uses the efficient and expensive “desk salad” as an example of the ways in which millennials’ — and particularly millennial women’s — lives are dictated by the social pressure to optimize every moment to its fullest) and felt personally attacked (to which Jia replied, “good, and same”). Many wanted answers as to how they should be living their lives if not as willing participants of a capitalist society.
But to seek these answers is to approach this book with unrealistic expectations. The beauty of Trick Mirror is that it is not a memoir or an instruction manual; she offers no pretense of resolution. She simply presents an objective analysis of the self as a small part of a larger ecosystem, acknowledging the complexities of existing within it. And the absurdity of sitting in a space like Pop Up Grocer, a product of the successful monetization of both the attention economy and orthorexia, and demanding a catchall solution to the machinations of capitalism felt very…simplistic. I was once again reminded of the extent of narcissism in self-projection, as two girls in line to meet Jia whispered furiously about the hypocrisy of the book — a reflection upon the damaging qualities of an economy that capitalizes on self-reflection — and then promptly turned around to gush to her about how much they loved it.
I wondered how many people simply came to the event to get their book signed so that they could Instagram its distinctive orange cover, and then simply dismissed it as a personal attack. It was fascinating to watch as the thesis of Trick Mirror presented itself in real-time: that your understanding of the world is informed not only by the intricacies of being a human in it, but also by which truths about yourself you are willing to accept.
I’m discussing each of the essays individually, as they appear in the book, but my favorites are, in order (and you can use these links to skip to them):
- “Always Be Optimizing”
- “We Come from Old Virginia”
- “The I in the Internet”
- “Reality TV Me”
- “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams”
- “The Cult of the Difficult Woman”
- “I Thee Dread”
- “Pure Heroines”
“The I in the Internet”
Jia explained to us that she begins writing each essay with a question in mind, and that this was one of the simplest ones: The internet used to seem good and now it seems bad — why? But through this exploration, she uncovers “five intersecting problems: first, how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity; second, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions; third, how it maximizes our sense of opposition; fourth, how it cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and, finally, how it destroys our sense of scale.”
These problems are particularly dangerous in a climate in which everyone is desperately seeking relevancy, and celebrity can now be attained simply by having opinions — I recalled a now-deleted quote from the excellent Lauren Duca profile on BuzzFeed News, which suggested that people who become famous (or infamous) because of the internet begin to develop ideologies built by their brands, rather than the other way around, which becomes increasingly confusing when we consider that our internet selves are, in theory, supposed to represent our real selves. But this rarely is the case, because what you do on the internet is not merely an action, it is a representation of an action; it is a signal to others that you are morally good or civically engaged or well-educated or compassionate. One woman pointed out that these internet selves serve as almost a shortcut to real human interaction, a presentable avatar that makes you assume you already know everything about someone. Jia writes in the essay:
But 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 and morality, and that it’s best established at a point of maximum mutual vulnerability in everyday life. Under those terms, instead of expressing moral obvious solidarity with the struggle of black Americans under the police state or the plight of fat women who must roam the earth to purchase stylish and thoughtful clothing, the internet would encourage me to express solidarity through inserting my own identity. Of course I support the black struggle because I, myself, as a woman of Asian heritage, have personally been injured by white supremacy. (In fact, as an Asian woman, part of a minority group often deemed white-adjacent, I have benefited from American anti-blackness on just as many occasions.) Of course I understand the difficulty of shopping as a woman who is overlooked by the fashion industry because I, myself, have also somehow been marginalized by this industry. This framework, which centers the self in an expression of support for others, is not ideal.
She asserts that the movements designed to empower and amplify marginalized groups, like #MeToo and #YesAllWomen, often erase individual identities by making false equivalencies between stories and disregarding nuance; people feel the need to participate in the conversation by offering their own personal experiences in lieu of empathy.
There’s no way to fully stop the internet, other than a total implosion of it, and so instead we are left to find a way to coexist with it in a way that makes sense for us, which is difficult when the internet is inescapable. One of the first things Jia told us was, “I think of myself — and people — as flexible, malleable, and context-dependent … with the sense of self and the internet, [the self] has to be more important than the representation of it.” Ultimately, I think it comes down to a personal choice — whether you can reconcile your real, messy, human self with your curated internet one.
“Reality TV Me”
In an interview with The Paris Review, Jia wrote that the first two essays of the book, “The I in the Internet” and “Reality TV Me,” were deliberately put first because they deconstruct “identity performance,” a motif that connects the entire thing. While “The I in the Internet” set out to delineate the problems of self-projection on the internet, this essay was an analysis of how we unconsciously rewrite our memories — and therefore ourselves.
