Trapped in Quarantine With a Serialized Lena Dunham Novel

Verified Strangers, running in a parallel universe on

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. The ground is shifting beneath our feet. We can’t tell what’s happening from moment to moment. We’re stuck inside, reading dire news of lives being lost, worrying about how bad things will get.

This, clearly, is the time for a serialized novel on by Lena Dunham about a 32-year-old woman navigating the ups and downs of the dating life.

Lena Dunham, who brought you six seasons of the ups and downs of the dating lives of four twentysomething women on HBO’s Girls, has ventured out of her comfort zone for this new work. Verified Strangers is set in Los Angeles, not New York. Also, her protagonist has a Hispanic last name: Alvarez. Dunham describes her as Bostonian-Cuban. Surely this will have some importance in the work. Why else would Dunham have made this choice?

The Hallowed Tradition of Charles Dickens and George Eliot tells us in an introduction that the serialized novel is meant to carry on the hallowed tradition of Charles Dickens and George Eliot, who also spun popular tales for the public. Those tales, it turns out, stood the test of time. (Will Dunham’s? We won’t be around to find out. Will future generations? A little unclear on that too, given the state of things.) At any rate, if Dickens could write during the time of the cholera outbreak in London in 1854, Dunham can certainly help us out now. Describing Dunham as “one of the most gifted writers we have today,” the intro goes on to explain that she came to Vogue with the idea herself and they said yes. So here it is, now, for us to gaze upon in our isolation and terror.

Also, there is this added feature: “Every second chapter will end with a cliffhanger: Ally is faced with two options for her next move. Which will she choose? … Readers will be able to vote on the Vogue Instagram account on where the story should go next, a decision that Dunham will abide by.”

Lena Dunham

What’s odd, though, is that Lena Dunham already didn’t abide by these ground rules in that the fourth chapter—if I’m doing my math right, that should have been the second “every second chapter,” yes?—did not offer a chance to vote. (There was no explanation for this.)

We really have no idea how long this serialized novel is going to be. Dunham said on Instagram that it will go on for “as long as it takes,” which sounds ominous to me. Anyway, this is what I can tell you after having read the first ten chapters:

Ally is still heartbroken over an ex. Still, she’s out there dating, although in chapter 1, she’s already fed up with it: “Somewhere between pasta and dessert, Ally decided she was done with dating.” She’s so over these guys. “Guys from the apps,” she refers to them at one point.

Dan and Hugo, Hugo and Dan

But there are a couple guys she happens to meet not from the apps who spark some interest. There is Dan. And there is Hugo. Hugo is more mysterious. At one point he actually disappears. Dan is a lapsed Mormon with a great body. They manage to hook up against a tree. But Ally’s thoughts are on Hugo. It’s confusing. Also in the cast of characters is Timmy, whom the third-person narration refers to by the pronoun “they.” (Timmy will come into play later on.) And Ally’s queer roommate Caz.

I mean, couldn’t Ally just keep things simple and pick Dan? No, Ally is always getting in her own way. She gravitates to difficulty. “It was a contradiction. And Ally loved contradictions.” Plus, remember, readers are helping to steer this story out in Instagram-world. (I.e. Reader: Should Ally go downtown with the cocky but amusing Hugo or stick to her dinner plans with loyal Caz and Meg in Venice Beach?)

Ally is like a pastiche of the characters in Girls, come to think of it. A little neurotic and clumsy Hannah here, a touch of glamorous but vulnerable Marnie there. The whole enterprise smacks of TV. Dunham even makes a wink-wink nod to this already in the third sentence of the first chapter when she writes: “He had the kind of slick blankness that allowed Ally to project an entire inner life onto him, like she was writing backstory for a minor character in her favorite TV series.” Haha oh I get it. But unlike in TV-land, we have no charismatic and good-looking actors, no prettified and distracting locations, on which to clamp our plague-weary eyes.

Frequently Terrible

Just from the standpoint of, you know, writing, Verified Strangers is frequently terrible.

A few examples:

“Normally such a boss-daddy assertion of power would have her registering at Crate & Barrel.”

“Dan was earnest. He didn’t have the spiky, irony-laden sense of humor of Hugo.”

“‘Hey,’ he said, sliding his Wayfarers into his sandy, boy-in-a-John-Hughes movie hair.”

“Timmy looked like the coolest boy at a 1970s boarding school.”

“I love that kids have instincts.”

“It had a palliative effect on her, softening her edges and giving her the sense that she was currently standing on the only spot on earth worth being at.”

Also, this line of dialogue: “K, cuz you’re kinda scrunching your face up like it tastes shitty.” That’s not something that Dunham intends to appear in a text. It’s just a line of dialogue within the narration. So why did Lena Dunham write the K and the cuz? I think we’re getting a little mixed up here.

But wait, there were a couple paragraphs I didn’t mind in chapter six. They had some decent sentences and actually took a bit of time to give a glimpse of Ally’s interior life.

Then it went back to being bad again. To be fair, I’ve based this assessment only on the first ten chapters. Maybe it turns into an Eliot-esque masterpiece after that point.

But how is reading Dunham’s novel any different than seeking out the diversion of a frothy Netflix or Hulu show in times of great stress? It’s not, really. It’s just this: There are so many great books and even great pieces of writing on the Internet that you could be reading as the injured world spins. Life is short, possibly even quite a bit shorter than we thought.

So why did I bother to write about a bad novel written by Lena Dunham at this time? There are so many more important things. Well, I lost most of my freelance work because of the coronavirus, and they paid me little bit of money to do this. Also, it was a distraction.


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Janet Steen

Janet Steen is a writer and editor living north of New York City in the Hudson Valley. She has written for The New York Times, Third Man Records' Maggot Brain, Longreads, Salon, Details, and many other publications.

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