To Cut a Long Story Short & By The Book–Jia Tolentino (Kyrgyzstan)
Jia Tolentino (Kyrgyzstan 2009-10) dominates the book world this weekend with articles by and about her in the wake of the publication of her new book Trick Mirror. “To Cut a Long Story Short” is an essay by Jai that appears in the Saturday/Sunday issue of The Wall Street Journal and Jia is interviewed in The New York Times Sunday Book Section. JC Note.
Writer Jia Tolentino on Her Obsession With ‘Disgusting’ Jean Shorts
The author and New Yorker staff writer, whose new book of essays ‘Trick Mirror’ is out this week, describes her lifelong affinity for beat-up denim cutoffs
JEAN QUEEN The writer, who has been compared dauntingly to both Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, wearing her beloved shorts in her Brooklyn neighborhood. PHOTO: LEETA HARDING FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Aug. 7, 2019
GROWING UP IN Texas, I attended an evangelical private school whose thorough strictness was expressed most clearly in the dress code. Boys wore slacks; girls wore pleated skirts in khaki and slate gabardine; for weekly chapel, everyone wore white oxford shirts and loafers. Summers, after so much starchy biblical confinement, came as an all-consuming release. This was Houston, and so it was mostly humid and hot to the point of unearthliness—three-digit temperatures were normal for months. But I loved the heat, the burning dazzle during the daytime, the way the grass stayed warm long into the night. On my suburban cul-de-sac, with its tiny pirate-ship playground and built-in gang of like-minded neighbors, you could play outside every minute you weren’t sleeping. And so, on the first day of summer, I’d ceremonially put on a pair of cutoff jean shorts and a T-shirt—what deep spiritual freedom!—and for months I’d hardly take this other, far more satisfying uniform off.
Today, I live in Brooklyn, N.Y., not Houston. But to the chagrin of many of my loved ones, I still wear jean shorts as often as I can. I don’t look good in them, really, not like (for example) Jodie Comer as Villanelle in “Killing Eve,” pulling up to a Tuscan villa on a motorcycle in a sheer blouse and flawlessly hip-hugging cutoffs, then making herself a snack to cap off the pleasure of the journey and glowing with the irrepressible sensual energy of someone who knows how to do everything right. (Daisy Duke, played by Catherine Bach on “The Dukes of Hazzard,” of course set the standard for looking terrific in now-eponymous tiny jean shorts, but I don’t think about her much—I grew up amid enough ambient fondness for the Confederacy that I now prefer to leave anything related behind.) I’ve actually been trying to find a pair of shorts like the ones Villanelle wears in that “Killing Eve” scene—they’re from Paige Denim, or so says the internet. I ordered a couple of pairs, but then I returned them. They were too nice for me; they made me feel like I was trying to look good, which is the opposite of what jean shorts are supposed to do.
‘They made me feel I was trying to look good, the opposite of what jeans shorts should do.’
My preferred pair of jean shorts is so beat-up—so frankly disgusting—that there is no way that anyone could mistake me for a person making an effort, not even of the good, socially requisite, bare-minimum sort. They’re from OneTeaspoon, a brand that specializes in ostentatiously distressed and slouchy denim, which was founded in the Y2K era by a then-21-year-old Australian woman named Jamie Blakey. (“Just get some scissors and sand paper and rip in,” Ms. Blakey told retailer Urban Outfitters when prompted to give denim-customization tips. “The blunter the scissors the better. A big bottle of cheap bleach is always good to have on hand, too.”) OneTeaspoon’s jean shorts make the wearer look like a former Disney starlet having a breakdown in front of the Los Angeles department store Fred Segal, or a 22-year-old throwing away drugs at the airport on her way back home from a music festival. Roughly speaking, this is not an aesthetic that an adult woman should either replicate or aspire to. And yet, when I think about my jean shorts, all other clothing starts to feel like gabardine and chapel—like something you submit to, often because a code requires it, and that you run from as soon as summer sets you free.
