Sometimes I feel bad for Lena Dunham.
I know that she’s rich, she dates a guy in a popular band, and she has more Emmys than me (I currently have zero), but I can’t imagine how it must feel to be thought of as the epitome of the Gen Y Brooklynite, or in her case, Brooklyn girl. Being the post-Carrie Bradshaw living in Greenpoint instead of on the Upper East Side makes Dunham the poster child for the played-out Brooklyn hipster tag that people like to throw around so much. Being the target of ridicule that she doesn’t necessarily always deserve must be getting old by now.
But that’s not the only reason why I feel bad for her; I couldn’t imagine being considered responsible for a book like Brooklyn Girls by Gemma Burgess, which, according to Yael Cohen at The Cut, is a novel about a type of person that Dunham “didn’t create,” rather “she cemented her stereotype into popular consciousness.” Even though I hardly see Dunham’s characters within the pages of Brooklyn Girls, it would really upset me if my shallow, hip, good-looking, and well-written characters were considered kin with the shallow, vapid, and good-looking characters in Burgess’s book.
I live in Brooklyn, and although I’m not a girl, after a decade of calling the borough home, I found myself reading Brooklyn Girls and wondering if Burgess has ever actually stepped foot in Brooklyn. I can admit that maybe, as a man, I don’t know about the inner workings of the female relationships that this book tries to portray, but I have never heard people who live in Brooklyn talk like the people in Brooklyn Girls. The book flounders in its portrayal of the Brooklyn girl, in a way that resembles thin Hollywood versions of Beatniks in Greenwich Village in the 1950s or hippies in the 1960s. The book joins a growing genre we can essentially refer to as Brooklynsploitation — like Burgess took every bad Brooklyn stereotype and rolled it into one chick lit mess.
Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is, thankfully, a different story. Comprehensible to casual readers and non-New Yorkers, as well as the literary Brooklynites this debut novel uses as inspiration, Waldman’s smart book focuses on the life and times of up-and-coming literary star Nathaniel Piven. And while the press materials extol Waldman’s ability to cross gender lines (to paraphrase the William Deresiewicz blurb that accompanied the book), what The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. also does so well is paint a picture of the young, smart, and bookish citizens of contemporary Brooklyn in a way that conjures Woody Allen’s ability to truly give us (assuming we don’t live in New York) the type of person we imagine lives in and around the Big Apple — one who says things like, “I think Americans in general are too removed from all the ugliness that goes into safeguarding so-called normal life,” one who is sexually promiscuous, people who are too smart for their own good and, of course, largely Jewish.
Waldman’s first book shows the promise of a smart and funny writer; one who is, yes, willing to cross gender lines and come out unscathed in a way that reminds me of John Updike’s lampooning of his Jewish contemporaries in his Bech books. She plays on tropes that are pretty dead on (people in New York really do smile sympathetically when out-of-towners say they can’t find kale at home, and the place can also sometimes seem like one big hookup pool). Her protagonist is less a lothario, more just a careless schmuck who happens to be a good writer, and overall a much more realistic Brooklynite. One of the best debuts of 2013, Nathaniel P., if anything, is the book that critics should be comparing to Dunham’s hit HBO show, and putting into the very empty canon of truly good post-9/11 writing about Brooklyn. But it is also strong enough to stand on its own merits as a great novel and document of the Brooklyn experience.