The New Yorker ran an excerpt of Lena Dunham’s new memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, today and while it’s hard enough to accept a hypochondriac nine-year-old as a reliable narrator, it’s even harder when Dunham doesn’t give you enough information to work with.
Little Lena exists in a constant state of fear — fear of homeless people, fear of typhoid, fear of ineffective protective seals — so she’s put in the care of a string of therapists, one of whom learns her wish is to have a river where she can be alone. Let’s ride down the river of little Lena’s other troubles: she is convinced she has leukemia because she’s dizzy after getting up too fast, she forces herself to imagine her parents having sex in order to stop thinking about sex in general, and she’s getting shrinked to death by Manhattan’s best. But instead of delving deeply into what her struggle actually felt like, Lena gives you a sightseeing tour, acting out her pain with Barbies, distracting you with quirky details like a school nurse’s penchant for holiday sweaters and the prosciutto-themed Bat Mitzvah her therapist threw her.
None of this is ever laugh-out-loud funny, and while it’s obvious Dunham doesn’t intend it to be, the excerpt has about as much self-awareness as you’d expect from a kid. We never see Dunham as she claims herself to be: anxious, sleepless, longing to get better. We get her filtered through doctor’s visits and prescriptions. She just rattles off her problems (when her therapist didn’t like her belly button ring, how much she missed her childhood loft) which is not enough to make herself a character. She won’t go into her “gluttony” as she calls it. Why not take us through a late night when you tried bury your anxiety in a fourth bowl of cereal?
Perhaps we were expecting too much, the kind of honest and intimate writing one finds in David Sedaris‘ Naked or Abby Sher‘s Amen Amen Amen. Unfortunately Dunham’s book contains the kind of OCD Lite that YA readers would dismiss in one eye roll. But that isn’t to say that Dunham doesn’t have her moments. Take this top-notch nugget of prose:
Then there is the autumn day I come in to find her with a shiny black eye. Before I can even register my shock, she points to it and laughs: “A bit of a gardening accident.” I believe her. Margaret would never let anyone hit her. She would never let anyone wear shoes indoors. She would always protect herself, her floors, her flowers.
But this voice of our generation, the Dunham that we know and love, only appears when she’s investigating and fictionalizing the lives of other people. She’s fascinated by the bruises of strangers: she happily presents Audrey Gelman’s nose job and her freakout, her mother’s Ambien, her therapist skinny black eye, but she doesn’t bleed for you. And it’s not enough to wait for her get around to it.
You engage with her crisis only superficially here:
My mother and I are in the worst fight we’ve ever had, one that tests the concept of unconditional love, not to mention basic human decency. And the thing is, no one is right, exactly. We both followed our hearts and had no choice but to hurt each other deeply. It’s hard to believe in unconditional love, following your hearts, and hurt deeply.
What fight? What was it even about? She never says. You keep waiting for her to stop glossing over the youth of her discontent ant actually bare it all like she does routinely as Hannah Horvath, but she doesn’t. On Girls, Marnie might get away with placing herself at an emotional distance but in a memoir, that just doesn’t cut it. Words like “unconditional love,” “deeply hurt,” and “hearts” should be forbidden for writers, especially when they don’t show you any of this. Based on this excerpt, Dunham’s memoir is too low-risk to trust her, even though homegirl can wear the shit out of some shorteralls. Her adult life is fascinating. Hopefully there’s something there. But any attraction to her writing will be lost on people who don’t need a spiritual sister to indulge their inner drama queen. It’s mostly Cool Whip.