I hope, one day, to be able to measure my life out in jean shorts. My elementary-school pair was black, mid-thigh, frayed at the edges. When I was a teenager, my jean shorts were medium-blue, whiskered, and low-rise in that terrifying early-aughts way. Now my most dearly beloved pair is a pale, bleached-out color, and so short that the pockets hang down below the rolled-up hems (I told you they were disgusting!). They’re loose, with a waistband that rides on the middle of my waist as easily and comfortably as you’d drape an arm over a friend’s shoulder. The odd fit—the disturbing combination of tiny and baggy—has prompted multiple friends to call these shorts my “jean diaper.” Last year, my boyfriend started calling them my “diapies,” in an attempt to shame me out of wearing them in public. As he might have predicted, this tactic backfired, and made me want to wear the shorts more. In my attitude toward my jean shorts, I now resemble Tobias Fünke, David Cross’s therapist character on the TV comedy “Arrested Development”—a self-professed “never-nude” who took showers with his booty swathed in cutoff denim. I feel more purely myself in my jean shorts than I could in any other attire (or lack thereof).
I have resigned myself to the fact that, even with my general disregard for sartorial propriety, I won’t be able to wear my current pair of jean shorts forever. But I’ll just get a new pair. And listen, maybe they’ll be even worse.
Jia Tolentino Wants You to Read Children’s Books
“A really good middle-grade novel,” says the New Yorker essayist, whose debut collection is “Trick Mirror,” “will supersede a lot of contemporary fiction in terms of economy, lucidity and grace.”
What books are on your nightstand?
When I like a book, I carry it around everywhere until I finish it, like a subway rat dragging a slice of pizza down the stairs. So usually if a book is living on my nightstand, it’s not my thing. Right now, though, I’ve got a galley of Anna Wiener’s “Uncanny Valley” keeping me company — it’s so deft and stunning that I started rereading chunks of it as soon as I was done.
What’s the last book that really excited you?
“Death’s End,” the final installment of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, in which the narrative and conceptual momentum of the series takes off at a scale and velocity I couldn’t possibly have imagined before reading. The Three-Body trilogy makes insignificance and unknowability and futility seem so spiritually exciting that I felt breathless. I’d join a book club that just discusses it every month for a year.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Rebecca Stead’s “When You Reach Me” won the Newbery Medal, so it’s certainly not unheralded, but everyone tunes me out when I recommend it, since it was written for kids. Their mistake! A really good middle-grade novel — and this book, a “Wrinkle in Time”-esque mystery set on the Upper West Side in the late 1970s, is a phenomenal one — will supersede a lot of contemporary fiction in terms of economy, lucidity and grace.
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What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“Random Family,” by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. It’s so spicy, so riveting, so empathetic and devoted, so alive in the world as it actually is. No shots to Chaucer and “A Separate Peace” and all that, but I think a lot of people might be far more interested in reading (and possibly more interested in other lives in general) if they got to read books like this in high school.
What book would you recommend to people over 40?
“Kids These Days,” by Malcolm Harris. Most writing about millennials has tended to focus on effects rather than causes: After all, it’s easier to make a spectacle of the ways instability manifests itself in young people than it is to really reckon with the fact that capitalism has reached a stage of inexorable acceleration that has broken our country’s institutions and (arguably) my generation’s soul. “Kids These Days,” thankfully, goes straight for the point.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Ocean Vuong, Jenny Odell, Doreen St. Félix, Vinson Cunningham, Bryan Washington, Tommy Orange, Jenny Zhang, Ross Gay, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Emily Nussbaum, Rebecca Traister, Brit Bennett, Caity Weaver, Rachel Aviv, Kathryn Schulz, Pamela Colloff, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Patrick Radden Keefe, Patricia Lockwood, Samantha Irby, Leslie Jamison, Lauren Groff, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Wesley Morris, Meg Wolitzer, Marlon James, Ted Chiang, Eula Biss.
