At the dawn of 2013, a great deal is being asked of Lena Dunham.
She is 26 years old. She has created, written, and starred as Hannah Horvath in Girls, now running in its second season, a show that manages to both capture and reform the zeitgeist. She is handling the fame and success with the kind of self-deprecating charm we hardly ever see in our celebrities.
But for critics, this is not enough. For them, the show is simultaneously horrific toward those it chronicles—women in their 20s—and unforgivably exclusionary toward those it does not—men, blacks, the poor, rural America. A show designed to closely explore a few lives is relentlessly attacked for failing to be universal. Presumably, someone has written a think piece about how Hannah has yet to visit the dentist, and what that says about Lena Dunham’s narrow view of oral hygiene.
So at the risk of demanding too much of Ms. Dunham, I nevertheless need to ask her to assume the role of no one less than Philip Roth, the preeminent writer of the 20th century, and my artistic lodestar. She needs to be this presence in my life, and in the larger American culture, now and for the foreseeable future.
I don’t think Dunham needs to change, adapt, or in any way deviate from her current artistic path to fulfill it; we are seeing nothing less than a reliving of Roth’s ascension around Goodbye, Columbus in Dunham’s work. The extent to which Girls and Goodbye, Columbus serve as parallel works, Dunham and Roth as parallel artists, and American reaction as parallel paranoid nonsense, is as comforting as it is striking.
Roth’s life at the moment Goodbye, Columbus landed him on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and Dunham’s existence when Girls did the same for her on the Times’ Arts and Leisure section, are remarkably similar. The differences stem primarily from exactly how far along the Jewish experiment in America had progressed. But the difference in their respective Jewish backgrounds has everything to do with the Jewish experience in this country at the time of their births. Both grew up as children of Jewish mothers. For Roth, that took place in a cultural enclave, the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey. When Roth was born in 1933—the year Hitler took power—the survival of the Jews was very much a vital issue. For Dunham, born in 1986 and raised in New York City by two artists, Jewish intermarriage was so common as to be virtually the norm; that Jews wouldn’t survive was instead reserved for paranoid punchlines out of Woody Allen films. Lena Dunham is the result of such a union. Self-described as “half-Jew, half-WASP,” Dunham’s father’s people “came over on the Mayflower,” to use the phrase Roth himself alludes to when describing Sarah Abbott Maulsby in Portnoy’s Complaint.
Strikingly, though, the two set out on very similar, earnest paths. Roth went to Bucknell, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, to study literature. Dunham went to Oberlin, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, to study film. Both worked relentlessly at their crafts, each taking the well-established path toward what tends to be limited success for few. For Roth, it was placing some short stories in literary magazines, with the hope of attracting the attention of a publisher. For Dunham, it was YouTube, a short film, and heading to SXSW with her feature Tiny Furniture in the hope of attracting a producer.
And then, suddenly: fame like no one expects. Work under a microscope. Roth, the great American hope as a novelist, and a Jew, with a great American novella about Jews. Dunham, “The voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation,” as Hannah describes herself to her parents in the Girls pilot.
No one makes the front page of the New York Times Book Review at 26. No one has complete creative control of, writes and stars in an HBO television show at 26. Both of them had to answer for their successes. And nowhere more than from their own cultural launching pads, with eerily similar complaints, for exactly the opposite reasons.
Given the graphic, uninhibited depiction of sex in Girls, the Roth work that would seem to correlate most obviously with Lena Dunham’s show is Portnoy’s Complaint. But if Portnoy catapulted Roth to a new, wider and more notorious fame when Random House published it in 1969, it was Goodbye, Columbus a decade earlier that introduced Roth’s take on love and sex within the lives of his sect—American Jews—to a wide audience for the first time.
To marry out of the faith isn’t even on the checklist of worries for purple-eyed Mrs. Patimkin, the severe matriarch in Goodbye, Columbus, who is horrified when the lovely Brenda rebels against her by forming a romantic relationship with Neil Klugman. Instead, Mrs. Patimkin and Neil have a conversation about proving one’s bona fide Jewishness through charity work, in dialogue that could easily fit in an episode of Girls.
After Neil’s attempts to converse with Mrs. Patimkin lead him astray as he gives the wrong answer about joining B’Nai Brith and the wrong answer to the “Orthodox or Conservative” question (“I’m just Jewish”), Mrs. Patimkin then describes Brenda’s affiliation, in a phrase that reverberates, “Brenda is nothing, as you probably know.”
