By Lena Dunham
Random House. 265 pp. $28
Halfway through her new book, “Not that Kind of Girl,” Lena Dunham says, “I live in a world that is almost compulsively free of secrets.”
You might already have imagined that to be true if you’ve seen the television show “Girls,” which she created and stars in. Among the things that aren’t secret: what she looks like naked.
Dunham makes public so much about herself that most people would never share with strangers. It gives the illusion of a complete reveal. But what’s most interesting about this collection of personal essays is how carefully constructed her revelations are and what she manages to keep to herself, especially on the subject of her own fame and ambition.
She tells-almost-all in the service of explaining to other women what she’s learned — that’s the subtitle: “A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’ ” — so that their menial jobs might be easier or their heartbreaks less debilitating.
The book takes an advice tone in moments and then seems to forget that there was advice to dispense. It has an empowerment undercurrent, and I will admit to being a teensy bit empowered — empowered to talk briefly about myself, anyway. Like Dunham, I am a woman who was born in the 1980s who had a semi-miserable time at summer camp, and, as a stand-up comic, I, also, tell strangers embarrassing, personal stories.
It’s a risk. Sometimes, the audience will emit the worst sound a group of people in a dimly lit bar can make, worse than total silence or a drunk man yelling, “Say something funny!” It’s an “awww,” an audible expression of pity. And that is not the point.
The point is the alchemy of sharing: transforming the unwieldiness of being alive into something manageable by saying it out loud.
The point, in my experience, is to say, hey, something unpleasant has happened — the entirety of seventh grade, or persistent struggles with weight, or a colleague casually saying that my dating life and my mother’s disappointment therein sounds “just like a Cathy cartoon” (officially the meanest comic strip it is possible to compare someone’s life to) — but here I am anyway, talking about it.
There’s a lot of power in retelling your mistakes so people can see what’s funny about them — and so that you are in control. Dunham knows about this power, and she has harnessed it. She likely learned from one of the best.
In 1996, Nora Ephron told the graduating Wellesley class, “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Dunham’s book includes a dedication to Ephron, and when Ephron died in 2012, Dunham wrote a loving reflection on their friendship for the New Yorker.
There are echoes of Ephron’s essayistic style here, too — details that capture how it feels to be alive as a woman, a general relatability even amid the specificity of extreme privilege. After reportedly receiving more than a $3.5 million advance for this book, it’s a safe bet that Dunham is well-versed in this heroine vs. victim business.
The book is funny, even though it catalogues a lot that is not funny at all, including struggles with anxiety and a sexual experience that, in her final analysis, was not consensual. It comes wrapped in a pretty good joke, too. Her father, the painter Carroll Dunham, gives one of the back jacket’s glowing blurbs. Dunham seems to be saying: Look, yes, here’s my dad blurbing my own book; I have had one of the most supportive artistic launching pads it is possible to have. (Her mother is the photographer Laurie Simmons.)
I wondered if Dunham might use this essay collection to address the main criticism of her TV show, which is that the chronicle of the lives of four young women in New York reflects much too narrow a sliver of the world. But she doesn’t, so the oblique references stand out even more.
In one essay, Dunham describes returning to give a talk at Oberlin, her alma mater, where she is asked by a student: “How does it feel to be a line item in so many people’s narratives of privilege and oppression?” Well, now that you bring it up again, how does it feel? She doesn’t say.
She jokes about going to summer camp and broadening her horizons by “meeting other, slightly different kinds of white girls!” In writing about her centenarian great-aunt, she mentions the woman’s memoir, which included stories about a one-room schoolhouse and her “lone black friend,” as though such demographic homogeneity were a relic, and not, in fact, essentially reflected in Dunham’s 21st-century television program.
Dunham tells her readers so much that it seems silly to hope for more. But because this very inviting voice has spilled intimacies on every page, I want her to keep talking.
Just about something different, perhaps even more personal.
She does get very personal, of course: She describes filming sex scenes that end with the discovery, seven hours after arriving home, of a lubricated prop condom in an anatomical location where one would not want to make an unexpected discovery; she details a painful gynecological exam that led to a diagnosis of endometriosis; she even shares her first AOL screen name.
But by the end of the book, it seemed that the most intimate thing Dunham could actually talk about is her own ambition. While her relatable humanity is delightful, the reason people will read this book is not because she is every woman, but because she is a famous woman, a woman made famous by putting a fictional version of her life on premium cable.
The most interesting essay is “Little Leather Gloves,” in which she talks about folding expensive baby leggings at a Tribeca clothing store and creating, with two friends, a Web series that led to broader attention for her work. “Ambition is a funny thing,” she writes of that time in her life. “It creeps in when you least expect it and keeps you moving, even when you think you want to stay put.”
Dunham earlier describes an intense evening with a playwright, a peer, and how they talked about the specifics of craft, which was different from other conversations she had with people her own age where they never talked about “anything beyond ambition” — as though the drive toward artistic domination is just another thing 20-somethings tend to gab about.
One of the most telling lines is in a description of her sister, who likes to “create for her own pleasure and not to make herself known.” Dunham, it is very clear, has always wanted to make herself known. But she doesn’t explore that hunger for fame and attention or her working assumption, maybe drawn from her parents and their colleagues, that hers would be a public life. It is stated as fact, background noise.
How novel it would be to read Lena Dunham’s thoughts on the idea of failure: What would it have felt like to plod through every day confident that greater glory exists elsewhere? What if she had to settle for anonymity? What if all that ambition hadn’t led to success at a young age, her own show on HBO at 25?
The closest answer to those questions may be the struggling writer she plays on “Girls,” which isn’t really an answer at all.
But this is a memoir, a collection of thematically linked true essays. So Golden Globe Award winner Dunham doesn’t have to talk about failure. That’s not what happened to her, so that’s not the kind of book she wrote.
Dry is a features editor for The Washington Post’s Style section.