Late in the night, I sometimes click on New Post and unravel two-to-three hundred words of some memory I have: bushwalking with shoes full of leeches, the vinyl couches in my childhood doctor’s waiting room, buying clay from the little studio down the road. I love these stories. I write and reminisce and smile and cry and laugh. Here are my stories. Here is my patchwork quilt of life.
Somewhere during the writing process, I realise that I’m the only person who will care about it. No one else can relate to the memory. No one else will have an emotional response to catching two buses to visit my boyfriend, or to eating bain-marie noodles in a dirty food court. So I save the draft and never look at it again.
I think there is a certain skill in recognising what doesn’t need to be said. Obviously, I am not brimming with it, but Lena Dunham’s new book is a study in How Not To Know. In many ways, she’s produced a collection of essays that speak precisely to our culture of narcissism and boggling self-centricity. Long-form blogging.
I was excited to read this book. Not because I am a raucous fan of Girls (though I liked it), and not because I am acutely keen on Dunham herself (though I think she is interesting), but because here is a young feminist with a global platform and a waiting audience, and what is she going to say?
Well, not much.
As often happens with bits of art that fall short, the best part of this book was in the trailer/excerpted on The New Yorker. Being a formerly anxious child and currently anxious adult, I felt an acute camaraderie with Dunham. Yes! I thought. A book about what it’s really like to be human!
“When I was nine,” the first chapter (Take My Virginity (No Really, Take it)) begins, “I wrote a vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it.” Yes! I continued to think. This is going to be a book about evolving, growing, becoming a woman! I thought about the times I had been rejected by boys who weren’t remotely good enough for me, about having my first period, about learning about my body. I thought about being raised by a ferocious career woman, about having a father who champions gender equality, about what it means to prefer boy cats over girl cats.
Some of the writing is excellent. I will help you to find it: Little Leather Gloves: The Joy of Wasting Time (p. 177); I Didn’t Fuck Them, But They Yelled at Me (p. 197); Therapy & Me (p. 205, or in the link above).
Unfortunately, it just doesn’t hide the lack of content. And there is some serious filler in this book. Lesser success comes in the form of a long chapter detailing her daily calorific intake, a tedious in-joke in the form of emails she’ll never send. She writes about hating her body in “Diet” Is a Four-Letter Word: How to Remain 10 Lbs. Overweight Eating Only Health Food, but never manages to connect it to the larger societal issue. In Girl Crush: That Time I Was Almost a Lesbian, Then Vomited, she misses a great opportunity to reflect on the truths of female friendship. Some of the essays read as jumbles of electronic pulses — fleeting grabs of stuff that’s entered her brain and exited via her keyboard. Random collections of thoughts. Blog entries.
Fortunately, it goes on for so long that by the end, you have almost forgotten the Things Others Might Never Share About Thinking Of Your Baby Sister In A Sexual Way. I’m liberated. I’ve seen pornography. I’ve had sex on a train or whatever. But I shifted uncomfortably in the way I occasionally did during Girls, when the “realness” moved into “stuff that other people don’t actually ever do or think about”.
By the tenth rehash of A Time Lena’s Love Was Unrequited, it becomes obvious that what’s missing is not writing skill or even storytelling nous, but worthy experiences. Experiences that can actually speak to Dunham’s feminist beliefs, and experiences that can be related in such a way as to impart some wisdom on young women (or older women) seeking some feminist insight. There just aren’t any. I learned that she loved guys who were no good for her, that she was rarely challenged artistically, that she both loved and fought with her parents. I learned that she had trouble making friends, that she went to college, that her sister is gay. And I got a minute inkling of the difficulties she experienced with mental health. Besides which, many of the more interesting memories are actually borrowed. Chapters detailing Dunham’s girlhood camp experiences are given context from her mother’s camp experiences. These are her mother’s memories, her father’s life advice.
So I will say it, in these words: Lena Dunham has not had enough life experience to write a memoir.
If this book had happened even ten years from now, it might have had the chance to be something remarkable. Or, had it been titled Stuff That Happened To Me Once, it might have been forgivable. But not only does Dunham fail to communicate anything “she’s ‘learned'” (as the subtitle promises) — about being a girl, or about feminism, or love or womanhood or life — she actually doesn’t say much of anything at all.