Entertainment & the Arts: Friday, July 25, 2003

 

Bushnell takes another stab at skewering New York’s social circles

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

As the line between high art and low art becomes increasingly blurred, into the picture steps Candace Bushnell, author of “Sex and the City” and former gossip columnist for the New York Observer.

“Trading Up” (Hyperion, $24.95), her first novel, is no less knowing, no less merciless, and no less funny than Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” However, Bushnell, by traditional literary standards at least, is less of a writer than Wolfe. Her language isn’t as fresh, her style isn’t as distinctive, and she can’t seem to avoid clichés.

Nonetheless, “Trading Up” is just as entertaining and dead-on as “Bonfire.” While Bushnell adopts the heightened realism of Wolfe, she also invokes the memories of Edith Wharton (she borrows the name Selden from “House of Mirth”) and Jacqueline Susann (downers are called “dolls”).

Bushnell even takes an amusing swipe at the high-art competition. A Jonathan Franzen-like character, author of “The Embarrassments,” is described as “arrogant and full of himself, as well as mean.” His work is critiqued as “pretentious and navel-gazing.”

The medley of Bushnell’s high- and low-art influences makes for a postmodern pastiche that somehow comes off as original and wholly believable. Even some of the clichés ring true. “It was so glamorous, Janey thought, to be traveling in a chauffeured Mercedes, to be rich and swathed in fur coats, to be laughing and slightly drunk after a champagne lunch at one of the city’s most exclusive restaurants, to be beautiful and to have beautiful and famous friends, and to be on her way to a jewelry auction at Christie’s.”

Janey Wilcox, who appeared in “Four Blondes,” Bushnell’s collection of stories, is back. She’s a 33-year-old AMW, actress-model-whatever, and she’s vacuous, ruthless and unredeemed. And she’s a sweetheart compared to some of the supporting characters who surround her in this caustic view of New York’s social circles.

Off-putting as this may sound, “Trading Up” is a page turner. There is something fascinating about seemingly privileged people destroying their lives with pettiness and intrigues.

Janey is, as they say in the biz, following her dream. The dream is always the same: money and fame. What’s interesting here are the machinations and humiliations Janey goes through.

She trades sexual favors for a screen-writing gig that goes horribly wrong, sleeps with a friend’s boyfriend, marries the wrong rich man — she should have called it off when she saw he wore dark socks with sandals — and even sells herself to a Middle Eastern gunrunner for $10,000 a week.

Ah, the good life. Except Janey doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself.

“She shuddered. In three months, she’d be thirty-four, in a few years, forty. What if her life continued on and on in the same pattern? What if she ended up being one of those women who never really get anywhere, who end up at forty with no relationship and no career? She had seen those women at parties, laughing too hard and wearing clothing only twenty-five-year-olds should wear … No! she nearly cried aloud. She wouldn’t end up like that — she must take a chance.”

Janey takes plenty of chances, and most turn out badly. Bushnell, staying true to her realism, does not try to redeem her anti-heroine. The story ends with a hollow triumph that is sadly appropriate and, in its own perverse way, totally satisfying. This is more a cautionary tale than a breezy summer read.

The last time we see the Franzen character he is at a post-Oscar party “swilling his drink, nearly busting the seams of his plaid flannel shirt with self-importance” as he discusses his book with a powerful agent. Janey is working the room, pitching her own screenplay, which is based on her life story. In Bushnell’s view of our marketplace-driven culture, Janey and the Franzen character, low art and high art, are much more alike than different.

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Mark Lindquist