Since my last post on the subject, I watched all of the first season of “Girls.” And I’m still not sure what I think of her – or of the Roth comparison.
I should by saying that I’m pretty well hooked. “Girls” is a far better work of art than “Tiny Furniture” – more complex, more mature, frankly just better-written. Dunham has created a genuinely persuasive world, and a series of believable, distinctive characters. (I wonder what it says that I find the male characters – Adam, Ray, Charlie – to be more interestingly-drawn than most of the female characters, the exception being the wonderfully weird Shoshanna.) And her eye for satiric detail is quite keen. That having been said, the show lacks a sense of urgency that I associate with Roth, and that I missed. I found myself, after the season was complete, asking: what is this about. Why should I care about these people. The show is well-written enough that I do care, whether I want to or not, but why should I – why do they matter?
It’s difficult for me to fully track the comparison, because I encountered Roth long after he had reshaped the world. I can’t experience Roth as a response to the world of Herman Wouk and Bernard Malamud; I can only experience him as the origin of – and, in some ways, a corrective to – what came after. If Lena Dunham is “our” Philip Roth, I don’t know that I would know it, because “my” Philip Roth isn’t the Philip Roth of 1959 – because 1959 is eleven years before I was born.
But if I just think about what the experience of reading Roth is like, for me, what I think of first is that urgency, that hunger. Sex and writing both feel like surface manifestations of a deeper drive, an energy that can never find adequate outlet. And Dunham’s work feels nothing like this, to me. Dunham’s characters aren’t self-asserting, imposing themselves upon an often-indifferent world. They are alternately exhibitionistic and self-protective – or, often enough, both at once. They know someone is watching, and I get the sense that this limits them, both sexually and artistically.
There’s a striking contrast between Dunham herself, a wunderkind who, at 26, has already written, directed and starred in a feature film and two seasons of a hit television show, and the fairly aimless characters she has created. Hannah, in particular, seems to be in no hurry. We see her grappling with the trials and tribulations of life and relationships, but we don’t really see her struggling to become what she thinks she is – the voice of her generation (or, at least, “a voice of a generation”). We don’t see that ambition in action. We don’t see her hustling.
Hannah, of course, isn’t Dunham, but it struck me – particularly in episode 9 – how little evidence she provides that Hannah has any talent at all. This is the episode where we actually hear Hannah read her work, and it isn’t any good. (She sabotages herself by reading something she wrote on the subway heading to the reading, but so what – that’s Dunham’s choice to sabotage her, to deny us the opportunity to fairly evaluate her as a writer.) And it’s also the episode where we see her snarkily savaging a fellow-writer from her college days who has achieved success, in part because she has a dead boyfriend to write about. (An allusion to Margaret Martinson perhaps? Or am I pushing the Roth analogies too far?) I came away from the episode feeling like Dunham wanted me to believe that Hannah – in contrast to Dunham herself – was unserious about her work, and bitter about other’s success without real justification.
Which struck me as a very funny thing for Dunham to want me to think, because if Hannah is simply deluded about being “a voice of a generation” even potentially, then . . . why am I watching her? Why does she matter? I had a similar reaction to Adam’s decision to quit his play after a creative spat with his fellow actor (and, apparently, producer). There was a petulance to the choice that struck me as fundamentally non-serious. If Adam had fired the other guy, that would have been the act of a short-tempered and foolish artist. But quitting just felt, well, self-indulgent. Is Adam just going to grow up to be Greenberg? Isn’t that, well, kind of an awful thing to suggest about your romantic lead? And what’s going to keep Hannah from the same fate?
This question is gnawing at me because Dunham is a success, at a young age, and so was Roth. But Dunham appears to be showing us a world of, well, of losers, of people who just aren’t as serious about their work as she herself must have been, people who I just can’t see growing into Lena Dunham. And that’s not what Roth did at all – he showed no mercy towards his protagonists in depicting their neuroses and perversions, but they had a hunger in them that wasn’t just envy.
That having been said, there was one way in which the Roth comparison really struck home for me: Adam, the character Hannah is involved with (“dating” isn’t quite the word) for much of the first season is pretty much a perfect male analogue to the inevitable “Roth girl,” the crazy shiksa who fascinates and infuriates Roth’s male protagonists, and is generally treated rather badly by them in turn. From his sexual perversity, to his violent mood swings, to his role as principal muse and subject matter for Hannah’s work, he fits that particular bill perfectly. By the end of the first season, Dunham lets us know that Adam knows he’s playing this role, but some of Roth’s crazy shiksa’s had a degree of self-awareness, so that doesn’t invalidate the comparison, I don’t think.
Anyway, I’ll probably have more thoughts once I’ve absorbed the second season.