What everyone knows about Lena Dunham is that she’s really young, really famous, and she was given a lot of money to write this book. What everyone wants to know is: is she worth it? Does she deserve all the attention, the loving and hating, and hyping and griping?
Not That Kind of Girl is a tongue-in-cheek self-help memoir touching on timeless issues (sex, fear, death) as well as more contemporary themes (internet boyfriends, being naked on TV, platonic bed-sharing). It traverses the same coming-of-age topography as her TV show Girls but its landmarks are explored in more detail and with a broader emotional range.
Dunham is an excellent writer; her sentences are polished and immediate. She locates the prickles of discomfiture that are a part of growing up and extracts them with skill. And she’s a keen observer. In one scene, at a party, her attention focuses on a girl who is DJing who has “eleven buns in her hair”, before panning past “the girl in a romper”. It’s a time and a place familiar to many of her twentysomething acolytes but, before you groan, rest assured that her stories, in the main, transcend the navel-gazing, self-obsession of the stereotypical Gen Y author.
This is because, at some point during her non-stop career, Dunham has found time to reflect, and it’s this analysis and insight that make the book more than just a collection of witty essays about her sometimes frivolous and often ultra-specific life circumstances. The resulting stories – about her family, her lovers, her friends, her therapists – become maps showing the path Dunham has taken to arrive where she is at.
A few of the chapters feel choppy, comprising static scenes that sometimes work as meditative asides and sometimes don’t. The most powerful chapter is three-quarters in, about men in Hollywood (titled “I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me”). It seethes with pent-up anger, real emotion sputtering out from her carefully controlled prose, and packs such a punch the book could have ended with it.
Worth the attention? For such a compelling voice, the answer has to be yes. Dunham’s most beautiful writing meanders in such a controlled way that her ideas grow into something you weren’t expecting: sadness and humour co-exist alongside one another in cultivated clumps, ordinary moments of vulnerability and loneliness catch on your spokes for a minute, before you continue breezing along. BB
HarperCollins, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 18, 2014 as "Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl".
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