A pair of recent essay collections—Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror and Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn—invite easy comparisons. They were released within a month of each other. The current professional status of their authors is superficially similar: two established women writers in their thirties both living in Brooklyn. Each writes about weddings, travel, and the sensations of drugs and alcohol; each takes up overtly feminist topics, from defeated heroines and female rage to “difficult women” and women in pain. Even the two books’ bold text-only covers are similar: multicolored lettering in ochre, hot pink, and orange (Tolentino) and fuschia, peach, and sky blue (Jamison). But to my mind what really connects them is how Tolentino and Jamison reason. What’s objective, they demonstrate, is often subjective, or hypocritical, or at the very least, complicated.
Jia Tolentino studies the Internet: how it warps our perceptions, distracts us, gives us all the ability to shout our opinions. She also studies other nodes of false selfhood—from reality television to celebrity feminism, athleisure to contemporary scams—and how technology perpetuates them. Instagram is made for clean-eating women stuffed into Lululemon apparel. Companies like Uber and Amazon exploit gig-economy workers even as they promise flexibility and equality.
Tolentino’s writing is straightforward, snarky, punchy. She studies fads and cultural conversations—Barre classes, the Fyre festival, rape culture, wedding hysteria, evangelicalism, the financial crisis—and then opines with confidence, calling out class inequality and cynical politics. Conservative pundits who fall back on feminism to defend Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Hope Hicks, claiming sexism is why these women get criticized, actually “don’t even care about feminism.” In the era of student debt, social media presents itself as an alternative to higher education, tempting people to believe that “the path to stability might be a personal brand.” Even superficially good phenomena, like “online expressions of solidarity,” can become “a manner of listening so extreme and performative that it often turns into a show.”
Leslie Jamison’s topics are quirkier, and her writing is more lyrical. Mournful and cyclical, each piece—on the world’s loneliest whale, a museum of artifacts from breakups, a photographer who’s taken pictures of the same Mexican family for twenty-five years—is riven with metaphor and detail. The whale’s high-pitched, fifty-two hertz song is a “sentimental seismograph”; one breakup artifact is a plastic bag of pistachios “thick with the white webbing” of moth eggs; the photographer’s pictures show a “wheelbarrow full of dirty dishes,” a father “punch-drunk with love.” Jamison’s writing is more explicitly personal, and some of these essays are exclusively so, narrating childbirth, a past eating disorder, stepmotherhood, lost loves.
But Jamison’s reported pieces are also flush with selfhood. She’s constantly interrogating the ethics of reporting. Does a writer rely only on evidence that supports her pre-existing opinions? Can a photographer take pictures without taking something from her subjects? Jamison’s “I” checks her assumptions and instincts. She deems Second Life (an interface that mimics the world, allowing users to design human avatars, build structures, have conversations, play concerts, and even “eat” digital food) queasy. But then she qualifies her initial reaction: “Of course, my aversion to Second Life...testified to my own good fortune as much as anything.... Who was I to begrudge those who had found in the reaches of Second Life what they couldn’t offline?” On a trip to Sri Lanka, she wonders what good is done by visiting genocide memorials. Picking her way through a field of bones, she despairs: “We were all going to look at these things, and then stop looking, and then keep on living just like we ever did.” If Tolentino writes about how we are compromised in the digital era, Jamison writes about how we are compromised just by being alive. She’s harsh with herself and generous with others: calling reincarnation “an assertion of contingency,” and Las Vegas “adamantly honest,” and obsessive fans of the lonely whale not crazy but part of a “particular kinship, people tracking the same pulse of a minivan-sized heart.”