The essay is intercut with “clips” of the show; short descriptions of the challenges, behind-the-scenes confessionals, and unscripted downtime. She notes that this was prior to the reality TV boom, and the formula for the show was simple: four boys and four girls cast in specific “personas” like teen movie stereotypes — the bitch, the jock, the goofball, the straight-A student.
Reality TV enacts the various self-delusions of the emotionally immature: the dream that you are being closely watched, assessed, and categorized; the dream that your life itself is movie material, and that you deserve your own carefully soundtracked montage when you’re walking down the street. On the show, this was the actual world that the adults had constructed around us. We were categorized as characters. Our social dramas were set to generic acoustic ballads and pop punk. Our identities were given a clear narrative importance. All of this is a narcissist’s fantasy come true.
What Jia identifies are the early glimmers of what has become a normal, contemporary aspiration: a kind of reverse-“Truman Show delusion”, the desirable privilege of being observed, of being seen, glossy illusions of grandeur for the influencer era. One woman at GNI Reads said, “I’m fearful of life only being fodder for creative output or creative output shaping memories of the past.” Sixteen-year-old Jia documents her initial anxiety at being watched 24/7 and appearing to fall into TV personality tropes (“But I can’t tell if, on the show, I was more concerned with looking virtuous or actually being virtuous — or if, having gone from a religious panopticon to a literal one, I was even capable of distinguishing between the two ideas”), but thirty-year-old Jia notes that after the show, she stopped worrying what others thought of her — “When everything was framed as a performance, it seemed impossible to consciously perform … Reality TV simultaneously freed me from and tethered me to self-consciousness by making self-consciousness inextricable from everything else.”
The essay explores, essentially, what happens when “reality TV” goes from being billed as actual reality to widely mocked for its deceit in masquerading as reality, and then loops back to genuine representation. Is reality TV, in a sense, the truest sense of the uninhibited self? She also argues that much of the way they acted was to fulfill peoples’ expectations of them, much of the way we do in real life: “We have to project ourselves in order to be the people we want to be.”
“Always Be Optimizing”
This was my favorite essay, because I am deeply fascinated by (and perpetually thinking of) the ways in which feminism is entangled with and shaped by capitalism, and it was also one of the most incisive reads of the book. It explores the “ideal woman” and the optimization of both her appearance and her performance tailored to market demands. It raises the question — are we truly optimizing, or are we merely in pursuit of the illusion that we are optimizing? Do we genuinely want these things, or is it part of a performance in pursuit of power? And which is worse?
The ideal woman, in other words, is always optimizing. She takes advantage of technology, both in the way she broadcasts her image and in the meticulous improvement of that image itself. Her hair looks expensive. She spends lots of money taking care of her skin, a process that has taken on the holy aspect of a spiritual ritual and the mundane regularity of setting a morning alarm. The work formerly carried out by makeup has been embedded directly into her face: her cheekbones or lips have been plumped up, or some lines have been filled in, and her eyelashes are lengthened every four weeks by a professional wielding individual lashes and glue. The same is true of her body, which no longer requires the traditional enhancements of clothing or strategic underwear; it has been pre-shaped by exercise that ensures there is little to conceal or rearrange. Everything about this woman has been preemptively controlled to the point that she can afford the impression of spontaneity and, more important, the sensation of it — having worked to rid her life of artificial obstacles, she often feels legitimately carefree.
There is a degree of domesticity always entangled optimization — when women were relegated to housework, they spent the majority of their time trying to show off their wealth and their well-kept homes and their obedient children. Now, when women are ostensibly equal with men in the workplace, self-optimization is the new frontier. Beauty work has been rebranded as “self-care” to appear progressive and noble rather than vain and selfish. One woman pointed out that Dyson, a company that sells $400 cordless high-performance vacuums and $350 futuristically oblong fans, has pivoted to selling $400 hair dryers and $500 styling tools.
But what I liked about this essay is that it answers the so what. So what if we want to make ourselves beautiful? So what if we want to please men? So what if we buy into the endless cycle of optimization? “We can decode social priorities through looking at what’s most commonly eroticized: male power and female submission, male violence and female pain. The most generically sexual images of women involve silence, performance, and artificiality: traits that leave male power intact, or strengthened, by draining women’s energy and wasting our time.” It frames sexual appeal as as social power — which it is! — but we cannot pretend that this makes us equal to men.