Neil responds: “Oh, I don’t know. I’d say Brenda is conservative. Maybe a little reformed…”
Neil’s need to respond to Mrs. Patimkin’s remark echos a sentiment delivered by Hannah in the season premiere of Girls, when she says to herself: “It is not up to you to fill up all of the pauses; you are not in danger of mortifying yourself.”
But the similarities between Neil Klugman and Hannah Horvath extend far beyond their penchant for filling the pauses with awkward conversation. What is striking about Neil Klugman and Hannah Horvath is the extent to which both are looking for precisely the same things from love and sex. Their frankness about these desires are problematic for anyone intent upon idealizing, say, the young Jewish college graduate boy, or, more than 50 years later, the single girl, both obviously literary archetypes with little hope of surviving outside the framework of the written word.
Both have been set adrift by their parents. Neil lives with his aunt, his parents having moved to Arizona for their asthma. Hannah, in the opening scene of Girls, is financially cut off by her parents. Here, too, we see that things have changed in 50 years, but in other ways, they have not. When Neil refuses the offer of a soda from his Aunt Gladys, she blames Neil’s lack of thirst on his job at the Newark Public Library, comparing it to her late husband’s job doing manual labor: “Max could drink a whole case with his chopped liver only. He works hard all day. If you worked hard you’d drink more.” Hannah’s parents probably wouldn’t pass the Aunt Gladys test: they are both professors. Still, the sense that the younger generation is getting a free ride also surfaces in the conversation between Hannah and her parents. As Hannah’s mother explains: “We’re professors, Hannah. Professors. We can’t keep bankrolling your groovy lifestyle.” And later: “I want a lake house. I work hard! I want to sit by a fucking lake!”
Neil lives with his aunt. Hannah, stripped of her parents’ money, lives with a roommate willing to put her up, and has a boyfriend who lives on the $800 a month he gets from his grandmother. Economically, they are children. But they want very adult things.
Neil’s carnal interest in Brenda opens Goodbye, Columbus, as Brenda steps out of the pool and Neil narrates: “I watched her move off. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.” It is central to the ultimate conflict that breaks them apart, when Neil asks Brenda to buy a diaphragm “for the pleasure of it.” It is something we can easily imagine Adam asking of Hannah; the difference 50 years makes is we can easily see Hannah asking similar things of Adam.
Hannah makes no pretense about her desire for Adam, even as she struggles to discover how to derive pleasure from him. She wiggles out of her tights in the pilot, lying on her stomach as Adam has asked. In the second episode, she indulges Adam’s fantasy, which places her in the role of an 11-year-old prostitute. She isn’t exactly having fun, at least not any more than Neil enjoys the game Brenda makes him play one night at the pool, where they each take turns closing their eyes while the other swims away. In fact, the fear Neil experiences—uncertainty over whether she’ll return as part of the larger concern about just how permanent his relationship with Brenda is—mirrors Hannah’s worries about Adam.
Neil says: “I wanted to get back to Brenda, for I worried once again—and there was no evidence, was there?—that if I stayed away too long she would not be there when I returned. I wished that I had carried her glasses away with me, so she would have to wait for me to lead her back home. I was having crazy thoughts, I knew, and yet they did not seem uncalled for in the darkness and strangeness of that place.”
While Neil leaves this unspoken to Brenda, Hannah, 50 years later and as unable to suppress her thoughts in any context as Neil was with Mrs. Patimkin, asks Adam about “where he disappears to” as they are making love. Adam, confused, replies: “I’m right here, kid.” Practical Brenda and Adam are right where they’re supposed to be: Neil and Hannah are convinced they’re on their way out the door.
And somehow, the cultural, economic, racial and gender themes, along with the sexual frankness, obscure what in both cases is a remarkably similar wish by both Neil and Hannah for the kind of love that—judging from the response to both works—is anything but singular, despite the limited cultural makeup of each. The love of Goodbye, Columbus was nearly universal, and not because it somehow accurately depicted all Jews. Girls resonates for precisely the same reason, not because it has the requisite number of black cast members.
I learned of the response to Goodbye, Columbus decades after it occurred; I was born in 1980, just over 20 years after its publication. So around the age when Hannah Horvath was masturbating eight times a day to ward off diseases, I’d spied the yellow spine of Portnoy’s Complaint on the shelf, and asked my father, a Newark Jew like my mother and Roth, about it.
He didn’t try to shield me from anything in it; instead, he explained it was a book that made him laugh out loud so much while reading it in his law school library that he was asked to leave. Captivated by it, I quickly devoured the rest of the Roth canon, starting with Goodbye, Columbus, and working in chronological order. By the time I got to what was essentially Roth’s account of the Goodbye, Columbus blowback in The Ghost Writer, that Jews would regard Roth as anything but a literary hero was shocking to me.
