Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Empress's New Clothes: Who Is Lena Dunham?

Don't let the apparent exhibitionism take you by surprise. What makes Dunham's Not That Kind Of Girl so dull isn't just the vapidity.  Dunham's hiding the real story.
What made me buy her memoir--the stratospheric praise of Judy Blume and David Sedaris--had me flummoxed as soon as I'd read a paragraph. I closed the book again and read those blurbs: Sedaris says calls this a "fine, subversive book." Blume calls Dunham "always funny, sometimes wrenching," adding that Dunham is a "creative wonder." (Because Dunham reminds Blume of her fictional character, "Sheila the great?" And Sedaris--maybe it's fun for a brilliantly funny man to enjoy the company of someone trying to be as funny as he is? But here imagination fails me.)
Meanwhile, my revered book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, with whom I cannot remember disagreeing, loves Dunham, comparing her to Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, and Helen Gurley Brown. To be fair, in her review, Kakutani quotes two or three snappy remarks of Dunham's but not snappy enough that they staple themselves to your thought processes, the way Dorothy Parker does. You'll never, ever, get Parker's  "Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses" out of your head. Try it, you won't. 
Parker, Ephron and Brown sink in like chocolate melting in a crepe. But Dunham's more like a piece of Bazooka bubble gum: you're glad you found that childhood pleasure you remember, but now that you're no longer a child, the pink chew has lost it's charm--the stuff is too sweet and loses its flavor. The gum's still wrapped in a waxy comic strip, but the comic strip's no longer funny. You can still blow a bubble or two. Big whoop. 
That's Dunham--a bubble or two.
 Surely Sedaris, Blume and Kakutani, whose writing delights because it's really about something--surely they don't genuinely believe that Lena Dunham is a talent? But clearly they do. They've said so, enthusiastically, in print. The evidence is out there that Dunham's got something: a show on HBO that's won golden globes, plus the honor of being parodied by Tina Fey,which you may see here. 
I like the Tina Fey version. I don't like the original. What has memoir come to? 
If you've read Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, Mary Karr, Susannah Kaysen, Jeannette Walls, Cheryl Strayed--to name the first that come to mind--you've read tales of girls and women facing challenges and struggling to overcome them. The closest to Dunham in the exhibitionism department is probably Daphne Merkin--but Merkin is fascinating, readable. Merkin reveals--a cold, almost sadistic mother, a household of regimented, unloved children, a longing for love. 
Dunham doesn't. I find many hints--she hopes to find a mother in her psychotherapist, to whom she offers a portrait with "big Keane eyes" and a poem in which the therapist "will never be my mother." The comment that matters the most to Dunham--I'd bet my bank account on this--is her mother's. And here is what the mother says, via Amazon: 

“I’m surprised by how successful this was. I couldn’t finish it.”—Laurie Simmons


Maybe the two of them cooked up this blurb together--that's sadder. Either way: Dunham's mother is surprised at her daughter's success--and she does not want it. She does not want it so much that she won't finish reading the book. No wonder Dunham is a mess. Her father's paintings of penises and vaginas, with bodies and backgrounds as backdrops, established the narrative focus for his daughter.  No, he didn't show her his, but he might as well have done so. But the poor kid had no other interests. Her mother's art--photographs of women with strange, elongated eyes; selfies of her own vagina, doll house figures in kitchens--suggests disgust with all things domestic, or perhaps with all women who like domestic pleasures like cooking or cleaning. Mothers--who needs 'em? asks her art. 
Clearly her daughter needs one. But she won't write about that. Or will she? Have we yet to hear the real story from Dunham?
I wonder what Dunham would have been like with a passionate, all-consuming interest. What if she'd thrown herself into ballet or clarinet? Archery? Sculpting? Helping refugees? Working for a political campaign? 
There's still time, Lena. There's still time. 

P.S. Somebody get this girl to take "The Rules" seriously.
P.P.S. Or at least listen to Adelaide singing "Take back ya mink! Take back ya poils! What made you think that I was one of those goils . .  ."

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