In a time when celebrity writers proliferate as lushly as mushrooms in a cave,that Lena Dunham has just produced her first book, “Not That Kind of Girl,’’ is nothing special. Dunham herself, however, is another story. She made the successful independent feature film “Tiny Furniture” before she was 25 and created the semi-autobiographical HBO comedy, “Girls,” in which she also plays the lead character, Hannah Horvath, at 26.
Hannah’s monumental self-absorption, irreverent humor, and frequent, deliberately unglamorous nude scenes have made “Girls” a hit as well as a magnet for misogynist codswallop, while its mocking appraisal of what life is like for Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, upper middle-class graduates of liberal-arts colleges made it an object of worship among New York television critics thrilled to finally see themselves represented on television. So great is its success that Dunham, 28, reportedly received an advance of more than $3.5 million for this book.
For people who watch “Girls” — a group to which I belong and one that I assume will make up a significant portion of Dunham’s reading public — it may be difficult at first to divorce Hannah’s voice from Dunham’s written one. This collection of 21 essays, padded out with a smattering of humorous lists, e-mail exchanges, and other miscellany, is divided into sections on love and sex, the body, friendship, work, and “the big picture”; different format, familiar terrain.
Fans also will recognize some of Dunham’s signature narrative mannerisms: What propels these confessional first-person pieces is the tension between the appearance of helpless, total disclosure and observations so arch they could only come from a place of complete control. Like Hannah, Dunham is flip, recklessly goofy, and prone to saying shocking, self-deprecating things about herself in service of a joke. Unlike Hannah, Dunham is wholly in possession of her faculties and well aware of her place in the world.
Take, for instance, “Girls & Jerks,” an essay in which Dunham contemplates her inclination toward inappropriate men. In a scene that takes place during her time at Oberlin, Dunham observes how growing up in SoHo with well-heeled artist parents may have helped contribute to this preference. “I had a lucky little girlhood,” she muses. “I had a family that loved me, and we didn’t have to worry about much except what gallery to go to on Sunday and whether or not my child psychologist was helping with my sleep issues. Only when I got to college did it dawn on me that maybe my upbringing hadn’t been very ‘real.’ . . . What was it that I couldn’t understand and how could I understand it, short of moving to a war-torn nation?”
Instead of taking the first flight out to Iraq, Dunham, like so many before her, turns to men who treat her badly. This goes about as well as one might expect. “[L]earning about the ‘world’ is not pretending you’re a hooker while a guy from the part of New Jersey that’s near Pennsylvania decides which Steely Dan record to put on at 4:00 a.m,” she reflects.
One-liners like that are what make the book a worthwhile read, as is Dunham’s observational humor. She falls for a chap at freshman orientation because of his “anime eyes, his flared women’s jeans, his thick helmet of Prince Valiant hair . . . If I’d been alone, I would have slid down the back of a door and sighed like Natalie Wood in ‘Splendor in the Grass.’ ”
Dunham is at her best when she writes about her younger self — a strange focus for someone not yet 30. Her deadpan observations about the ridiculous mores and folkways of small colleges are exactly right and as funny and incisive as those of Gary Shteyngart or Sam Lipsyte, two much older and far more experienced chroniclers of that milieu.
The book is less successful in portions where Dunham tries to impart the wisdom of her limited years, such as when she suggests avoiding sleeping next to anyone “who doesn’t make you feel like sharing a bed is the coziest and most sensual activity they could possibly be undertaking.”
“I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice,” utters her character, Hannah, in the show’s most famous line. “Not That Kind of Girl” answers the promise of that proclamation, whatever it means.
Eugenia Williamson, a writer and editor living in Somerville, can be reached at email@example.com.