Lena Dunham's neurotic, chronically melting-down character on her hit series Girls isn't necessarily the kind of person you'd turn to for advice. But from its cover font to the cartoony spot illustrations by Joana Avillez peppering the text, her new book, Not That Kind of Girl, has the feel and aesthetic of a certain era of advice books for women. Helen Gurley Brown's bizarre 1982 guide Having It All is specifically called out in Dunham's introduction. And as the subtitle indicates, albeit in scare quotes, Dunham seems interested in providing actual guidance on how to become a woman.
Dunham's style is relatively plain and not especially nuanced. If there are any David Sedaris–style joke grenades that go off in a reader's brain a minute after reading them in Not That Kind of Girl, I didn't find them. And occasionally, Girl lapses into unfortunate cliché, as when Dunham is overcome with sentimentality on revisiting college: "If I had known how much I would miss these sensations I might have experienced them differently, recognized their shabby glamour, respected the ticking clock that defined this entire experience."
Readers who enjoy the over-the-top self-involvement of Dunham's Girls character won't find much of that here; Dunham's compassion drowns out her usual comedic exploitation of narcissistic cluelessness. But there are a few Girls-style flourishes, like a letter to a doctor who failed to correctly diagnose her punctured eardrum: "This has since become my most traumatic memory, usurping the premature death of a friend and the time I saw a woman with a gaping pink hole where her nose ought to be. I resent that." In a book that's concerned with providing an example for others, such eruptions of egomania are bracing jolts of electricity.
And Dunham's prose is astonishingly economical, delivering maximum imagery with a minimal number of words. No story starts any earlier than it has to, and Dunham never rambles to a punch line when she can just barrel through instead. This is a daring style for a comedy writer, but it works, and only adds to the shock value: When she's not telling stories about becoming comfortable in her own skin, Dunham is scandalizing you with an account of bad sex or stunning you with a frank essay about rape. Some readers might be disappointed to discover Not That Kind of Girl isn't Girls: The Book, but that dance of expectation between the amped-up autobiographical Dunham from TV and the earnest autobiographical Dunham on the page is fascinating to watch.