As a staff writer at the New Yorker, Houston native Jia Tolentino has established herself as an acute observer and translator of the internet — the absurd memes, the nuances of #MeToo and the way our online discourse has permeated, and complicated, so many aspects of American life. In her first collection of essays, “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion,” Tolentino, 30, deftly illuminates a range of topics, including barre exercise, market-friendly feminism and the millennial penchant for scamming (paging Billy McFarland and Elizabeth Holmes). In a phone conversation as she was driving up to Saugerties, N.Y., to hit a deadline for the New Yorker, we talked about where she finds sanctity now, as a former religious kid, and what the internet can’t touch.
Your book begins with you discovering the amazing World Wide Web as a child. Do you ever get that kind of thrill from using the internet now?
Wonder and surprise are the two things that I really miss on the internet. Honestly, when people get really personal on the YouTube comment section I still find that really pure. I like following nature accounts. I follow a lot of space-related accounts and deep-sea ones on Twitter and Instagram, and I still feel a sense of magic when I can learn about some nebula somewhere.
Many of these essays balance optimism with an open-eyed account of the internet’s very real problems, and then America’s very real problems. Do you feel optimistic about the future of the internet? Of America?
Well, I have extremely low expectations for everything and as a result, I’m always happy. I live in the world like an optimistic person but when I stop and think about it, it feels like every bad thing is only exacerbated by itself and accelerating. But always, I think I operate with a kind of indelible energy and hope. It’s like everything is going to crap, and nothing matters, but that seems like just as much an impetus to try your best and try to have fun as anything else. We might as well try because everything feels like it’s pointless and we’re going to vanish in an instant. All of this is a long way of saying I’m optimistic but predicated on a deep sense of pessimism.
You have an essay about doing molly, reveling in the Houston-born “chopped and screwed” sound, and your former religious life. At the base of it, it’s all about finding church wherever you can. So what’s your church right now?
I can find transcendence really easily but I wonder if that just goes away as you get older. For now, it’s absolutely live music. It’s still kind of drugs. Doing molly as the sun sets, watching some band I love. Feeling myself in a huge group of people. Music and drugs are the things that re-create that feeling of sanctity specifically.
Do you find it in writing?
I guess I do. I took a month off of work to finish the book and I went to MacDowell, the artist’s colony in New Hampshire. I was in this state of rapture for a month straight. I’d never spent a summer in New England. The light, the trees. And being in some place where I didn’t have internet … I was so happy. I’ve been hungering for the feeling of devotion. Like real, pure devotion. And that’s what being there felt like. Total silence. Total focus. I don’t know that I felt as out-of-my-mind giddy as I used to talking about life and death in church; those stakes can’t be re-created sitting at a computer. But I do feel the same absolute focus. That’s the feeling I like most about writing.
Why do you think millennials have become such a target in the media?
Millennials have come of age fully submerged in economic precarity. We’ve become anxious and mercurial, earnest and fatalistic. All these behaviors that millennials get made fun of for have clear economic roots, but it’s hard to talk about that and much easier to talk about personality problems. It’s true that it doesn’t make sense that I, as part of a group of privileged millennials, moved to New York City, started ordering Seamless every night, and then also assumed I could never afford to buy a house. My behaviors are not always rational but that’s because I’m also like, “Will there be a journalism industry in 20 years?” Will I be able to have children who won’t have to live underground and eat some kind of crazy sci-fi baked good to survive? There is this sense of emergency that has infused this time and manifests in some really weird decision-making.
In your last essay, “I Thee Dread,” your partner Andrew makes an appearance, but in general you don’t write about those close to you. Is this out of a sense of privacy or a sense of protection?
It’s more protective. I wrote a 4,000-word piece about getting my IUD inserted; I’m definitely not a private person. I’ve always been the kind of person who would tell anything to anyone. In person, that’s still how I am. That’s why I like journalism. You have an excuse to ask people all these really personal questions and I find that such a pleasurable way of being in the world. But that’s a choice I’ve made and not one that my parents or my partner have made. I also worry that the act of performing my relationships on the page will somehow change it, will make it less purely what it is. I think about that a lot with my personal relationships. I still think that all the best things that we do are out of the reach of the algorithm. The deepest things about our friendships and relationships, the internet will never be able to see that. It’s always been important to me to keep the best things out of the internet’s reach. To save them for myself.
“Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion”
Random House: 320 pp., $27
Wappler is the author of “Neon Green” and a former co-host of the “Pop Rocket” podcast.