Watching Jia Tolentino’s success reminds me a little of watching college athletics in my mid-20s: I would gape and marvel at these feats of superhuman ability, and then need a long, solemn minute in front of the mirror as I remembered, “These athletes are actually a few years younger than I am.” At that age, I wasn’t too far removed from my own days of athletics, and when I thought long and hard about what I was seeing, it put my own modest athletic abilities in stark relief. As David Foster Wallace wrote of himself when profiling tennis pro Michael Joyce:
Before coming to Montreal to watch Michael Joyce, I’d seen professional tennis only on television, which, as has been noted, does not give the viewer a very accurate picture of how good pros are. I thus further confess that I arrived in Montreal with some dim unconscious expectation that these professionals–at least the obscure ones, the nonstars–wouldn’t be all that much better than I. I don’t mean to imply that I’m insane: I was ready to concede that age, a nasty ankle injury in 1988, and a penchant for nicotine (and worse) meant that I wouldn’t be able to compete physically with a young unhurt professional, but on TV (while eating junk and smoking), I’d seen pros whacking balls at each other that didn’t look to be moving substantially faster than the balls I’d hit. In other words, I arrived at my first professional tournament with the pathetic deluded pride that attends ignorance. And I have been brought up sharply. I do not play and never have played even the same game as these qualifiers.
Tolentino, in her collection of essays entitled Trick Mirror, likewise makes me shake my head at disbelief at the brilliance on the page and then wonder again what I’ve done with my life when I realize she’s actually two years younger than I. There are so many sentences and thoughts that I feel on a deep level, and I think, “We must be the exact same age,” but then I get confused by her timeline because she completed high school and college a few years before I did. The explanation is quite simple: Her intellect is staggering, and she rocketed through school at an accelerated pace. That brilliance is on display with every word of Trick Mirror. It’s easy to dismiss the unbelievable skill of writers so much older, to rationalize it away and say, “Oh, well sure so-and-so can write like that; they’ve been doing it forever now.” But with the realization that Tolentino is younger than I am, it defies any rationalization, and it’s deeply humbling to read the thoughts of a “contemporary” and be absolutely blown away by the depth and maturity and beauty of the prose. I do not write and never have written on par with even Tolentino’s grocery lists.
Whether she’s writing about the internet (“The I in the Internet”), the infamous Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape story (“We Come from Old Virginia”), reality TV (“Reality TV Me”), athleisure wear and barre classes (“Always Be Optimizing”), losing religion and finding ecstasy (“Ecstasy”), or the wedding-industrial complex (“I Thee Dread”), Tolentino tackles the topics with a wide lens, providing context in deep and interesting ways. The topics seem unrelated at times, but as I listened to her read her words aloud, it clicked and became obvious that she would be writing on whatever given issue. The collection shows great range, and she never seems out of her depth. She’s rightly been compared to Joan Didion, and I believe it’s an apt comparison. A journalism school friend of mine told me he’d recently been reading a lot of Didion, and I made my way around to recommending Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. Because he’s well-read, he knew of her work and, more than that, he knew of the comparisons to Didion. But a day after I made the recommendation, he sent me a text message that read:
“I bought Trick Mirror. I read the introduction. I got chills. I am likely to willfully forget about my other work while I read this book.”
The essays are mind-mapping exercises, eschewing the tired idea that an essay needs to circle an issue until the author is ready to bring it in for a nice smooth landing. She calls the quality “bagginess” in an interview with Vanity Fair. There is beauty in the unresolved, evidence of granting a big brain room to roam, with the breadth and depth of her connections and references filling me awe and professional jealousy, but in a real-world, modern-day achievable kind of way. She doesn’t cite passages from the classics, though she probably could, but rather she highlights and magnifies the type of writing she saw when she was a features editor at Jezebel: incisive, thoughtful, essays published on myriad websites just like Jezebel, websites that gave voice to a new generation of writerly talent. In the Vanity Fair article, writer Kenzie Bryant sums up Tolentino by saying:
“By way of explaining her process, she offered the image of her head covered in flypaper, collecting discrete ideas that have everything to do with one another.”
There’s something uplifting about Tolentino’s magnifying young writers, female writers, writers who came of age on the internet, like she did. As a beginning journalist, the fact that publication in a storied magazine isn’t necessary for a writer’s words to catch the eye of someone smart, and in that spirit, the internet is a great equalizer.
On the other end of that spectrum, here’s a recent collection of her work from The New Yorker, some of which were retooled for essays in the book. Read and appreciate them, and let them whet your appetite for Trick Mirror, which I highly recommend in audiobook form. Tolentino reads it herself, and she has a beautiful speaking/reading voice. Sample her voice for yourself by listening to her interview on the Longform podcast (an older episode is wonderful as well), The New Yorker Radio Hour, and NPR’s Fresh Air. Each is delightful.