You once described yourself as “an obsessive and catholic reader.” What moves you most in a work of literature?
Bravery and surrender, which can manifest in so many forms.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a purely emotional or purely intellectual reaction to anything, let alone to anything I was reading. Systems and concepts are always inextricable from the way they shape our hearts, and I love books that demonstrate this, like Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” or George Saunders’s “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.”
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From Casey Cep’s “Furious Hours,” that Harper Lee was once neighbors with Daryl Hall and John Oates. What?!
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’ll read almost anything, though I don’t love reading about history and science as much as I love whatever I learn. The only books I actively avoid are the “how X explains all of human civilization” books — the type seemingly written for men who love a counterintuitive idea but find complex thought disturbing — as well as those “how to be a perfectly imperfect goddess who doesn’t give a f**k” books. I don’t like anything with a sales pitch that’s like, “Hey, you’re a woman!” These books feel like dolls of Frida Kahlo dressed as Rosie the Riveter or something, like display objects that chirp the word “badass” when you press their hand.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My boyfriend got me a first edition of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” — one of my favorite books of all time — about seven years ago, and this past year, he gave me a copy of “Eve’s Hollywood” with a note in it for me from Eve Babitz herself. I almost keeled over on the spot.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Turtle Wexler from “The Westing Game” and Undine Spragg from “The Custom of the Country.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I would read while Rollerblading around my neighborhood, read while eating, read in the car, read in the bathtub — my books were stained, swollen, ripped to shreds. I was always just desperate to be constantly reading. I’d memorize the copy on the Herbal Essences bottle in the shower; I read “Gone With the Wind” about 20 times in fourth grade. I remember things from kids’ books much more clearly than I remember anything about my life even a few years ago. I’ve got a mental encyclopedia of useless sensory details: the lavender-and-black bathroom in “Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself,” the tin peddler’s wares in “Farmer Boy,” the meals that Francie Nolan helped her mother make from stale bread.
You’re a digital native, and your publisher describes you as “what Susan Sontag would have been like if she had brain damage from the internet.” Do you find it difficult to tune out distractions and sink into a book?
In part because I am very aware of what the internet is doing to my sense of scale and reason, I spend a good amount of my life seeking out states of being — like reading — that are so consuming and pleasurable that I won’t grab my phone and interrupt. It also helps that for most of my life I’ve read a paper book for an hour or two every night before falling asleep: It was always a way of managing my insomnia, which I’ve had since I was little, and is now a regular reminder of how much more like myself I feel when I’m not shattering my attention to bits.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
There are plenty of beloved books I don’t like at all — the most demographically fine-tuned version of this for me is probably Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick.” But I have a hard time accessing a sense of “supposed to” with pop culture. I read whatever I feel like reading, and if neither the book nor my reaction to it interests me, I put it down without another thought. I’m a big believer, anyway, that reading is like eating: The most fun lies in finding a match for your mood. If I read 20 pages of something people love and I can’t get into it, then I welcome the possibility that a few years from now it could be the perfect thing.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Nearly everything about being alive feels embarrassing, but the enormous gap between what I’d like to have read and what I have actually read does not. As it is, I read a hundred books a year and it doesn’t seem to matter — there will always be so many books I haven’t read yet, and I will always be kind of stupid no matter how much I read. For example, I only recently realized that when people turn 30 they are completing their 30th year of life rather than beginning it. It’s possible that I’d have grasped that basic fact and many others much earlier if my head weren’t so stuffed with so much minutiae about the Shackleton expedition, so many descriptions of light from James Salter short stories, all these invisible psychosocial landscapes from all these books.
What do you plan to read next?
I’ve got to read the Lydia Davis translation of “Madame Bovary.” I’m having physical cravings for it. If I could stop time right now I’d lie down in the grass somewhere and go straight through from beginning to end.
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