She addressed the irony of writing the book itself: “[I think about] how corrosive monetized selfhood is, but the more I realize that and the better I am at it, the more my selfhood is monetized.” To a degree, the ideal woman is a self-delusion, but can we criticize women for wanting to project that? Referring to “The I in the Internet,” she noted that the internet prioritizes representations of things, so it’s important to make the distinction between engaging in feminism and not just commodified feminism. We have to recognize that by engaging in these expressions of pop feminism, we are not subverting the capitalistic system in which we live, but rather surviving within the limits of it, and any progress or success is inevitably a little bit spoiled by that caveat. “We have maximized our capacity as market assets,” she writes. “That’s all.”
This was actually my least favorite essay of the book, which surprised me. I’ve been an avid reader my entire life, and while I appreciated her references to books that reminded me of my childhood, like Little House on the Prairie and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Jia actually has her own incredible story about it), I found it difficult to follow — the essay moves so quickly from one heroine to the next that there is no room for any emotional connection nor recognition of her individual merits, beyond being yet another miserable woman.
“Pure Heroines” tracks literary heroines from from adventurous and free-spirited young girls to troubled teens to bitter adult women stifled by their conventional marriages. but this essay read more like a dossier of feminist literature than a cohesive narrative; it gave me a lot of new entries for my to-read list, but I didn’t really feel like I acquired any new perspective from it.
Perhaps part of it is that I haven’t read a female character I’ve truly connected to in a long time. As a kid, I saw myself in Jo’s bookishness and her compulsion to document her emotions; in Laura’s feelings of maternal tenderness toward Susan, her corncob doll; in Claudia’s restlessness and resourcefulness; in Hermione’s need for validation and self-preservation. But as my heroines aged, I began to feel more distant from them. Even today, I relate more to Claudia Kincaid than to any woman I’ve read. Of course, this could be the lack of female authors in my repertoire; I’ve actually made a conscious effort to read more women writers this year. So maybe my opinion of this essay will evolve as my library does.
This was another one of my favorite essays, and apparently a reader favorite as well — Jia theorized that this was because it was “the least zeitgeist-y” in the book. But I liked it because unlike so many walking-away-from-religion pieces, it assigns no blame to religion but instead revels in the joy of finding solace that exists in that wavering, vulnerable, uncertain place between salvation and sin. I found that much more realistic, because religion and spirituality are complex and messy in the same way that life is complex and messy, and I feel that religion is often incompatible with real life.
I don’t know if I was ever really religious — I experimented with it briefly in elementary school thanks to family members that would take me to church, but I think I was too young to know any better. I think I was attracted to the ease and simplicity of a transactional relationship with God. Do this and this and presto, absolution! I find my relationship with religion now is more of a grey area — I don’t know and I don’t deserve to know, and that’s okay with me. But every so often I’ll feel these glimmers of spirituality and I’ll think that I believe in it again, although I think that comes more from the belief that God manifests in different ways for everyone. I don’t find religion comforting, but I find the idea of it comforting. What I like about this essay is that it extolls the value of pleasure as something necessary to life, and acknowledges the tension that colors the process of falling out of love with religion. She writes that both religion and drugs “provide a path toward transcendence — a way of accessing an extrahuman world of rapture and pardon that, in both cases, is as real as it feels,” which mirrors the same elusive high that humans perpetually seek in our quest for meaning.
“A Story of a Generation in Seven Scams”
There has been endless speculation about the appeal of scammers, but I appreciated that this essay took a multidimensional approach — rather than simply dissecting the lifespan of a scam, it declares scamming as the “definitive millennial ethos,” an angle I hadn’t considered. I’d followed all of these scammers with equal zeal independently — Billy McFarlane, Anna Delvey, Caroline Calloway, and Elizabeth Holmes (re: last year’s reading of Bad Blood) — all names that have become shorthand for scammer in our cultural lexicon and notorious for exploiting large numbers of regular people, all stories that had left us disgusted but with a little bit of admiration, wondering, How could they think they could get away with this?
But really, can you blame them? Take Hustlers, which was just released last month. The film is based on the viral New York Magazine piece, “The Hustlers at Scores,” the true story of how a group of former strippers conned Wall Street men out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. “This game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules,” J.Lo’s character says at one point. Even the woman who inspired Constance Wu’s character, Roselyn Keo, is more famous than she ever would have been without the scandal — she has just published a book that promises an inside look at their operation and details that couldn’t fit into the movie. A Refinery29 piece entitled “Where Is Roselyn Keo, The Inspiration For Destiny In Hustlers, Now?”, details movie premieres, concert backstages, book signings, press tours, and newly-minted friendships with J.Lo and Constance Wu.
