My editor assigns me Lena Dunham's new collection of essays, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned' and I immediately see how it'll play out. My assistant and Dunham's publicist will set up a time that suits us both, then Dunham will curl up on an oversized sofa wearing such and such and looking adjective and really adjective. I will add my voice to the clamour about nudity on her TV show and isn't she brave because she's not conventionally, um, you know, and oh, what about women in film statistics and isn't your boyfriend in a band?
Naturally, none of this happens. How could it? For one thing, I don’t have an assistant. I don’t even have a coat. Also, Dunham said no to the interview. Well, her publicity people said no. Well actually, nobody said no. Countless requests from me via various mediums (electronic, paper, psychic) were left hanging. I phoned my editor and explained how I needed to do “a reach-around on the Dunham piece”. Then she explained I meant “a write-around”. Semantics.
Wait, do you even know what I'm on about? I live in Brooklyn, where everyone is gabbing about Lena Dunham, but in Cobh, my dad had never heard of her. Initially he thinks I am writing about Liam Dennings, a forklift driver pal of his. I explain that Liam's work has not yet garnered anywhere near the attention that Lena's has. She wrote and directed the independent film Tiny Furniture and is the creator, writer and star of the HBO show Girls, now in it's fourth series and a winner of lots of awards. I tell him that Dunham is only 28 and already a culturally significant figure, unlike poor old Liam, who turns 57 in April and is known primarily for saying the F-word on air when 96FM cash-call rang him and he guessed the wrong number.
I go to a reading in the Brooklyn Academy of Music and sit beside a 22-year-old lipsticked girl called Katy who has already read the book. She loves it because she "relates to it in the best ways and the worst ways". Also, it makes her laugh out loud on the subway. Katy has heard a rumour that Jemima Kirke, Jessa on Girls, might make an appearance tonight, and sighs, "If she shows up, I will die". Kirke is listed on the official programme, but I don't ruin the surprise. Instead, when I spot her walking in, I lean in and whisper "get ready to die". Katy is startled and drops her phone.
Dunham is charm itself as she reads about her sister Grace, a child too self- contained to need her sisterly cuddles. “As she grew, I took to bribing her for her time and affection. One dollar in quarters if I could do her make-up like a ‘motorcycle chick’. Three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Whatever she wanted to watch on TV if she would just ‘relax on me’.”
The writing is evocative, the voice distinct, funny and absorbing. As a teenager, Grace comes out as gay to Lena, who lives in a world almost completely free of secrets and cannot stop herself from telling their mother. Moments in the sisters’ relationship are dilated to illuminate some greater truths about the essentially unknowable nature of another person: cracking stuff. I get my paws on a copy and begin to read it on the subway home, laughing aloud, just as Katy has said I would.
A film-maker’s eye for detail is a gift to the reader: a peach power suit with subtle coffee stains, leggings with chains running down the side, a pair of boots made for somebody with legs of different lengths.
Dunham's thoughts on PMS and endometriosis and that hottest of hot potatoes, fertility, are explored in Who Moved my Uterus? It's a sharply funny piece, truthful and sad, reminiscent of her friend Nora Ephron, to whom this book is dedicated. It's akin also to In Bed, Joan Didion's essay on migraine: the essay provides a window of understanding for those who do not suffer from that particular affliction and a blessed door to walk through for those who do.
Dunham's account of anxiety, which has followed me through my life like a bad friend, will resonate with anyone familiar with that uniquely destructive force. Not That Kind of Girl has been marketed as an advice book, but Dunham rarely instructs. It is by that magic osmosis present in all good writing that readers will realise things for themselves.
Historically the essay was the domain of those who were comfortable in the world, those with an easy authority, confident that figuring themselves out was a worthy pursuit. Of which creatures do I speak? Men. It’s only recently, maybe 100 years or so, that women have had the oxygen necessary to begin the same task. The father of the form, Michel de Montaigne, knew the value of self-analysis, saying that the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself. Dunham understands it too, telling us: “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.”
Of course, the personal is political. In an essay called Barry, Dunham recounts a violent sexual encounter and explores the question of consent. The piece is written in beats that make my stomach wind itself slowly into knots of dread. I have to close the book, breathe, remind myself I am not the one reeling in a dorm room, pulling myself up messily like a new-born foal, struggling to understand what has just happened.
Essays really suit Dunham’s brain, allowing as they do tangents and embellishments, wit and pathos, and the blessed freedom to contradict herself. Dunham calls herself an unreliable narrator, and that is just fine. It’s not her job to tidy herself into a lovable package; it’s her job to present a portrait of a complex human being. She does just that, humour and dignity intact.
This book is important because the journey from girl to woman can feel like a war. The battlefields are our bodies, our beds, our babies, our careers. And here is a soldier, risen up through the ranks, living to tell the tale and insisting that everybody listen. It is no wonder she inspires such loyalty from the trenches, and such loathing from her enemies.
The scrutiny Dunham is under is quite extraordinary. Her worth is questioned and her missteps crowed over by swathes of the media and hordes of online haters. Of course this is the case: she is young, powerful, and, scariest of all, female. I hope Dunham doesn’t get wearied into wariness. Should shame creep in and change her work, plenty would be pleased, but more would mourn. It could happen, but I doubt it: she’s not that kind of girl. Her voice will only grow clearer, her work will only get stronger and her humanity will shine brighter than ever, lighting a path for those of us who need it.
Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’ is published by Fourth Estate