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In the Critics this week

Laura Miller on "Girls", Leo Robson on Zadie Smith and Kate Mossman on Bob Dylan.

The cast of Girls
The cast of HBO's Girls, with Lena Dunham second from the right (Photograph: Getty Images)

In the critic’s section of the New Statesman this week, Leo Robson reviews Zadie Smith’s NW and finds, unsurprisingly, that the very specific setting dominates the novel. “The setting of the novel is a microclimate, not a microcosm or metaphor, and a place that defines itself in wilfully parochial terms,” explains Robson, though “not everyone who lives in north west London can lay claim to this tag… the area seems to comprise Kilburn and Willesden – Kensal Rise at a push”.  He goes on to explain how, because of its limited definition, the setting takes on a symbolic aspect. Towards the end of the novel a character finds herself at a funeral and notices “Caldwell people, Brayton people, Kilburn people, Willesden people. Each marking a particular period.” From this, Robson picks out the idea of people representing periods and the movement of time as a key theme in the book, noting that “to achieve her desired effects, Smith draws on conventions from all over and the use she makes of them is, if not necessarily counter-intuitive, then counter-traditional – successful in the face of precedent.” Robson declares that “NW is less a patchwork panorama than a refusal of panorama; at times, its title seems to be freighted with irony, or fringed with shadows, suggesting all the disparity and distance that can exist within a 'community', the elusiveness of what we think we know.”

In this week’s Critic at large essay, Salon’s Laura Miller offers an appraisal of Girls. The television series, which follows the lives and relationships of four young women in New York, has been stirring up controversy in the US and Miller opens her review with the claim that the first season is “the most argued-about five hours of American scripted television in recent memory.” Written, directed and starred-in by 26-year-old Lena Dunham, it was originally lauded for being fresh and exciting; when it first appeared it generated glowing reviews. However, it has subsequently come under fire for presenting an unrealistic depiction of the lives of young women, with complaints that the characters are too privileged and unlikeable. “Girls will arrive in the UK trailing clouds of these debates,” predicts Miller, “this sort of show can’t be meaningfully separated from the highly digitised conversation about it.” But she brushes aside the dismissals of the show as a hipster iteration of Sex and the City, insisting that, despite the fact that the focus of the series is on the bonds between the young women, “nobody is likely to covet this foursome’s lifestyle, copy their outfits or, when visiting Manhattan, make a pilgrimage to their favourite cupcake shop. Girls isn’t aspirational. Not, that is, unless you aspire to average wardrobes, exploitative starter jobs, cramped and grubby apartments, exasperated parents and marginally unemployed boyfriends. Authenticity, not glamour is the calling card of Girls.” It is this authenticity that Miller admires and feels makes the series worth watching.

Elsewhere in the Critics section George Eaton reviews Christopher Hitchens’s posthumously published Mortality, a collection of the pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair throughout his battle with oesophageal cancer, supplemented with a closing chapter  consisting of the fragmentary jottings made in his last few days. “Hitchens’s strengths – his mastery of irony, his range of reference, his contempt for euphemism – are all in evidence here but there is a timeless, aphoristic quality to these essays that distinguishes them from his writings on politics and literature,” he observes. “Wit, irony, the consolations of philosophy . . . are the reserves we draw on when medicine can do no more,” says Eaton “and rarely were they more formidably deployed than by Hitchens.”

Also in Books, Helen Lewis finds Naomi Wolf’s latest offering Vagina: a New Biography a disappointing read, filled with psychobabble and bizarre, unsubstantiated mysticism. “Despite the repeated invocations of cutting-edge scientific research, the smell of patchouli pervades throughout,” she says. “Brace yourself,” is her warning to potential readers. Lewis concludes that “the science was not engagingly presented, the transcendentalism left me cold, and the remedial advice – that men should pay more attention to their female partners’ pleasure and maybe give them a nice surprise once in a while – is banal in the extreme.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman on Bob Dylan's new album Tempest, Ollie Brock on translated fiction, Anthony Seldon on Andrew Adonis and Antonia Quirke on the idea of "the other woman".