Maybe the best thing that can be said about Jia Tolentino’s new book, a frequently hilariously, incredibly smart blend of memoir, essay and reporting, is that it feels almost impossible to sum up.
What’s it about? Living on the Internet. Or feminism, or yoga pants and kids books. It’s about scams and capitalism and the scam that is contemporary capitalism. It’s a book about the “effective end of shared reality” and about the “addictive, numbing fire hoses of information that we aim at our brains for most of the day.”
There’s an essay in Trick Mirror about the wedding industry (and Tolentino’s own aversion to getting married) and one about her appearance, as a teen, on a reality TV show
. There’s an essay about doing drugs and religion and a Houston mega-church. There are others about the messy edges of ideas — like “difficult” women and campus sexual assault — that get flattened online into simpler, less real versions of what they really are. If she has to, Tolentino, a staff writer for the New Yorker, will say that Trick Mirror is about the type of cultural phenomena that seems “especially conducive to self-delusion.”
She recently spoke to the National Post by phone from New York about her book, her Canadian background, growing up in Houston, the Internet and other topics.
I don’t know if you’re aware of what Canadians do to anyone with even a tangential Canadian connection when they become famous, which is that we will begin to claim you.
I’m very proud of my tangential Canadian connection! I mean, I’m a citizen.
You were born in Canada, is that right?
I was born in Toronto. My parents lived in an apartment above the Eaton’s Centre. Then we moved to Scarborough when I was two? And then I moved to Texas, I think, when I was four.
Do you feel any lingering sense of Canadian-ness?
I actually didn’t want to become an American citizen. I only did because I had to to join the Peace Corps. My parents love Toronto. My dad went to college at York. I’m always trying to get them to move back. I have really idyllic memories of my little street in the suburbs and my friends on the street and the snowstorms. I flew back to Toronto last year to see Carly Rae (Jepsen) perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I’m still about that life.
My dad went to college at York. I’m always trying to get them to move back
Why were you hesitant to become an American citizen?
I grew up in Texas during the Bush years. I was really put off by the expressions of American patriotism post 9/11. I found it really repulsive. I found the war repulsive, but I didn’t know a single person who didn’t support it. I became a citizen the year Obama became president. And that felt good.
How did you develop that kind of outsider sensibility in a place like suburban Houston?
I had to go back through so many of my old books and old journals to fact check this book. And, from basically seventh grade through eleventh grade there was this really obvious sort of insurgent discomfort in me, as I was actively trying to work out the discomfort I had in my head about my community and about wealth and about conservatism and Texas and race. But I think it was productive for me as a writer because I just never talked to anyone growing up who agreed with me. So now I think of someone strongly disagreeing with me as a natural and totally fine and unremarkable thing, which I think is a good thing for a writer.
Were your parents conservative, other than being religiously conservative?
They’re not conservative at all. And right now they’re extremely the opposite. But they’re far more ideologically flexible than I am. They have this sort of immigrant flexibility that lots of societies are structured differently and you can make it work in many of them. They’re also still Canadian citizens. So they didn’t have the same native investment in the American Dream or the American identity that I did.
You wrote your college thesis about something like that, right? About the American dream and identity?
Yeah. I really loved immigrant literature from the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. I like writing about situations or concepts that are true and false at the same time and ideas that are true and false at the same time. And that American narrative — this idea of exceptionalism and upward mobility and ascension — these ideas are both really good and really punishing. And even today, the basic interaction with immigrant populations with this idea is a heartbreaking, wonderful endlessly fascinating thing.
I’ve been telling people about reading this book and they ask me “What is it about?” and I don’t really know what to tell them. How do you describe it?
One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot is “What’s the one takeaway you want readers to have?” And I’m like, “Nothing.” Nothing! The whole book is about how I don’t feel certain about anything. What I have been saying mostly is that it’s a book about the cultural phenomena that to me seem especially conducive to self-delusion. And that is the way I thought about it for myself as I was writing.
I think almost everything about capitalism, as I interact with it, makes it impossible to be a full person
Yeah, I know, I feel bad. Like I’m person who ruins the joke.
But the book grapples with bigger questions about what it means to live online. There’s a line in there that says “the internet is governed by incentives that make it impossible to be a full person while interacting with that.” How does that play out in your own life?
I think almost everything about capitalism, as I interact with it, makes it impossible to be a full person. I’ve been joking with my friends, when they ask, “Oh what’s your book about?” (I say) “It’s about knowledge being totally useless.” I don’t have any belief that the conclusions I’ve drawn are doing anything more than making me aware of something that I want to be aware of.
You could take that sentence and think about Amazon. The convenience economy is structured around things that make it impossible to be a full person when you’re interacting with them. Whether you’re the person inadvertently exploiting the warehouse worker to get your s–t in one day or whether you’re that warehouse worker and you’re strapped to the Amazon wristband that vibrates when you’re not moving quickly enough. I think that’s a basic condition of contemporary life that diminishes our personhood. And the project of it is to just figure out how to be a person regardless. To me, it seems like the admission of that first thing is necessary for the second.
How much of the larger horrors of our time, the tangible bad things in the world, do you attribute to the internet?
Jenny Odell, in her new book How to Do Nothing, puts this really well. She says a person who is extremely distracted is a person who can’t think or act. It’s the same for a citizenry. It’s the same for a community. And I think that’s especially (true) with the Trump administration. His candidacy, and his administration, is completely predicated on the internet’s ability to set huge meaningless fires that everyone runs to, and then, while everyone is distracted by that, everything he’s trying to do just rolls inexorably on.
You have a very distinctive voice and most of your writing before you came to the New Yorker is that blogging/personal essay style. What’s it like trying to fit that style into the New Yorker world of reported features?
That is a challenge that I am enjoying. (Laughs) When I write online I think I mostly sound the same. But there are certain things that change. I used to play a game where I would try to slip something past the copy desk with every piece. And usually it would work. Because I think the New Yorker hired me in part because they wanted to shake things up a little bit, especially on the web site. And it’s gotten spicier. But it’s really hard.
Your dad once said in an interview that you and Martin (her brother) were not “randomly raised” kids. What did that look like for you growing up?
He always says this and I think he’s mostly talking about how regimented they were about certain things before we were three years old. He always says he didn’t teach me the word “no” for a long time, so I was always really happy.
He says this. And I was, in fact, an incredibly happy kid. And I’m still a pretty naturally happy person. But my memory of actually being a kid is that they would literally let us do anything we wanted. So it’s funny that he has this idea that it was like this, but my memory of being a kid was of being free to do anything. Which was an incredible gift.
How did that interact with being in, on the one hand, this extremely permissive environment and on the other this extremely conservative, religious environment at church and school?
I published an excerpt in the New Yorker about that church and (before it came out) I called my parents and was like, “Sorry you sent me to Christian school and then I ended up writing an essay about how it made me want to do a lot of drugs.” But they were both incredibly cool about it. I think that their total encouragement and lack of paternalism with me is what allowed me to get through 12 years at that church without some of the freak outs I might have had otherwise. At home, in my head, I always felt free.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length