Show Hide image

When we were young

For all its sassiness, Lena Dunham's new show "Girls" seems to speak to an older audience.

Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls (Mondays, 10pm) is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Do I mean this in a good way or a bad? I don’t know. To be Dunham-ish about it (she is all about ebb and flow), I’m having a bad time today and the thought of it is making me pretty mad. Why do young women – any women! – always have to be portrayed as so bloody ditzy? But two days ago, when I was feeling more benign, I loved it. It took me right back to the dread days when I used to ricochet around London, a silver ball in a bagatelle board. I’m one of those people – like the nurse at the women’s health clinic in episode two –who would not be 23 again if you paid me. I didn’t know who I was, or who I wanted to be, and I had so little clue about who I wanted to sleep with that I, well . . . I should perhaps draw a veil here.

Lena Dunham writes Girls and she stars in it, and sometimes she directs it, too – which would be enough to make you sick if she wasn’t so talented. She’s a good actor, warm(ish) and natural, and her writing has the ring of truth about it, a fact I find moderately surprising given how precociously successful she is; after all, the stuff she dishes up for the delectation of horrified subscribers to HBO (Sky Atlantic in the UK) has mostly to do with failure. The failure to get one’s parents to subsidise one’s kooky Brooklyn life. The failure to get a job worthy of a graduate. The failure to sleep with a male of the species who is anything less than physically repulsive. Her character Hannah’s current boyfriend, Adam, is straight out of The Name of the Rose. She likes him well enough but her affection is shot through with low-level gratitude and a weird passivity most women will recognise. When they have sex – his foreplay begins and ends with the words: “lie there”, and he is prone to shouting “dirty whore” at her during the act itself – the expression on her face is one of mild interest, almost as if she were watching herself from across the room. He’s more of an experiment than a boyfriend. But you sense that he has the capacity to hurt her nonetheless. This feeling I really remember. Oh, the men who made me cry when I didn’t even like them!

Girls wears its pop-culture references on its sleeve, in the manner of hard-won Girl Guide badges. Think Manhattan, think Clueless, think Sex and the City. Especially Sex and the City. But where Candace Bushnell gave us archetypes – the brunette square, the blonde sex maniac, the red-headed workaholic – Dunham gives us something more blurry. It’s brilliantly knowing the way she plays wannabe writer Hannah sitting, Carrie-style, on her bed, her laptop open, only for her to type the words “diseases you can get from the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms” into Google. She and her friends Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Marnie (Allison Williams) even look alike, all four of them being brunettes.

Their sisterliness is kindly, but it’s also flexible and therefore realistic. When one of them requires an abortion – wow, an American TV show that allows having an abortion to be about as traumatic as going to the dentist – they pitch up to the clinic together. On the other hand, they think nothing of being late for one another should circumstances (ie male attention) intervene.

They’re not especially likeable, these girls. They’re entitled. They’re not hard up the way most people are hard up. Hannah is the spoiled only child of college professors and her face when they told her they would no longer fund her perma-intern lifestyle was ghastly to behold (another actor would have looked horrified straight away, but Dunham smiled first, as if at a private joke). However, in the right mood, this suits me fine. I don’t hold with the drippy school of thought that insists fictional characters must be likeable. And besides, which of us didn’t behave badly, or at least stupidly, when we were young? That’s the really weird thing about Girls. For all its sassiness, for all that it was written by a 26-year-old, it seems to speak mostly to an older audience – to those of us watching it from a position of safety, an extra decade having reduced our foolishness to grim memory.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis