March 10, 2017
When She Was Ambivalent: Lena Dunham, Girls, and Philip Roth
by Jacques Berlinerblau
Look carefully through the narrative forestry in HBO’s Girls, and you’ll see Philip Roth lurking through the underbrush, like a lumbering, erect Sasquatch.
Our first sighting occurred last season when our heroine Hannah Horvath assigned “Goodbye Columbus” to her eighth-graders. Pressed by her boss to explain what middle-schoolers stand to gain from Roth’s novella about lust, Hannah reasons thusly:
“I think they’re going to gain a unique understanding of how Jewish men, particularly in their twenties, are just this very specific mix of sexual bravado and extreme self-hatred and it can be really destructive to the girls they choose to fuck.”
If you substitute the word “love” for “hatred,” then Hannah’s analysis strikes me as correct, if not pedagogically sound.
Two weeks ago, we hit the Rothian mother lode. Adam (Hannah’s former boyfriend) and Jessa (Hannah’s former best friend) want to make a movie about their brutal love triangle with Hannah. In Adam’s words, “It’s a film about the complex dynamic the three of us have been fostering for years.” They wish, then, to create a cinematic fiction about a relationship that we have already observed within the fiction of Girls. Dunham is mimicking Roth’s metafictional signature move. From his experimental novel My Life as a Man (1974) to American Pastoral (1997) and beyond, Roth has crafted stories that reflect upon how the authors in his stories craft the very stories that we are reading.
The episode in which Dunham ratchets up the Rothian meta is entitled “American Bitch.” The setting: Literary icon Chuck Palmer has invited Hannah to his home, assumedly to lodge a protest. In her “niche-feminist blog,” Hannah has chronicled Chuck’s propensity to engage in consensual (?) sexual relations with college-age women he meets on book tours. The writers rehearse their arguments like the tired ambassadors of two nations that have warred over sexual politics for a millennium. Hannah speaks of the power differential between famous, older males and young women starved for recognition of their talents. Chuck demurs: maybe chicks just dig literary genius? They come to him for the thrill. They come for the fiction it might ignite within them. They stay for the sex.
There is so much Rothian intertexting in “American Bitch” that one hardly knows where to begin. The premise of a young writer being invited to the home of his literary idol–and getting an eyeful–was canvassed in Roth’s 1979 The Ghost Writer, when Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, visits the farmhouse of the reclusive fictionalist E.I. Lonoff. Domestic complications ensue (including the possibility that Anne Frank is alive, not well, and having an affair with the aging novelist). In the final scene, Lonoff tells the dazed Zuckerman where to find paper for “his feverish notes.” “I’ll be curious to see,” says the mentor, “how we all come out someday. It could be an interesting story.”
That Chuck Palmer wants to trigger Hannah’s interesting story—and just plain trigger Hannah—is insinuated throughout the episode. Hannah herself comments on how Chuck has let her overhear an incredibly personal conversation about his thirteen-year old daughter’s mental health. The apartment is seeded with photos, degrees, citations, and other monuments to Chuck’s greatness/coolness. In another meta-flourish, the camera lingers upon paintings of the interior and exterior of Chuck’s home. (Upon closer inspection, I realized that the aforementioned monuments to his greatness/coolness were not in these paintings; he seems to have planted them for Hannah to inspect and appreciate).
When they retire to Chuck’s bedroom/bookroom, a disarmed Hannah exclaims:
I can’t believe you have a signed copy of When She Was Good. God, everyone acts like this book is Philip Roth being the worst but it’s actually him being the best. And I know I’m not supposed to like him because he’s like a misogynist and he demeans women but I can’t help it, I fucking love his writing.
I fucking love his—and Dunham’s—writing too! But let me caution that you can’t read either without encountering misdirection and mindfuckery aplenty. Yes, Chuck Palmer gave Hannah a signed first edition of a Roth novel. I must point out, however, that he gave her a signed first copy of arguably the worst Roth novel ever written. Let us also recall that Palmer has gifted Hannah with a text that features an insufferable female protagonist who dies exposed to the elements in the midst of a psychotic bender.
Maybe that’s why it feels so good when Hannah hurls When She Was Good against a wall. This occurs after her host lures her to his bed and places his erect penis on her thigh. Chuck (played by Matthew Rhys) has earlier referred to himself as a “witch,” and after this May Pole incident he looks positively demented. It’s as if Chuck’s spider is mouthing to Hannah’s fly, “My pretty, I have taught you whence fiction comes!” No lesson could be more Rothian than that.
Her escape foiled by the arrival of Chuck’s daughter, Hannah is forced to listen to the kid perform a flute solo. Who knew Rihanna’s Desperado could so resemble the soundtrack of Rosemary’s Baby? Hannah exits in disgust. But at least she has an interesting story. As she departs, a coven of women file into Chuck’s building. Mesmerized by the siren call of the nymph’s flute, they are about to learn whence fiction comes.
Jacques Berlinerblau teaches at Georgetown University, has written many books, and is an editor for the journal Philip Roth Studies. His newest book, Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students was published by Melville House in June 2017. Follow him on Twitter!