Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat, Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Lena Dunham is often praised for candor, a tone of intimate revelation, and her work has an appealing confessional quality that depends on our belief in her native charm.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat, Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

A few pages into her essay collection and modern feminist handbook Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” Lena Dunham presents a list of instantly recognizable Lena-isms. They are statements she says she’s made to possible love interests, such as “Not to sound like a total hippie, but I cured my HPV with acupuncture” and “Sorry if my breath is kind of metallic. It’s my medication. Weird fact: I’m on the highest dose of this stuff on record.” These Lena-isms (blithe, neurotic, clueless, something her Girls character Hannah Horvath might blurt out at a party) are collated under the title, “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously.” The word “unlikely,” and the status of the list as a standalone humor piece, implies that Dunham gets how the lines read, how self-defeating they seem. And yet not only did she say them, but she said them flirtatiously. To attract other humans. (And it worked! Here we are.)

The 28-year-old Dunham is often praised for candor, a tone of intimate revelation, and her work has an appealing confessional quality that depends on our belief in her native charm. But what if what looks like soul-baring (or at least genuine navel-gazing) is really a seduction technique, a quirk offensive? Is Dunham’s entire project, so supposedly “honest” and “real,” in fact a web of “unlikely things … said flirtatiously”?

That is the fear. And Not That Kind of Girl neither dispels nor confirms it. I guess what writer-Lena would like you to believe is that the Lena who volunteered facts about her HPV infection to a romantic prospect thought she sounded suave and risqué. Writer-Lena, intervening with a mature perspective for a new audience (us), appreciates the joke at her past self’s expense (though she still manages to tell us about the HPV), but is more invested in crafting a narrative of experience. From her perch of hard-won wisdom, Dunham can dispense the sisterly help and advice that are the book’s nominal raison d’être: “If I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act,” she writes in the introduction, “then every misstep of mine was worthwhile.”

In appearance and mission statement, the book is winkingly modeled on Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 guide for women, Having It All. The front cover features pink and black lettering in sophisticated mom-font; the back poses Dunham in a silky ’80s get-up underneath blocks of advance praise, including a quote from her father, who alludes tantalizingly to the text’s “not altogether welcome surprises.” But as the essays progress, it becomes clear that Dunham—though she obviously wants it all—has only adopted the how-to framing to silence the inevitable, frustrating criticism that she is too young or privileged to tell her story. “I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you,” she writes, as if in homage to Hannah’s famous line from Girls: “Any mean thing someone’s going to think of to say about me, I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour!” It is a relief when the introduction’s apologetic search for a cultural context (“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed”) veers personal and specific (“When I was nine, I wrote a vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it”). These pieces aren’t really interested in giving you advice. They are about no one but Lena, and they shouldn’t have to be.  

Yet it’s unclear whether the pieces are about Lena, or about “Lena,” your hapless imaginary friend who is also brilliant, astute, and adorable. The book, crisscrossing between Dunham’s summer camp adventures, childhood phobias, and college and post-college humiliations, serves up enough quirky Lena-osity to delight fans and give Gawker an aneurysm. Characters include “a voluptuous, Ren Faire–loving Philadelphian who was the lust object of every LARPer and black-metal aficionado on campus,” “the guy who poured vodka up his butt through a funnel,” an “imp with impossibly well-thought-out hair,” the fling who “kissed me like it was a boring job given to him by his parole officer,” and the boyfriend who edited “the newsletter for a nonprofit that promoted the global language of Esperanto” and mailed Dunham a “tin of brownies with a note that was ironically signed ‘platonic regardz.’ ” These are fun, whimsical details, perfectly crafted and pitched. “I was hungry to be seen,” Dunham writes at one point. Who is she when we’re not looking?

