Lena in Love

Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” BY Lena Dunham. Random House. Hardcover, 288 pages. $28.

The cover of Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”

Lena Dunham’s anxiety about success was initially her avenue to it. In 2009, while living in her childhood home, she created the web series Delusional Downtown Divas with two friends she’d known since preschool. The three parodied their fates as “children of the art world,” lying around their parents’ lofts, smoking pot, and preening their personal brands. A diva on the telephone: “Father, it’s AgNess. I have some bargaining to do with you. I will not sell the Frank Stella painting, and in exchange I want Jeffrey Deitch’s phone number. . . . I would like to have his screen name also.” When they call the art dealer, he hangs up. (AgNess, pronounced “Egg-NAZ,” is played by Isabel Halley, whose father is one of the founders of Index Magazine, where the show streamed online.)

If Divas treated Dunham’s failures to get a respectable job or boyfriend, make art, and live in her own apartment after college as a joke, Tiny Furniture took the same failures seriously a year later. The farcical, largely theoretical question driving the web series (How do I get famous in the art world?) was recast in the movie, asked now by someone with an authentic desire to make something and also make something of herself (How do I create art? When can I call myself an artist?). The film implied that a young New Yorker who has access to her mother’s Rolodex and doesn’t have to worry about paying loans on a pricey degree, or paying rent, still has a salient problem: She knows what success looks like. Wanting to do what your parents do is different from wanting to be a rapper. Whiny, directionless Aura worries that emulating the career—let alone the aura—of her artist mother might be impossible. With Tiny Furniture, which Dunham wrote, directed, and starred in, she channeled her fear that she might not make it.

Dunham, who went on to write and direct the TV show Girls, and who has recently released a collection of personal essays, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned, did make it. Only twenty-eight, she has already surpassed her parents in fame and bagged the New York social trifecta: career, co-op, boyfriend. It’s a good moment, in other words, to write a memoir. But is it a good moment to produce literature? Do we care? Dunham is coming from a new, healthy place, and she’d like to tell you all about it. “If I could take what I’ve learned and . . . 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, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile,” she writes in the introduction.

Young Lena spent her twenties cycling through assholes. “I especially like it when a guy starts out rude, explains that it’s a defense mechanism, and then turns even ruder once I get to know him,” she deadpans. The chapters on the terrible men she has dated are delightful—as are (most of) the terrible men themselves. It’s fun to read Dunham on her early exploits with boys. Her pacing is excellent, and the material is self-deprecating by virtue of disappointing plotlines alone; she keeps up her end of the bargain by continually shelling out more. When a boyfriend texts her “I want to fuck you with the air conditioner on,” Lena tries “to inhabit the full sensuality of his words: the cool recycled air on my neck. . . . It took about eleven of these texts for me to realize he was doing some kind of Dadaist performance art at my expense.”

Can we become like Lena if we don’t make these mistakes? We certainly couldn’t stud our own memoirs with gems like this: “I had ill-advised intercourse with a petite poet-mathematician who, afterward, removed the condom, placed it under his pillow, and wiped his penis clean on his own curtains.” But according to her, we shouldn’t want to be like the old Lena; we should want to be like the new Lena! New Lena has a taxonomy for attacking the world. She’s “learned” to tell the difference between the bad boyfriend, the nice but wrong boyfriend, and the good boyfriend; between being disrespected and being respected; between psychosomatic vaginal pain and real vaginal pain; between wanting to make art, getting to make art, and making better art. More or less.

“When I’m playing a character,” she explains, “I am never allowed to explicitly state the takeaway message of the scenes I’m performing—after all, part of the dramatic conflict is that the person I’m portraying doesn’t really know it yet.” Dunham has embraced this memoir—a little too fervently—as an opportunity to put a bow on her past debaucheries. She promises a better life on the other side, after you too put yourself in “jerk recovery.” What will this life look like? At your job, “you’ll realize that you’ve spent the entire day in your body, really in it . . . You are a tool being put to its proper use.” In your apartment, with your lover, “one day you’ll get out of bed to pee, and someone will say, ‘I hate it when you leave,’ and you will want to rush back.”

