What I Learned By Reading The Things That She Has Learnt: A Review Of ‘Not That Kind Of Girl’ By Lena Dunham

November 27, 2014 3:58 pm

Commenting on anything Lena Dunham does is a tricky proposition – she’s the critical community’s princess as well as its piñata; everything she says is analysed for its feminist credentials and she is dissected on internet chartrooms with a fervour that is usually only reserved for the devil herself, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Her HBO show ‘Girls’ is treated as if it’s the modern woman’s manifesto as well as its damnation – both a desperate reflection on the young adult experience and a joyful one. She couldn’t ever live the unexamined life, even if she wanted to – which is doubtful considering her willingness to put her experiences under the microscope – because we are all busy examining it for her. So when the news broke that Dunham had received a three million dollar advance for her first collection of essays, Not That Kind Of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”, there was a pretty heady mix of anticipation and outrage. You could almost feel the literary world’s collective intake of breath – would she be able to pull it off and reach the heights of the great essayists? Would the book world’s new wunderkind be worth the investment?

not that kind of girl

Happily, Dunham writes as if she was born to engage in the essay form; like Sedaris, Rakoff and Didion she has a way of making you feel nostalgic for a time that you never lived through, for a life that never belonged to you. So that reading about the author’s life somehow shines a spotlight on your own. One of the great tricks of pulling this act off is making the very personal feel universal, and Dunham manages this delicate task quite a few times in Not That Kind Of Girl. It’s not perfect, but Dunham has a way of making that imperfection an intrinsic part of her authorial voice -she lets you into to her past and churns up things that are revealing about an era, a mental state and a communal emotional landscape. It’s a considered, moving and humane début.

The book opens with Dunham discovering Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All – an advice book for women from the one time editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. She chaffs against some of the advice, just Google the words ‘Helen Gurley Brown’ and ‘diet’ and you’ll see why, but devours it – and then uses it to structure her own book. It feels like a liberal reworking of a manual that no longer has any value – a sort of conversation with female advice books of the past. Not That Kind Of Girl picks at the seams of books that tell women how they should behave and what they have the right to expect for themselves and takes up the task of crafting something perhaps kinder and more lenient. It’s usually successful, but maybe not as subversive as it believes itself to be (it’s difficult to write about lessons you’ve learnt without, you know, telling people what you’ve learned), sometimes becoming what it wants to be interrogate.

This story-advice structure gives the essays a through-line which keeps things together, even if it does constrain some of Dunham’s more bizarre (and fascinating) tangents. The advice format also has the unfortunate consequence of making some of the essays feel rushed and unplanned – as if the ‘lessons’ were an afterthought after the natural conclusion of each story. However, it also lends the book its most moving passages, like the conclusion to Platonic Bed Sharing, A Great Idea (For People Who Hate Themselves) which becomes an affecting call-to-arms for people to respect their beds and by extension themselves. This chapter also includes the book’s most groan worthy sentence ‘I was moved by his entire being’ – but it really comes to a lovely denouement, so it’s completely worth it. These moments; where Dunham turns her often upsetting stories into advice that feels necessary, rather than tacked on, hit home hard, daring you to criticize her wit and wisdom.

She consistently comes across as a smart and thoughtful writer and almost all of the essays have interesting things to say about growing up, relationships, body image, self-esteem and technology. The chapter Igor, My Internet Boyfriend Died and So Can Yours seems especially well positioned to talk to the generation of people who remember computers invading their home for the first time. It’s horrific and sweet and tinged with a melancholy that, crucially, never seems at odds with the humorous tone. This tight rope walk is achieved through Dunham’s fearsome honesty and her, sometimes, uncomfortable confessions. When she writes ‘I know my tights were balled up and placed in my mouth’ whilst having aggressive sex with someone whose sex talk is ‘impressive in its narrative intricacy, and horrifying in its predilections’ it feels shocking and tense; shot through with the expert pacing of a thriller writer. But there is more going on that tension, this essay in particular is keenly interested in how self-esteem interacts with a person’s interior and exterior life; how it can empower one facet of a person’s personality and abandon others. It can be quite discomforting stuff.

However, just when the reader feels voyeuristic; like they’re getting a glimpse at something that isn’t meant for them, she flips the switch with a joke or a beautifully crafted sentence like ‘the end never comes when you think it will. It’s always ten steps past the worst moment, then a weird turn to the left.’ One of the things that seems to frustrate Dunham detractors is how much value she places in her own life – the reverence with which she treats her own opinions. This criticism is faced head-on in the opening few passages and gives the book a lot of its visceral power. She cares about her story and that emboldens her to make you care too. When she discusses the more surprising aspects of her life; her childhood experiences with mental illness, sexual fascinations, damaging relationships they have a weight to them that would not exist if she didn’t treat herself seriously.

Here, feelings are treated with a respect that is alien to some of the more ironic and cool essayists of the moment – which makes some of the book’s whimsical moments feel a little flat. The list Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously is one of the few times when the book’s expert mix of sad and funny is off kilter and is the sort of thing the more outlandishly humorous Mindy Kaling did better in her essay collection Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me. Dunham has some gonzo one liners – when she writes about losing her virginity she says ‘he was nervous and in a nod to gender equality, neither of us came’ – but she is funnier when her voice is sincere rather than explicitly jokey. When the essays are chasing the patter of setup-punchline, or trying to adopt a kind of twitter-like immediacy it damages the flow of things – but truthfully these interludes are relatively few and far between.

As someone whose body has produced more discussions and hand-wringing than seems conceivable (her Vogue cover was treated like some kind of referendum on the female body) – Dunham is well positioned to say insightful and nifty things about esteem, physicality and the media’s body obsessions. On these issues she is pointed and frequently fantastic; having her say succinctly and crispy ‘this was the time in life before I learnt it wasn’t considered appropriate by society at large to like yourself.’ What’s especially winning is that these snippets don’t feel bitter or vitriolic. Sometimes the prose are a little defensive, as if she is defending herself from the most critical readers out there – but largely she is refreshing and specific when it comes to discussions of the body, even funny a lot of the time.

Ultimately, Lena Dunham isn’t the literati’s Jesus and Not That Kind Of Girl isn’t its new bible. However, it is a shocking, encouraging, mildly inspiring and winsome book that contains some profound pearl of wisdom – even if those pearl were first pulled from the sea a while ago ‘you’ve learned a new rule, and it’s simple; don’t put yourself in situations you’d like to run away from.’ The best review of the book that I have read so far is one of amazon titled An Odd Girl With A Large Vocabulary. It’s hard to disagree with that – I have a feeling Dunham would brandish that description like a medal. She may be an odd girl and she’s created an odd book – and ushered in a new, bold, skewed voice to the world of creative non-fiction.

 

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