Many of them didn’t, though: to those in the Jewish community who believed everything created by members of it served as a window for the “other” into the lives of the Jews, Roth gave both aid and comfort to the enemy, and set about creating some kind of universally false set of ideas (as in, realistic ones) about What Jews Valued And Believed. Even to a son of two Jewish parents, in a largely Jewish New Jersey suburb, this kind of monolithic cultural community concept was quaint by the early 90s.
Roth answered his critics by putting young Nathan Zuckerman, his writer stand-in, before an actual judge, who asks him questions like, “What in your character makes you associate so much of life’s ugliness with the Jewish people?”
Roth had chronicled, with depth and realism, the full emotional template he’d experienced. For Jews less than 15 years removed from a serious attempt at extinction, seeing a son of theirs break ranks was itself a hardship. Literature was not an available template for Roth’s critics, or at any rate, used by them as a means of measuring his work. His work could only be discerned as representative or not.
And yet, more than half a century later, how to explain Lena Dunham receiving similar treatment, not from the Jewish community, but from nearly every angle imaginable? Wasn’t the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, indeed the surge in the number of Jews intermarrying itself all part of eliminating the concept of us and them?
Yes. Too well.
Dunham described Girls, by way of explaining the seeming lack of diversity of the show: “I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs… each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me.”
But by creating such real post-college characters, by boldly declaring herself, through Hannah, “the voice of my generation,” she allowed an open season from the vast cross-section of cultures that Dunham’s generation includes. Everyone wanted in on the story; if Dunham were to be writing the great American novel in TV series form, she needed to find a spot for more than just her corner of that American life. Or so her critics charged.
Again, art be damned. Girls was subjected to a culturally idealized version of the world and criticized for being exclusionary, just as Goodbye, Columbus had been. And poor Lena Dunham wasn’t just failing the Jews; it was 2012, so she was failing everybody.
When Dunham said on Fresh Air last year, “for me to ignore that criticism and not to take it in would really go against my beliefs and my education in so many things,” it was in response to the complete inclusiveness that constitutes a vital evolution in the social/political world, but foolish when applied to individual works of art.
I attended Bard College a few years before Lena Dunham attended Oberlin. At both Bard and Oberlin, diversity was more than just a collective ideal; for many students, even some of the faculty and staff, diversity, in both life and in art, was to be policed, enforced, and those who ran afoul of what the most sensitive member of the community felt would be publicly shamed.
I’m speaking of the man whose entire job at Bard had been to promote/police diversity. How angry he became when I used the word lynch in a news story about, well, lynching. And who can forget the student who violated parking regulations so many times that the director of security put a boot on her car. Claiming racism, rather than illicit parking, had led to her persecution, the student managed to get the director of security fired.
So Dunham’s sense of responsibility and guilt were likely overwhelming, trying to reconcile the necessary truth of her own observations with the exacting standards of inclusion. It would be easy if she were apart from that world and didn’t care much about promoting such ideals. But Dunham could no more easily do that than Roth could run from the Jewish people. Both are stamped indelibly on all they have produced as artists.
Or as Dunham explained: “I think the liberal-arts student in me really wants to engage in a dialogue about it, but as I learn about engaging with the media, I realize it’s not the same as sitting in a seminar talking things through at Oberlin. Every quote is sort of used and misused and placed and misplaced, and I really wanted to make sure I spoke sensitively to this issue.”
It shouldn’t be any surprise that Roth, when he came to teach at Bard for a semester while I attended, would run into regular, stinging arguments with those who felt his female characters weren’t sufficiently infused with the greatest characteristics of their gender. Decades after his early novels were published, he found himself being asked to defend his writing against the 21st century liberal arts agenda, as if he were building archetypes instead of writing fiction.
Desperate for an E.I. Lonoff of my own (Zuckerman’s literary idol in The Ghostwriter), I managed to convince Roth, through a mutual friend and professor, to agree to sit for an interview for the paper. I stayed up all night crafting 35 questions; I needed him to know I was not simply going to deconstruct his work in an effort to chastise his failure to adhere to feminist or Zionist ideals.
But Roth, at the appointed time, never showed. Maybe by then he was tired of answering questions.
He’d already answered them, for years. As Nathan Zuckerman says to his mother in The Ghostwriter, who begs him to write back to Judge Wapter’s letter accusing him of providing aid and comfort to Joseph Goebbels with a short story, “Mother, I will not prate in platitudes to please the adults!”
