Only The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino could, in one deep-dive essay, effortlessly move from lunch to life under advanced capitalism – incorporating, along the way, market-friendly feminism, overpriced athletic leisurewear, the internet; skyrocketing productivity, the pleasure – and absurdity – of barre class and the phenomenon of the “fast-casual chopped-salad chain.” Thus, the genius of the young Canadian-born writer, whose debut collection of essays, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, is one of the most anticipated titles of summer.
“It was just a long-simmering discomfort I would have when I would get a Sweetgreen [salad] every day for lunch,” Tolentino tells The Globe and Mail, from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., of her inspiration for the essay. The chopped salad, she explains, is a symbol of a certain kind of life, “which is you just work all day and you just do everything as efficiently as possible, including your lunch.”
In the resulting essay, “Always Be Optimizing,” Tolentino spends a good 10,000 words meditating on the ideal of the modern woman. “She’s of indeterminate age but resolutely youthful presentation,” Tolentino begins, instantly capturing an aesthetic all around us. “She’s got glossy hair and the clean, shameless expression of a person who believes she was made to be looked at.”
But if the “lifestyle” this woman presents to the world is one of carefree luxuriating on Instagram-worthy beaches, her day-to-day reality is far more gruelling. Her skin-care regimen alone is a part-time job; eyelash upkeep requires regular appointments. And then there are the rigours of barre, “getting you in shape for a hyperaccelerated capitalist life.” These $40 boutique classes prepare you, Tolentino notes in her book, “less for a half marathon than for a 12-hour workday, or a week alone with a kid and no child care, or an evening commute on an underfunded train.”
All of this means the ideal woman is now so internally harried that she barely has time to chew the $12 chopped salad she buys every day, served up in record time by fevered clerks, she writes, “as if it were their purpose in life to do so and their customers’ purpose in life to send emails sixteen hours a day with a brief break to snort a bowl of nutrients that ward off the unhealthfulness of urban professional living.”
“This is just so people like me don’t have to wait 15 seconds longer than they want to for their chopped salad – that they can eat without ever looking at it,” Tolentino points out to The Globe. “There was just this monstrous efficiency that struck me as so upsetting. At the same time, that part of me partook in it happily and eagerly, because it did in fact fit into the way I was working and the way I was living. And the way that the world kind of encourages you to work and live.”
What she was getting at, she says, is that feeling of “What are we doing? What am I doing?”
It’s a line Tolentino has long navigated in her work – one, in fact, her life prepared her for.
Born in Toronto to parents who had recently immigrated from Manila, her family left when she was about four and moved south to Houston, land of megachurches and football fields, cough syrup addiction and DJ Screw.
She came of age as a scantily-clad cheerleader on the sprawling, 42-acre campus of her evangelical church, the Repentagon. And as a drug experimenter and reality-TV star who took three weeks off school at 16 to film Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico (she assured school administrators this was to “be a light for Jesus, but on television”).
She got early acceptance at Yale but went instead to the University of Virginia, where she passed a contented couple of years singing in an a cappella group, the Virginia Belles, and hitting frat parties. After graduation, she joined the Peace Corps and moved to a small village in Kyrgyzstan, where she confronted coups, extreme poverty and sexual harassment.
She wound up doing an MFA at the University of Michigan, where the razor-sharp intellect and mammoth productivity she’s now famous for began to reveal themselves, publishing essays online, tapping into the zeitgeist and, ultimately, helping shape it.
Recruited to serve as deputy editor at the feminist website Jezebel (where she could now afford that $12 salad each day), she moved to New York and turned her eye to 21st-century feminism, which she, in characteristic fashion, both embraced and critiqued. And to the online world in general, which she describes in Trick Mirror as “an openly torturous environment.”
Then, in 2016, The New Yorker came calling. In the past few years there, she has written about everything from Jian Ghomeshi to millennials’ love affair with house plants. Plus: books, TV, abortion, Ivana Trump, Melania Trump, Hurricane Harvey and the Cosby trial. Socialism, sexual assault and everything in between.
This big picture, bird’s-eye view of the Unites States has enabled her to articulate some of the biggest issues of our complex – and distressing – time, which she does with much flair in Trick Mirror’s standout essay, “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” which defines our era by its cons, ranging from Fyre Festival fraud Billy McFarland to U.S. President Donald Trump, student debt, social media, Amazon and #girlbosses.
“I have felt,” she writes, “so many times that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional – to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck.”
She is, in the end, both captivated and horrified by our weird world. “That’s sort of my animating impulse with a lot of the things that I write,” she tells The Globe. “The combination of deep attraction and deep repulsion is something that I like, that I feel often – and lean into – just in my actual life.”
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