In an attention economy, those who make the most noise are rewarded, whether it’s for good reasons or for bad. There is very little incentive to play by conventional rules; Jia argues that millennials have learned by example that “the quickest way to win is to scam.” And that is why Caroline Calloway is such a fascinating case study — she fully accepts and relishes all attention as good, regardless of whether it is favorable, reclaiming words like “scammer” and “Fyre Festival” and making them into her personal brand. One of the women in my Cosmos group asked me what I thought about Caroline Calloway, and I answered honestly that I think she’s a really sad person trying her best to fake it until she makes it, hoping that if she can laugh at herself, it won’t hurt as much when others do. Some of the other women theorized that she’s delusional (Calloway initially claimed, seemingly without guilt, that her claim to fame was a photo of French macarons that was featured on Instagram’s Discover page, when in fact she had purchased large numbers of followers at the start of her career to artificially bolster her Instagram presence). Natalie Beach wrote in the now-famous New York Magazine exposé:
People ask me if she’s a female Billy McFarland, both characters from Ingrid Goes West, Anna Delvey with an art-history degree, but I push back. If it was just money and fame she was after, all she had to do was be quiet and let me do the work. She could have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, gone on the tour she always wanted, and recorded the audiobook in that beguiling voice of hers. But she had to be the one to tell her own life story, even if she couldn’t. Caroline was caught between who she was and who she believed herself to be, which in the end may have been the most relatable thing about her. This is why, when people ask me if Caroline is a scammer, I try to explain that if she is, her first mark is always herself.
But all of the scams mentioned — Theranos, the student debt crisis, Fyre Festival, Facebook’s ongoing exploitation of its users, Sophia Amoruso’s “girlboss” empire, the 2016 election — point to one thing: the idea of late capitalism, which may be the biggest scam of all. It is always a negotiation of worth — does the $288,000 price tag of a university degree outweigh the cost of not having one? Is same-day shipping worth non-union workers not having healthcare? Who do female empowerment gurus and motivational speakers ultimately benefit? But the power to make these negotiations comes with financial stability which, in this country especially, is acquired at the expense of others.
“We Come From Old Virginia”
This one was a surprising favorite; I had no idea what to expect when I read the title. In this essay, Jia is at her best, taking a particular cultural artifact or moment — in this case, the infamous Rolling Stone investigation of a gang rape at the University of Virginia — and magnifying it, contextualizing it within a broader cultural landscape, layering it with personal experience and extracting an astute social observation.
Her critique of the school is presented with the caveat of her own happy experience; the dreamy notion of UVA as “a sort of honeyed Eden”:
It felt like cherry bombs were going off outside in the darkness; a strain of easy, fancy Southernness was in the air. The next day, when I walked through the campus, the sun was warm and golden, and the white-columned brick buildings rose into a bluebird sky. The students lounged on the grass, glowing with conventional good looks. West of town, the Blue Ridge Mountains raised the horizon in layers of dusk and navy, and the lacy dogwood trees were flowering on every street.
She questions the journalistic integrity of the reporting of the Rolling Stone story, but also her own memories of UVA; she grapples with the fact that some of the most beautiful and most reputable institutions have flourished by ignoring the horrors of their foundational legacies. She notes that progress is both bittersweet and incremental, telling the story of a woman she’d met who reported a sexual assault at UVA in 2017 — the complaint was taken seriously and a procedural investigation followed, lightyears away from the horrific stories of colleges stifling reports of sexual assault. But still, the assault had taken place, and in the end, her attacker was found not guilty and allowed to return to campus, “a glass structure was being constructed around some unfathomable rot.”
Virginia has a long history of racial and gender-based violence — it is the home of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation Monticello and the site of the disastrous Unite the Right rally in 2017. UVA itself was built by the hands of slaves, and its library named for the president of the university who was a eugenicist and bankrolled by the Ku Klux Klan.
Following the proliferation of #MeToo stories and in the wake of the Rolling Stone backlash, the systems that allow sexual assault to occur have been increasingly scrutinized. But while the first offender — the perpetrator of the assault — is usually easy to blame, there is less clarity around whose responsibility it falls to afterward. You can blame the Rolling Stone journalist, the girl at UVA who fabricated the story, fraternity culture, university protocol and profit. But whether or not this blame is rightly assigned, all of these factors create a toxic climate that we are all swimming in, and there is no good way to escape it.
One book club attendee asked Jia what the most and least satisfying essays were to write, and she answered that the least satisfying ones were always the ones in which she was left with more questions than when she started. “Any writing about sexual violence,” she said, “Anything that treats it as anomalous and anything satisfying narratively, will be misleading.”
