"Girls": All-consuming narcissism and entitlement are essential to its success

These "Girls" are a voice of their generation, not the voice of their generation.

HBO’s new blockbuster for the chattering classes, Girls, opens with 24-year-old Hannah Horvarth getting cut off financially by her parents, and throwing a tantrum in full view of a room of diners.

“Do you realise how lucky you are?” she asks the two professors, who are visiting their daughter in New York, and paying for the dinner on which she is chomping down.

“I could be a drug addict,” she says sulkily, stabbing her plate with a fork. Eventually, realising they are serious about the demise of her allowance, Hannah refuses to see her parents to say goodbye the next day. “I have work; I have a dinner thing, then I am busy trying to become who I am,” she adds, storming off.

In my experience there are two reactions to this. For some, a guilty laugh of recognition, for others, a moan and feeling of disgust at her boundless sense of entitlement.

And that, for me, is what Girls is all about.

Do you see this programme as a forensically well-observed insight into your life? Or do you recognise the type of person Hannah is, and remember why you try to spend as much time away from her as possible?

Lena Dunham, the writer, director, and star of Girls suggests we feel some level of sympathy for Hannah Horvarth and her sad dead-end internships and the fact she can’t fit into American Apparel jeans, but equally we are invited, over and over, to mock her narcissism and obliviousness to the suffering of the rest of the world.

Lena Dunham in "Girls"

When Hannah gets a smear test, she ruminates on the abstract possibility of whether she would actually like to have Aids to her gynaecologist. After being told that this is a “silly” thing to say considering how many women die of the disease, Hannah accuses the gynaecologist of scaring her by implying she is going to die.

The response of any of the four girls of the show’s title is always “for me...” or “well, when I...”. Their narcissism is so total, so consuming, that any attempts by others to relate episodes of their lives to the characters are met with a deft analysis of how this will affect them.

Ex-boyfriend’s gay? Well now you feel bad for not noticing. Current lover is in AA and didn’t tell you? How could he be so selfish? How can you even begin to deal with your own feelings on this, let alone think about why he turned to drinking?

A still from episode one of "Girls"

Girls' portrayal of young women as neurotic, over-privileged, and almost left useless by a society that has educated and empowered them is unsettling.

Aren’t these graduates supposed to be the ones who can do anything, $200,000 of college tuition later? Here, the endless choices available to rich, white, educated American women render them dysfunctional, so they have bad sex and get jobs for which they are hugely under-qualified, or in the case of one character, enter into a regressive state where they marry the very image of weak masculinity.

The race problem in Girls has been well documented, but this is just one symptom of a much wider issue of blind privilege that the show skewers at times but fails to address at other crucial points.

Some commentators have called Girls “gritty” and “real”. “Real” young women, in the sense they imply, don’t have $800 a month spare to pay their friend’s rent as well as their own when they get into a spot of trouble. “Real” women can’t take the day off from a job to patch things up with their boyfriends, because they would get made redundant when the next round of cuts came through.

The implied poverty of their position is temporary at the very worst for these women, and if all else fails they can go back to Michigan and live with their professor parents.

And the girls like them, our peers and even our friends, who expected they would “make it” effortlessly in a world where all the bourgeois security of property ownership, stable relationships and government support has been stripped away, are just as pitiable.

Thankfully, I think Lena Dunham is aware of that. She said in a recent interview:

“The one thing I guarantee I do know about is being middle class, half-Jewish, half-WASP in New York in 2012.”

Dunham doesn’t claim to speak for anyone beyond those socioeconomic boundaries, and she is well aware of their limitations.

In the so-called crisis of privileged women in their twenties, a generation with higher expectations of success and emotional fulfilment can still get it wrong, as they do in Girls, but how very often we get it right, with no credit at all.

Girls airs on Mondays at 10pm on Sky Atlantic HD. Find Jennifer on Twitter as @jaomahony

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era