Dunham, Reviewed

Reviews are in for Lena Dunham’s new essay collection. Helen Lewis focuses on Dunham herself, and her advantaged upbringing:

DunhamDunham’s first appearance in print came in 1998, when Vogue story on New York tweens quoted her thoughts about big-name fashion designers“I really like Jil Sander, but it’s so expensive”and her attempts to re-create them on a $5-a-week allowance. She was 11.

Within five years, she was already on her second appearance in the New York Times, after a reporter was despatched to a vegan dinner party she gave for her private-school friends. “A crunchy menu for a youthful crowd”, records the headline. The 16-year-old Lena found that “meat was easy to give up, cheese, almost impossible.” But: “One year into a totally vegan diet, she has become a soy connoisseur.”

Not exactly the kind of up-bringing I had. I was munching on liver and bacon and mash and gravy at that point – and loving it. Lewis does eventually get to the book itself:

This book is emphatically not a feminist polemic. There is one chapter where she imagines the memoir she’ll write at 80, in which she will name the names of all the creepy male directors who have propositioned her, and one letter (in a collection of “emails I would send if I were one ounce crazier/angrier/braver”) that smacks of real, rather than posturing anger, at having her feminism derided. But everywhere else, perhaps from a desire to separate art from activism, the focus is relentlessly inward. (Her sister, Grace, is arranging for representatives of Planned Parenthood to campaign at events on Lena’s book tour; the book does not mention abortion.)

She writes in the book: “When I am playing a character, I am never allowed to explicitly state the takeaway message of the scenes I’m performingafter all, part of the dramatic conflict is that the person I’m portraying doesn’t really know it yet.” The same applies to most of the book: Her whole life is a performance art piece where she plays a noxious brat with great skill, and poses herself, either eerily like one of her mother’s dolls, or sexually, like her father’s nudes. And as the carapace of fame around her has expanded, she has shrunk within it, leaving only gnomic statements about granola and blowjobs. Reading this book, you realize that Lena Dunham has been playing “Lena Dunham” for a long time. She is not real.

Michiko Kakutani, for her part, refuses to conflate Dunham with her “Girls” protagonist:

In fact, the differences between Ms. Dunham and Hannah help fuel this book. A young woman in search of a comic road map to love and sex and work and “having it all” would hardly benefit from consulting the self-sabotaging Hannah (or, for that matter, Marnie, Jessa or Shoshanna) for advice. But the author of this memoir — that’s another matter. Ms. Dunham doesn’t presume to be “the voice of my generation” or even “a voice of a generation,” as Hannah does in the show. Instead, by simply telling her own story in all its specificity and sometimes embarrassing detail, she has written a book that’s as acute and heartfelt as it is funny.

Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs agrees that Dunham isn’t Hannah, but not about the quality of the book:

What surprised me most about Ms. Dunham’s memoir is that one of the funniest voices of my generation has written a book that isn’t very funny. …

One suspects that Ms. Dunham did not quite know what she wanted this book to be. It reads like a memoir, divided by sections titled “Love and Sex,” “Body,” “Friendship,” “Work” and “Big Picture,” but it is packaged like a self-help book, something of a nostalgic tribute to Helen Gurley Brown’s “Having It All” (1982), the Cosmopolitan editor’s “passionate program” for “women who won’t settle for less than the best.” Ms. Dunham harbors a respect for Gurley Brown, she reports, despite what she calls the latter’s “demented theories” on attracting men, family planning and crash dieting, “which jibe not even a little bit with my distinctly feminist upbringing.” Herself “a girl with a keen interest in having it all,” Ms. Dunham says she feels obliged to pitch in with “hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.”

Laura Miller shares her views:

“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 doesmatters more to her than anything she can merely be, which is millennia of traditional femininity turned on its head, granny panties showing, right there.