In “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” a chapter of her new book Trick Mirror (Grade: B+), The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino says that the con is the “definitive millennial ethos.” She frames a decade in American history, from the 2008 financial crisis to the ill-fated 2017 Fyre Festival, as one that “subtly but permanently changed the character of the nation.” The essay anchors Trick Mirror, casting a critical eye on the commercial mechanisms still defining its 30-year-old author’s generation.
In this deft collection that covers everything from internet addictions to women’s empowerment to reality TV, all roads lead to capitalism. (The best stuff in the book, even so, tends to be more personal and less critical, particularly one gorgeous piece covering psychedelics and religion.) Tolentino writes, for instance, that increasingly ubiquitous (and expensive) athleisure wear “eroticizes capital.” She argues that the internet has built “an ecosystem that runs on exploiting attention and monetizing the self.” By the time, more than halfway into the book, she gets to scamming? You’re left to nod helplessly at her crushing insight into how the con has become core to our identity. “It would be better, of course, to do things morally,” Tolentino writes. “But who these days has the ability or the time?”
An important question, since right beside the scammer is the scammed, buying lies that cut to the heart of the millennial crisis. One such victim, former Vanity Fair photo editor Rachel DeLoache Williams, had befriended Anna Delvey (a.k.a. Anna Sorokin), a broke Russian immigrant who infiltrated New York City’s elite for years by posing as a wealthy German heiress. When Delvey’s grifting scheme imploded last spring — she’s now serving a four- to 12-year prison sentence — public reaction focused with glee on the duped. (Tolentino calls this “the retrospective, vicarious thrill of watching the scammer take people for a ride.”) And so Williams has emerged with a memoir of her own, My Friend Anna (Grade: C+). (HBO has acquired the rights; Shonda Rhimes is adapting a different Delvey chronicle for Netflix.)
I’m embarrassed to say how much I enjoyed it. The book is hollow and calculated, but carries a glittery, sinister appeal — The Bold Type by way of YOU, a dizzying New York fantasy that morphs into a nightmare. The story goes like this: Anna befriends Rachel; “pays” for highly overpriced meals, workouts, and spa visits; then sticks her with over $50,000 in debt after a vacation to Marrakesh. Anna had vowed to cover their trip; in the ensuing months, she promises she’ll pay Rachel back, only to fling around excuses like she used to fling cash.
Williams writes to gain sympathy, recalling anxiety attacks and a fear of losing her job. But she’s bizarrely neutral about the gaudy lifestyle Anna had shown off. Anna comes off like an assortment of ugly clichés — a Trick Mirror cutout. She’s obsessed with Instagram and its influencers. She lures Rachel into a near-daily “fitness routine,” complete with (of course!) pricey athleisure. She pitches an “art foundation” so ludicrous in scope, it’s beyond anything even the frauds behind Fyre would try. So how did Rachel fall for it? “I guess part of me aspired to be more like her.” Dear God, we’re in trouble.