So much has been said about this book and its author that I hardly need to add my own sentiments to the mix. But, I will. I love Lena Dunham, I’ll start off with that. When people were freaking out about how big her advance was for this book, sure, I may have been a tiny bit jealous but mostly I was psyched. When women in their twenties get paid a whole bunch of money, it is usually for making pop music or acting in a blockbuster, not for writing books. In fact, giving any literary writer a lot of money to write a book seemed like a victory! (Yes, I said literary. I think this book was pretty literary! Also pop-y and chatty, of course, but smart and complicated).
Not That Kind of Girl is divided into five sections: “Love and Sex,” “Body,” “Friendship,” “Work,” and “Big Picture.” If I’d had to guess before reading the book, I would have guessed that “Friendship” or “Work” would have been the section I was most drawn to, probably followed by “Body.” In fact, “Love and Sex” was the best, I think, followed by “Big Picture.” My least favorite section was “Work.” I think it could have been the most interesting because Lena Dunham’s work life is pretty singular. Many young women have tangles with shitty men, issues with their bodies and eating, barbed friendships and thoughts on camp (both in the conventional and the Sontag usage). Pretty much only Lena Dunham makes a bid-deal feature film and then scores an HBO series by the time she’s twenty-five. But rather than focus too much on her very particular, completely fascinating ascent to major cultural figure, she writes about, for example, the job she had at a kid’s clothing store. She may have been trying to relate to ordinary readers by playing down her extraordinariness, but by calling a section of her book “Work,” she set up the expectation that we’d get to read about her work, not just her jobs.
Back to my favorite section, though. First of all, the Introduction starts out with this: “I am twenty years old and I hate myself. My hair, my face, the curve of my stomach.” From there, she goes on to chronicle a series of misadventures, misjudgments and misbehaviors at Oberlin College, a school very much like, but not actually, the one I attended. When she talked about seeing a cute boy and then realizing he was wearing a long flowing skirt, I wanted to pin a gold star on the book. For an embarrassing chunk of my college career, I had an ill-advised crush on a man who wore a sarong around campus. I related. I certainly can’t say we behaved in entirely parallel ways in college, but I loved seeing the experience through her eyes. It was unglamorous, hilarious, humiliating and true. For someone who went to a different kind of school, her descriptions may seem over-the-top or hard-to-believe, as if she’s exaggerating them for the reader’s benefit, but she’s not. I hope no parents of Oberlin students, or prospective Oberlin students, read this book.
The essay “Igor” deals with a teenaged romance conducted almost entirely on AOL instant messenger–totally amazing. Then, there’s a cringe-worthy real-life email, annotated. Then, the essay “Girls and Jerks,” which contains a scene that is revisited later in the book and depicts what has been dissected in the media as at best a terrible sexual experience and at worst a sexual assault. Here’s how Dunham writes the aftermath, from page 43: “I sat in a shallow bath for half an hour like someone in one of those coming-of-age movies. He didn’t say hi to me on campus the next day, and I didn’t even know if I wanted him to. He graduated in December, and with him so did 86 percent of Oberlin’s Republican population. I channeled my feelings of shame into a short experimental film called Condom in a Tree (a classic!) and determined that the next time I was penetrated it would be a more respectful situation.”
Okay. So in this one short passage, in which she mostly recounts what happened and states facts, she manages to be understated, vulnerable, self-reflective, defiant and strong. And so, so funny!!! She explores a situation that a lot of women have been in but finds a really finely calibrated lens through which to do it, and also expresses what makes her different from other women–she made an experimental film about it, which, knowing Lena Dunham, it was probably pretty good.
There were aspects to the book I questioned, like some of the lists and one or two of the essays, but overall I was so impressed by the quality of the writing, Dunham’s willingness to depict herself in some shockingly unflattering ways (which made her unflattering descriptions of other seem more fair) and her ability to craft essays that are worth reading out of mundane experiences. She is a prime example of the old Flannery O’Conner quote about how anyone who makes it out of childhood has enough material to write about for a lifetime. I guess the same can be said about making it out of Oberlin.