The Agony and the Ecstasy of Girlhood

New fiction collections from Abigail Ulman and Rebecca Schiff feature young female narrators finding their way through a mass culture where individuality is everything.

Kate Berry / Michael Lionstar / Knopf / Spiegel & Grau / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Elise and Jenni, the protagonists of Abigail Ulman’s short story “Head to Toe,” are best friends. They are inseparable, precocious, popular. The winter they’re 16, they tire of their teenage peers; they stop responding to text messages and lose interest in house parties. Their parents worry “it’s chronic fatigue or something.” Instead of shopping for clothes at the mall, they blow their spending money on movies, one after the next. One is “about a girl who moves to the city to fulfill her dream of becoming a performer.” Another, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, is “about a girl who moves to the city to fulfill her dream of becoming an artist.” A third is “about a girl who goes looking for her dead father,” and yet another is “about a girl who goes looking for the killer of her dead father.” Finally, before Elise’s mother picks them up, they see one “about this girl who visits her dad. She makes him macaroni and cheese, and cheers him up.”

The nod to Dunham’s debut is surely deliberate: Everywhere these days, it seems, there are stories of young women, moving and performing, making macaroni and cheese, lying with friends and lovers on their childhood beds, fighting with their parents and clinging to them, wondering what it means to grow up. Ulman, whose debut collection, Hot Little Hands, has just been published in the U.S., is in good company. Like Elise and Jenni, the characters in the stories in Rebecca Schiff’s recent debut, The Bed Moved, have internalized the idea that to be a young woman is to live within—and in constant relation to—a succession of Girl Stories. One of Schiff’s narrators tells her “best stories” to a love interest she’s met on the internet, though she keeps leaving out the important parts. “In ‘Every Foreign Country I Visit Reminds Me of Long Island,’ I forgot to say that’s where I was from.” Other items in her repertoire include The Summer I Spent Working With Pigeons, “I Ate a Pot Cookie and Believed Myself to Be Already Dead,” and “My Allergies Will Charm You.”

In both books, the risk of falling back on raked over, twee, trope-laden Millennial pastiche is high. Is there anything new about a privileged (white, we presume) 22-year-old in Brooklyn procrastinating on her collection of personal essays by updating her People Using 10-Color Pens in Offices Tumblr? But that risk is, at this point, practically a prerequisite for the genre in which Ulman and Schiff operate.

Theirs is a literary ecosystem fueled by the dream of achieving viral acclaim—of appealing to the masses by parading one’s exquisite, insecure individuality. The heroes of this ecosystem, in movies and on TV shows as in books, are the popular girls whose fame and celebrity come from essays like “Girl Crush: That Time I Was Almost a Lesbian, Then Vomited” (which appears in Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham’s #1 bestselling collection) and from frank exposure of bespoke tattoos on cable television. Schiff and Ulman aren’t mimicking Dunham so much as they’re gleefully—fondly—spoofing the predictability of her brand. As the critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, “There is a mass culture of ‘individuals,’ too, obviously.”

If anything, this particular mass culture of individuals—the booming market for such girly, arty angst—has upped the ante for young women who want to write, as Ulman put it in an interview, original work “that centralizes the secret voices and perspectives of young female characters.” What rescues Schiff and Ulman from stale generational stereotypes comes as something of a surprise: They supplement their 20-something characters’ bellyaching with the more forgivably immature musings of even younger voices. In both books, teenagers—and the reactions they provoke in those around them—steal the show.

Most of these girls sense the inevitability of a young adulthood marked by awkwardness and bad sex: That, after all, is what the culture has told them young adulthood is. Yet it never occurs to them that they’re victims, and the last thing they want to be mistaken for is ingénues. They are wry and ambitious protagonists, and Ulman and Schiff present them without the kind of “touchy-feely girl empowerment talk” (in the withering words of one of Ulman’s teenagers) more moralizing authors might serve up.

Wry and ambitious themselves, both writers offer rich comedies of manners that take in not just the girls, but also the mystified boys and authority figures in their orbit, the head-shaking teachers and the parents who double as anxious chauffeurs. Schiff’s teenage girls know the boys around them are just as lost. “We all aspired to orgasm,” one narrator says matter-of-factly, “but were afraid of our GPAs slipping. Everything counted. We aced Sex Ed.” Throughout the book, her sparse, poetic paragraphs are packed with forceful wit. Ulman, whose stories build more slowly, excels at dialogue and narrative. The more you get to know her characters, the funnier it is to witness their verbal code-switching as they navigate between nosy parents, fumbling love interests, and trusted friends.

That none of these stories is constrained by any need for tidy endings makes them all the more believable; Ulman and Schiff see clearly the poignant paradox of their enterprise. Both books feature characters, several of them recurring, who are wise beyond their years and utterly immature. And how could they not be? They’re primed from puberty to know that perfecting the desired mix of sophistication and youth, of vulnerability and confidence, is not going to get any easier. When the father of the frustrated young Tumblr-ing essayist in Ulman’s “Plus One” tries to reassure his 22-year-old daughter that “there’s a good market” for books like hers (working title: Don’t Mess Up My Mood Board, Or My Unicorn Will Cry, And Other Instructions), she replies, “I’m not in that market anymore. I’ve outgrown it. I can’t write it. It’s over.” Of course, such a moody dismissal only confirms her fitness to play the role of high-achieving adult-slash-adolescent-mess.

Ulman and Schiff are fresh voices well worth listening to in our mass culture of individuals. They haven’t given up on the genre yet, or given into the temptation to declare it “over.” Neither should readers. There’s plenty of caustic, moving humor in the revelation that growing up doesn’t mean leaving girlhood behind. Elise and Jenni, restless at 16, are already practicing what will doubtless become a useful refrain. They conclude that they’re “so glad [they’re] not 11 anymore,” because “it’s the worst. Everything’s so confusing, and like, no one has their shit together.”