Naked on the Page

In her memoir, Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, opens a new chapter in her campaign of self-exposure.

Diego Patino

You remember, I’m sure, beloved reader, the punk-rock initialisms of the 1980s—back when the kids could name their bands with impunity, in decent obscurity, without being pilloried on cable news, devoured by the Internet, or investigated under the Patriot Act. MDC stood for Millions of Dead Cops, JFA was Jodie Foster’s Army (Jodie Foster being the celestial object to whom John Hinckley Jr. dedicated his attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan), and so on. COC, DRI, SNFU. O tempora! O mores! Anyway, if I was going to form a hardcore punk band today, right now, and give it a properly retro-radical, culturally polarizing, in-your-face-Mr.-Jones name, I’d call it LDA: Lena Dunham’s Armpit.

Does Dunham shave or doesn’t she? I should know. I’ve seen her naked enough times—having sex, maybe, or twanging into her tights for a night out, or slumped dewily over the side of a tub, her tattoos glistening. On her TV show, Girls, the fourth season of which will debut on HBO early next year, she gets naked all the time. A French woman I know told me that the nudity on Girls was nice, lovely, because it made viewers feel “intimate” with the characters. But she’s French, and this is America, and we’re much too fucked up for that. Dunham’s nudity rattles us. Her body, the shape of it, the constantly revealed fact of it, rattles us. Trolls and stand-ups make jokes about it. To say that it boldly flouts the norms of female desirability is merely to exchange one set of rubbishy preoccupations for another. Girls—which Dunham stars in, frequently writes, and sometimes directs—is the closest the sitcom format has yet come to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: subterranean but rooftop-high, containing multitudes, a bohemian vision drifting in layers of anxiety between silhouetted-at-dawn New York water towers. Dunham has seen the best minds of her generation destroyed by Twitter.

In Girls, she plays Hannah Horvath, a spiky literary wannabe in whose warbling, unchecked monologues we can hear the balloon-squeal of deflating ideas and things spoken too soon. (“I think I just feel how everyone feels—which is I have three or four really great folk albums in me.”) Hannah lives in Brooklyn, has a quasi-abusive boyfriend, and wants to publish a book of autobiographical essays. Her “inciting incident”—as the screenplay manuals call it—occurs when her parents tell her that they are planning to stop her allowance. Deeply alarmed, she makes a counteroffer (a slightly smaller allowance) and then subsides, muttering, to the floor. She’s in exile.

At age 28, Dunham has now published her own book of autobiographical essays. David Sedaris, in a splendidly redundant blurb, claims that her writing is “full of surprises where you least expect them.” I disagree: Not That Kind of Girl is pretty much just what I expected from Dunham, which is to say that it is witty, illuminating, maddening, bracingly bleak, and apparently compulsive in its revelations. “I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a dietitian,” she warns us in the introduction. “I am not a mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontline of that struggle.” Fair enough; right on, sister; fist bump; etc. But I like it better when she writes this: “I’m the kind of person who should probably date older guys, but I can’t deal with their balls.”

So there’s the id, the ego, the superego, and then there’s the part of the psyche that writes the memoir. The latter function, in most humans, is inadequately developed until late middle age, which is why memoirs by young people are usually terrible. It’s a syndrome, rather embarrassing: premature autobiography. Not That Kind of Girl presents with the symptoms—lines such as “We broke up, as most college couples do” and “This was the same year I became a vegan”—and there is a slightness, a Sedaris-ness, to some of the anecdotes. But Dunham has an edge here, a secret weapon: her absolutely unsentimental artistic detachment. It hovers and it pierces; it gives her the good lines. Now and again it goes out of control, as when she suffers a “full dissociative meltdown” while directing the first-season finale of Girls: “I felt like I was outside my own body, watching myself work. I didn’t care if I succeeded or failed because I wasn’t totally sure I was alive.” Generally, though, it serves her: a sexual-observational third eye, blinking in a kind of cool, remote sorrow as the poor body does its thing—or has things done to it. In Dunham’s 2010 proto-Girls film, Tiny Furniture, her character, adrift in midnight Brooklyn, finds herself having sex in a large section of industrial pipe: she and her boy of the moment huff and puff and scrape and clang, telescopically framed by the metal cylinder.

Not That Kind of Girl has its share of such episodes. “I was disappointed by how hard his lips were,” she writes of one unfortunate suitor, “and how silent he was once he had an erection.” Then there’s Josh, who “ran a flattened palm over my left breast, like he was an alien who had been given a lesson in human sexuality by a robot.” Lostness between people and frozen moments of inaccessibility—Dunham specializes in these. After losing her virginity: “We lay there and talked, and I could tell he was a good person, whatever that even means.”

The book is witty, illuminating, bracingly bleak, and compulsive in its revelations.

Filler? Yes, there is filler. Lists (“15 Things I’ve Learned From My Mother,” “My Top 10 Health Concerns,” “What’s in My Bag”), a food diary … The publishing industry wanted Not That Kind of Girl to be written perhaps even more than Dunham wanted to write it. But there is literature, too. The best chapter, the one most formally suited to Dunham’s gifts and sensibility, is called “Sharing Concerns: My Worst Email Ever, With Footnotes.” Here Dunham goes David Foster Wallace on her own ass—who else’s?—mercilessly dissecting an already tortuously self-conscious e-missive written in her early 20s to a young man she calls A, with whom she appears to be entering a breakup phase. “I obviously like you a lot. Not in a scary oppressive way,” writes Dunham the e-mailer. “Perhaps, yes, in that way,” comments Dunham the footnoter. The younger Dunham signs off her note with a breezy “OK,” prompting the older one to comment, “See? I’m just a chill girl writing a chill-ass email, bro.” Another annotation tells us that A had an “angry little Steve McQueen face” and that it took a little while for Dunham to realize that “spending time with him gave me an empty, fluish feeling.” That’s a mind-altering, permission-granting line—somewhere a teenage girl reads it and decides to dump her numskull boyfriend.

There’s something very contemporary in Dunham’s self-exposure, her restlessly accelerated processing of her own experience. That great feminist icon Norman Mailer was very careful, through a lifetime’s work, not to unbury his “crystals,” his prismatic lodes of psychic material: it’s the reason (he claimed) he never wrote an autobiography. Dunham’s crystals are on perpetual display, sending light shafts everywhere, and this makes one fret about her artistic longevity. How can you have it all when you’re giving it all away? The last person I saw publicly enumerating the contents of his bag was Charlie Sheen, at one of his raggedy, rip-off spoken-word shows in 2011. It was, quite literally, a hollow experience. But that’s modernity: the inside’s on the outside, leaving a vacuum on the inside.

Dunham, however, unlike Charlie Sheen on his Violent Torpedo of Truth tour, is a genuine artist, and a disturber of the order. So I’m going ahead with Lena Dunham’s Armpit, my hardcore band. Wanted: gender-ferocious front woman with six-octave range. We’ll need a guitarist, too (influences: Judas Priest and Stevie Smith). Bassist optional. I’ll play the drums, in a neutered rage. Title of our first album: Sex in a Pipe.