Joe Shlabotnik/FLICKR
Joe Shlabotnik/FLICKR

Dunham’s fantasies of the good life are a little too deterministic for my taste—but then, she has the right to be deterministic now (if that weren’t already the gift of her privilege); most successful people are. I’m happy she’s happy. I’m only annoyed that I’m expected to be happy too. How, exactly, am I going to find a boyfriend to love me, and time to love myself first, while also enjoying being properly used as a tool in my creative job, where being in my body means noodling on a computer for eight hours? Present-day Lena, who respects herself, waves my doubts away. She offers nuggets of cheery platitudinous advice strikingly at odds with the “character” of her younger self, who fills each chapter, and the occasional listicle, with elliptical, chatty anecdotes, punctuated by tiny drawings of tampons and cupcakes in the place of asterisks.

Not unlike an advice manual about being a woman for twelve-year-old girls, the book is organized as an investigation into “feminine life.” There are five sections: Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work, and Big Picture. (The last could have done without two essays on going to summer camp.) The writing often has the knowing, mawkish flavor of an adolescent manifesto: “You’ve learned a new rule and it’s simple: don’t put yourself in situations you’d like to run away from. But when you run, run back to yourself, like that bunny in Runaway Bunny runs to its mother, but you are the mother, and you’ll see that later and be very, very proud.” The puckishness can be underwhelming, as in the case of newly devirginated Lena checking her bikini line for “exciting ingrown hairs.” (Exciting? Lena was at least nineteen.)

Dunham’s maturity doesn’t always get whipped up into an unrecognizable confectionary treat. At lunch with Isabel and Joana, her longtime best friends, out of college but still unemployed: “‘I can’t find a goddamn fucking job and I’m too fat to be a stripper,’ I said as I polished off a stale croissant.” The tête-à-tête ends with Lena finagling a retail position at the same high-end baby-clothing store her friends work at. Dunham doesn’t shy from talking about class, but neither does she bother addressing it at length. At Oberlin—the college is a character in this book in the way New York City is sometimes the star of movies—a boy dismisses her question about what a bunch of people were doing (probably smoking pot): “Don’t you worry about it, Little Lena from Soho.” She sleeps with him, “obviously.” The comment only briefly gnaws at her. “I didn’t learn anything about life that I hadn’t learned in Soho,” she says.

The statement Lena wants to make is not about class but about women. And it’s made by the voice of present-day Lena, or Lena in Love, as I’ve taken to calling her—the Lena who went on a multistate book tour, the Lena whose boyfriend, the singer Jack Antonoff, sat in the fourth row when she read at an event at a New York Barnes & Noble. This Lena peddles a brand of soft feminism I associate positively with progressive all-girls’ schools, where buoying one’s self-esteem is the most important step in preparing oneself for female adulthood. (Respect for menstruation might be second-most important, and Dunham has a playful, second-wave-style appreciation for the “mystery” of womanhood. “I already look fucking pregnant. Why the hell not?” she says about the prospect of having children. “I can feel them. The babies. . . . They’re doing perfectly normal baby things, and I’m keeping them alive.”) This is the belief that self-esteem will act as blubber while girls search for love in the cold climate of the modern world. “Now, look over at the person beside you,” Dunham implores the reader in a chapter about platonic bed sharing, after listing criteria for whom you should allow to sleep next to you. If he doesn’t meet them, “You’re better off alone.” You should not settle, Lena in Love says. You should wait. And wait. She’s not wrong, but neither is the culture in the habit of telling women that we’re better off alone forever.

I find Dunham’s confidence in the existence of the elusive “good man” in New York soothing—“I was a working woman. I deserved kisses. I deserved to be treated like a piece of meat but also respected for my intellect. And I could afford a cab home”—but selfishly I wish she had not insisted I get a good man myself. She and Antonoff meet cute, of course: “I saw him standing there, yellow cardigan and hunched shoulders, and thought: Look, there is my friend.”

Lena is our friend too. She’s good at it. But she’s that friend in the honeymoon stage who doesn’t remember what it was like to be single.

Kaitlin Phillips is an editorial assistant at Grand Street, which will relaunch in 2015.