“The Cult of the Difficult Woman”
I’m still undecided of my feelings toward this essay, one about the way modern feminism has twisted to praise the “difficult woman” archetype and give her a cultural advantage. I agree with her that this true (and that contemporary feminism is existentially problematic); I’m just not really sure there’s much further to dig.
She uses the magnified lens of celebrity to analyze the way contemporary feminism has evolved to reclaim stories of women ostracized in the past — Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, Monica Lewinsky. She notes that “female celebrities are now venerated for their difficulty — their flaws, their complications, their humanity — with the idea that this will allow us, the ordinary women, to be flawed, and human, and possibly venerated, too.”
She asserts that women who are heralded as feminist empowerment icons are often extolled through a very narrow definition of feminism. Kim Kardashian, who rose to prominence by performing femininity and sexuality in a way that pleases men, is consistently praised as feminist for leaning into critiques of her — superficial, overly sexual, fake — while demonstrating that it is in fact extraordinarily profitable.
But like anything else, feminism has also been weaponized by defenders of the current patriarchal structure and subsequently elevated unsavory voices as well, like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and Hope Hicks. Pop feminism has afforded these women cultural power — now, it is beneficial to be difficult, and boring to be conventional — and this structure has allowed them to perpetuate monstrous lies that cause real danger to democracy. We have to be wary of when the feminist reflexive defense of women becomes a red herring rather than collective empowerment.
“I Thee Dread”
This was another essay I didn’t particularly love, mostly because it felt to me like it was preaching to the choir. But while I didn’t need a whole essay convincing me of marriage’s shortcomings as an institution, but it did make me think more critically about the distinction between weddings and marriages, which most societal convention ignores. Perhaps it’s cynicism from seeing the beginnings of a wave of engagements on my Facebook feed, or maybe it’s that planning a wedding sounds a lot like my personal hell — buying an expensive dress that I can only wear once, worrying about place settings, having all the attention focused on me for an entire night — but as much as I adore attending weddings, I don’t think I’ll ever want one of my own.
And as I get older, I am beginning to acknowledge that marriage is not a priority of mine, either. I’m not fully opposed to it, but I am deeply suspicious of the idea that marriage should be a perquisite for commitment, that it is considered any kind of milestone or achievement in life, and that women in particular should aspire to it (and in fact, Jia has written before about the double-edged sword of the cultural capital of being a wife). And I will never understand why it’s considered a big life-changing decision when, in theory, nothing about your relationship should change. Sometimes it sounds appealing, but then I quickly realize that I want it only for the satisfaction of people other than myself. If and when I ever figure out my reason for wanting it (which will probably be for something unexciting like medical power of attorney or tax purposes, if anything), then it would make sense, but until then, I don’t really see a reason. And whether or not I admit it, I am resentful of the fact that I need to justify it at all.
Trick Mirror is a razor-sharp critique of the normalized systems in which we exist, through the looking-glass of grotesque fascination. Of course, it is natural to be the most critical of systems in which we are complicit — we can fully understand the ways in which they influence our behavior and our perspectives, and what we sacrifice being a part of them — but Jia demonstrates that she is more acutely aware of her place in these systems than the average person. “Analyzing yourself for the sake of it is no longer interesting, but analyzing the self as a part of something, and learning about the world will always be interesting to me,” she explained in our discussion.
But I think there is merit to writing about yourself introspectively, even for purely self-interested reasons; she and I share the opinion that it is people in your life that make it worth living, and I think knowing yourself intimately — in ways that can only be revealed through particularly self-indulgent writing — makes you a better friend and a better partner to others. And despite not wanting to be married, Jia writes tenderly about her own personal relationships: “One morning [Andrew and I] woke upon a deflated air mattress in my friend Walt’s apartment, hungover, with light filtering through the dust like magic, and when I looked at him I felt that if I couldn’t do this forever I would die.”
“I try to be comforted by a sense of meaninglessness,” Jia told us. “If the way we live almost matters not at all, and all we have are these temporal, ephemeral moments; if nothing matters in the grand scheme, it’s almost freeing because it’s an everyday motivator to be really present, like when you look at the stars and you feel really tiny.”
I’ve always felt similarly — if nothing really matters, then realistically, the only thing you should care about is the kind of person you are when you’re alone. And then everything matters. Finding joy and small moments of pleasure matters. The way we treat our loved ones matters. Perhaps optimistic nihilism is the most we can hope for.
Originally published on jayemsey.com