Dunham, too, was pressed on such universal terms, such as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni commenting on a sex scene early in the first season of Girls with, “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” It was as if by chronicling the reality that sometimes, sex isn’t fun for everyone, Dunham was responsible for this reality, no less than Roth was responsible for some Jews being grifters, or unfeeling, or even… Reform.
In the end, all Hannah really wants is what Neil and Brenda have in Goodbye, Columbus. Yes, Frank Bruni, Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this: not so Hannah could fail to enjoy some sex, but so she could learn what it was she wanted instead, could tell that to Adam, and could pursue what she wanted no less than Neil does.
By the end of season one, Hannah breaks up with Adam. Hannah empowered.
By the start of season two, Dunham, through Hannah, is mocking her critics. Lena empowered. Not enough black characters? Within three minutes of the season, she’s on top of her new, black boyfriend, as he asks her and the audience at once: “You wanted this? Well, now you’re going to get it.”
You want black characters at the center of my show, Dunham asks? Well, here: you can find one in my vagina. And even then, she has the last laugh on her critics; the black boyfriend is a Republican, making him a minority among minorities, and also not representative all at once, his political party itself a joke and the source of his departure from the show. And while she’s at it, a gay man ruins a party and plays a villain. None of the Oberlin untouchables are safe.
Lena Dunham has processed the words of her critics, and she isn’t going to let her masterwork turn into a seminar on diversity at Oberlin, her vision clouded by a need to do right by not only her people, like Roth, but by everybody.
And thank God for that. Because the ability to rely on Philip Roth to make sense of this world is disappearing. The great tomes of the mid-nineties, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, can now be recognized as the author at the peak of his abilities. I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America; these, too, seemed to strike at epic truths on every page. Roth’s focus, and rightfully so, had extended far beyond the intimacy of Neil and Brenda, just as Lena Dunham will someday leave Hannah Horvath far behind.
Over the past decade, Roth’s output has slowed. In six of his final seven books, it is death that he is grappling with; life, as it is being led in the 21st century, was either not his concern, beyond the scope of his experience, or both.
This year, Philip Roth will be 80; I am 33. Somehow, I believed Roth would abandon the Connecticut farmhouse where he lived in seclusion, formally sentencing him to the end of life experienced by E.I. Lonoff in The Ghostwriter, and return to civilization for one more love affair, one more book to make sense of where we are now. That’s not how it happened for Lonoff, though that’s not really how it works for anybody. You’d think a lifetime of close reading of Roth would have allowed me, when a half-dozen of his books focus on death, to realize he’s gone.
But just in case I hadn’t gotten it, Roth told the New York Times in November that he was retiring from writing. The man who had railed against technology destroying our ability to consume, let alone appreciate literature, said this: “Every morning I study a chapter in ‘iPhone for Dummies,’ and now I’m proficient. I haven’t read a word for two months. I pull this thing out and play with it.”
He once said that, “Every day, 70 good readers die; two are born.” Apparently, he’s become one of the 70, and by choice.
But any actuarial table could have told me that a guy born the year F.D.R. took office wasn’t going to stick around long enough to light the way for a man born the year Reagan was elected, intellectually, romantically, or in any other way. I needed the voice of my generation; not a voice of a generation.
While Roth plays with iPhone for Dummies, Lena Dunham is writing dialogue like this:
Hannah: Maybe I should call him? I mean, didn’t you say texting is like the lowest form of communication on the pillar of chat?
Marnie: The totem of chat, and no. The lowest, that would be Facebook, followed by Gchat, then texting, then email, and then phone.
Marnie: Face-to-face is, of course, ideal. But it’s not of this time.
This is what I need: Philip Roth’s basic cultural/intellectual/emotional matrix of ideals, but applied to 21st century life. For 2013 and beyond, I need someone to guide me who opens Girls with a hierarchy of modern communication, who effortlessly Drop Pins technology into her work, while remaining enough of an adherent to the written word that her main character keeps a journal and attends readings.
If Roth’s construction is right—70 good readers die, two are born—one of those two readers is clearly Lena Dunham, here to take over for Roth. If Roth someday imagined himself holed up at a small college teaching literature, he instead became the center of the literary world for me and thousands like me.
As for Lena Dunham, she is clearly up to, in her words, “the challenge of trying to reconcile the part of me that always thought I would be like, you know, a weird Gender and Women’s Studies teacher who occasionally showed movies at film festivals and hung out in my strange apartment that was stacked high with books.”
And I need her to be; we need her to be that artist. Incredibly, she is—and just in time.
Howard Megdal is the author of The Baseball Talmud, Taking the Field, and Wilpon’s Folly.