Not That Kind of Girl sets itself up to be revelatory. Dunham invites us to inspect everything we might think of as private: her sexual history (including a wrenching, not-entirely-consensual encounter in college), a week’s worth of calorie diaries, an email to an old boyfriend, the minutiae of her therapy sessions, and the results of a gynecological exam. Getting lost in her recollections is easy; her smart, humane voice is often a joy, like meeting someone you click with at a party. But then again, we already know a great deal (from interviews, films like Tiny Furniture, and Girls) about Dunham’s attitudes toward sex, relationships, food, and her body. The many just-so anecdotes start to feel like deflection, as if she has provided elaborate answers to questions we didn’t ask, while delicately skirting the ones we did. (“Getting naked feels better some days that others,” she writes. “But I do it because my boss tells me to. And my boss is me. When you’re naked it’s nice to be in control.”)

Here’s what I want to hear about from Dunham: What it is like to figure in a thousand various visions of popular culture, to be a fantastically young and successful career-woman, to nurture the ferocious ambition and work ethic that results in a hit TV show, a book, a small canon of indie films, multiple New Yorker essays, and 300-plus New York Times shout-outs, all before the age of 29. I want to read about Dunham’s intense drive to be seen, and yet to be in perfect command of her likeness (rather than about “all the images I took of my own butt purely to educate myself”). I want to understand how she is different from her sister Grace, who “seems to create for her own pleasure and not to make herself known.” I want to know what matters enough to Dunham to be kept hidden.

But the book offers only glimmers: An essay on death mentions “the pressure to do it all before it’s too late … the desire to leave some kind of legacy.” There are fleeting, reverent allusions to Dunham’s “work” and “mission.” She briefly discusses envying and admiring women “whose career arcs excite me,” and expresses her interest in the quasi-autobiographical story of “children of the art world trying (and failing) to match their parents’ successes, unsure of their own passions, but sure they wanted glory.” None of it goes far or deep, perhaps because admitting to and unpacking a thirst for greatness is a lot trickier than explaining you’ve had stupid experiences in bed, or harbor insecurities about your neck. The Lena who fascinates is not the same woman who can affably hand down advice to her readers about their everyday struggles; she is fierce, hyper-functional, and tucked away in the margins.

Of course, Dunham herself might not be sure who she is at any given moment. “I’m an unreliable narrator,” she declares at the beginning of one of her best essays. “My sister claims every memory we ‘share’ has been fabricated by me to impress a crowd.” (Another charming pre-emption of criticism.) Elsewhere, she scours the universe for evidence that she exists: “I wasn’t totally sure I was alive,” she says, describing an anxiety attack on the Girls set. “Between scenes I hid in the bathroom and prayed for the ability to cry, a sure sign I was real.” After a breakup, she remembers lying in bed for days, rubbing her feet together and whispering, “You are real. You are real. You are …” Maybe identity crises flow naturally from living your life inside scare quotes. Or maybe what Dunham is really doing is coming up against the limits of confession, language, and the ability to make yourself known to others. She keeps talking. We are just an epiphany away. If Dunham is trying to seduce us, it is with the promise that we can ever truly dredge up the entirety of our inner lives, articulate it, and be understood. That we can become real in the only way that matters, in Lena-land: in the innumerable gazing eyes of the world.

I’m worried I’ve reviewed this book unfairly so far. Because its author is a force of nature named Lena Dunham, maybe I’ve criticized it for what it’s not, rather than celebrating what it is. The thing is: Not That Kind of Girl contains some lovely essays. (“This is so simple,” she writes in one of them, and the thought resonates now. “I tried so hard to make it complicated.”) I didn’t thrill to Dunham’s supposedly unparalleled candor. I was not mesmerized by her personal life. But it was fun to escape for a while into observant, funny, beautiful writing. Here, then, is Dunham on the boy who temporarily banished her fear of not being real:

I fell back, unsure of where I was or what was happening, knowing only that the part of me that had left had come back, and the reattachment was almost painful, Wendy attempting to sew Peter Pan’s shadow to his body. I was amazed by the fluidity of Devon’s movements, how slick it was when he reached for the condom, reached for me, reached for the light to make it dark.

That’s just plain good prose, and Dunham, a talented 28-year-old woman with a new book out, is a seductive essayist, as good at telling a story on the page as she is on the screen. I mean, what kind of girl did you expect?