What Lena Dunham's "learned": Her entertaining, frustrating literary debut

The "Girls" creator is a major talent -- but this book is missing a central part of what makes her show so good

Published September 28, 2014 10:00PM (EDT)

Lena Dunham                        (AP/Evan Agostini)
Lena Dunham (AP/Evan Agostini)

It may be possible to write about the work of filmmaker, actress and writer Lena Dunham without first clearing away a whole lot of cultural underbrush, but I'm not brave enough to try it myself. Dunham, who has just published her first book, "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'" made her first feature film, "Tiny Furniture," at age 24, winning the Best Narrative Feature at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. She got her own HBO series, "Girls," two years later. "Girls," a depiction of four female friends in their 20s living in contemporary New York, has launched a zillion think pieces and went on to win two Golden Globes and a fistful of Emmy nominations.

This bothers many, many people and any discussion of Dunham and her work -- it's difficult to disentangle the two -- tends to draw fire. People are entitled not to like "Girls," of course, but the reasons offered too often involve Dunham's upbringing, which is, frankly, irrelevant. Dunham's parents are both artists, but they (Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons) aren't exactly household names or media power brokers. Unlike, say, Tori Spelling, Dunham does not owe her entire career to parental influence. It may or may not nurture a young artist's temperament to grow up in an artistic household (reports on that vary), but in Dunham's case it has clearly been a plus. She's lucky, and that's not fair, but then neither is the distribution of talent itself.

Another complaint is that "Girls" itself concerns a privileged slice of New York City life: young white women whose parents are well-off enough to at least partially fund a few aimless years of identity questing in the big city. This is true; however, the people who make this objection don't seem to be strictly limiting their own cultural consumption to films and television about, say, migrant farmworkers, inner-city youth and the disenfranchised Iron-Belt proletariat. It's a problem that TV as a whole doesn't feature more working-class characters and characters of color, but Dunham, an autobiographical artist, is not the person I'd pick to create any of that. Similar objections could be made to "Mad Men," "The Good Wife," "House of Cards," "Game of Thrones" and any number of other acclaimed series, and every so often they are. Yet "Girls," more than any other show, has from the start been saddled with the impossible task of representing young American womanhood in the 2010s.

Some of that can be blamed on journalists and critics covering the show, but Dunham feeds it as well. The very title of "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'" sends a mixed message. The suggestion that Dunham's authority is demographically rooted in her identity as a young woman is lampooned by the scare quotes around the idea that she has wisdom to impart. The author photo on the back of the book shows Dunham in a parody of an '80s power dress, complete with a bow at the throat. She writes that her inspiration was Helen Gurley Brown's 1982 self-help book, "Having It All: Love, Sex, Success, Money, Even if You're Starting With Nothing," bought during a thrift store run in college, at a time when she and her friends "want to look like characters on the sitcoms of our youth, the teenagers we admired when we were still kids." Brown's advice may be "bananas," but Dunham likes her for preaching radical self-invention and using her own humble past as fodder.

But where Brown remade herself -- by dint of sheer will and self-denial -- from a poor, gawky Arkansas teen into a glamorous magazine publisher (an amazing story, by the way), Dunham has succeeded in large part by defiantly flaunting the sort of qualities Brown diligently sought to erase. She's got OCD and chronic anxiety; is self-absorbed, a hypochondriac and a compulsive eater; has had a string of demoralizing relationships with men and thinks about death a lot. "Not That Kind of Girl" is full of bad sex, alienated friends and nervous breakdowns. It does not tell you how to get a series on HBO.

A truer influence on Dunham, though I'm not the first to compare them, is Woody Allen. They share that volatile fusion of grandiosity and self-deprecation, and Dunham's comic timing (you can practically hear Hannah speaking many of the lines in "Not That Kind of Girl") is a looser version of Allen's obsessive hypermentation, with the cultural references duly updated: "This relationship culminated in the worst trip to Los Angeles ever seen outside a David Lynch film." Both juice their jokes with the overarching humor of a comic persona who confesses compulsively and whose neuroses become perversely endearing.

Allen, however, honed his shtick as a stand-up comic, and his books are, if anything, less autobiographical than his films. The essays and stories in "Without Feathers," "Side Effects" and other Allen collections are clockwork devices exquisitely calibrated to produce laughter. "Not That Kind of Girl," by contrast, galumphs all over the place, an often uneasy mixture of pathos (Dunham broods over a drunken college sexual encounter that was at least partly nonconsensual) and tedium (several pages of her food diary). Some of its chapters, such as the one on death, are finely crafted and powerfully sincere to a degree that Allen never achieved. Others are simultaneously so vague and so peculiar to Dunham's own experience that they're essentially meaningless, such as a chapter on "Sunshine Stealers." These are older Hollywood men who pretend to mentor young women while actually undermining them -- or at least that's what I think they are. It's not really clear.

To a fan of both "Tiny Furniture" and "Girls," this is disappointing, but perhaps it's not that surprising. The shagginess of "Girls," the way it wanders into oddball digressions, opens it up to Dunham's collaborators. Some of her own experiences have been given to Hannah, but others, such as a job in a high-end children's clothing boutique, are passed to the other three women, who handle them differently. There are figures like Ray to offer a skeptical counterpoint to the four friends' blinkered preoccupation with constructing their own identities. The series is an environment in which characters bloom, whereas "Not That Kind of Girl" is a book in which stories peter out. The advice theme wanders off and gets lost in the long grass. There is a strong chapter on Dunham's relationship to her younger sister, followed by a pointless and predictable list of things she likes about New York. Some passages are general when they need to be specific and others are close-ups when they need to pan out to take in a bigger picture.

Contrary to what some critics might assert, self-absorption per se isn't a deal-breaker in a writer. It has worked for everyone from Saint Augustine to Anne Sexton. But it requires a particular form of discipline, an ability to distinguish signal from noise that Dunham has yet to achieve on her own. I'm not sure I want her to, at least not yet, because while she lacks Allen's precision, she exceeds him in courage and vulnerability by miles. The most fascinating bits of "Not That Kind of Girl" are the handful that describe Dunham's approach to her work, the revolutionary, liberating way she has used her own naked body (not to mention her naked psyche) as "simply a tool to tell the story." What she does matters more to her than anything she can merely be, which is millennia of traditional femininity turned on its head, granny panties showing, right there.

Nothing in "Not That Kind of Girl" -- with its anecdotes of social gaffes, emotional neediness and demoralizing relationships, the psychological equivalent of Bridget Jones' pratfalls -- will tell you how Dunham acquired this superpower. She probably doesn't know yet herself. At 28, she's still in the process of exploring the terrain. This book will surely comfort and amuse many of her admirers. But it won't be until she's found her way to higher ground, someplace where she can take in a broader view, that she'll have learned enough to really teach the rest of us a thing or two.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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