Sex, What a Pity

Trading Down: Even the orgasms are jaded.

Is Candace Bushnell a realist? that’s a frightening thought given the staggering emptiness of the characters in her new novel, Trading Up. The heroine, Janey Wilcox, is a 33-year-old Victoria’s Secret model with intense but unformed ambitions. You may remember her: Wilcox was the first of the blondes in 4 Blondes, Bushnell’s 2000 collection of novellas. And some of the preposterously named characters (Comstock Dibble) continue here, with a new crop of preposterously named characters. There’s Mimi and Pippi and Zizi (he’s male, actually, an Argentine polo player whom Janey tries to seduce).

Trading Up does have some relation to the New York we know. Peter Cannon, Janey Wilcox’s ex, must have been drawn partly from Dana Giacchetto, the felonious celebrity stock picker. There’s a Jonathan Franzen–like character, author of a book called The Embarrassments. A synergy-obsessed media company—known here as Splatch Verner—is building a new headquarters on Columbus Circle. A young publicist who appears on the cover of New York Magazine before winding up in jail? Hello, Lizzie! But who inspired the portly movie producer with a zipper problem?

The all-dialogue-guaranteed-overheard thrill of Sex and the City, the sense of real people pursuing real dreams, is largely absent here. In its place is a world-weary cacophony that feels like it could have been written by someone from Des Moines who’d read too much Jacqueline Susann.

No one ever accused Bushnell of being subtle. If not a realist, she is a moralist, and she trowels it on. One of the points here is vacuity. In this human cartoon, each of the characters is equipped with an empty thought bubble. Bushnell’s characters are self-hating socialites, constantly snickering at their own faux pas.

There’s no bodice ripping, either. No one enjoys sex just for sex. Here, the primary sound of sex is the zipper being zipped, as opposed to in Sex and the City, where it was at least a deeply satisfying stage Carrie and friends passed through on the way to possible matrimony. Sex is all utility, part of the bargain; even their orgasms are jaded.

Freighted as the book is with its load of status objects and jangling jewels and aperçus, the plot of Trading Up has a hard time getting up and running. Janey Wilcox is a stick figure. Surgically enhanced breasts notwithstanding, she’s flat and not believable as a world-class beauty. Even her wanting is anorexic. “She wants something,” one of her friends observes. “That’s apparent to everyone. She wants something, but no one can figure out what it is.” Two thirds of the way through, this is no longer Janey Wilcox’s problem but the reader’s.

Of course, New York women living by their wits and whatever else is an old story, if not the oldest profession. Lily Bart and Daisy Buchanan and Sister Carrie and Holly Golightly hover over this book like a ghostly tea party, clucking about cultural decline. Another presence, of course, is Bushnell herself—Janey Wilcox, c’est Candace—although Bushnell is considerably more interesting. Her books gain heat from the fact that she’s a journalist. Sex and the City echoed back to define and glorify the world she was reporting on. She’s a showgirl. Her focused ambitions (a college nickname, she once told me—I worked with her at the New York Observer—was Bedcheck, because she always knew who was sleeping with whom) have taken her where Janey’s won’t. The book is part of her performance. Trading Up is two-dimensional, the kind of book Janey Wilcox might write. It becomes interesting only if you imagine Bushnell writing it.

But part of the problem is also simply what becomes of the comedy of manners when no one has any manners. The revelations here will shock absolutely no one. “It was a soulless pursuit,” thinks Selden Rose, the movie executive Janey marries. “And often, as he stood at these events, holding a glass of cheap champagne … he wondered if any of these people longed for beauty and nature, for a connection that went deeper than the coincidence that they all happened to be thrown together in the same, small little world.”

The gravity of this same small little world sucks the life out of its fictional representations—it makes satire seem redundant.

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Trading Up
By Candace Bushnell.
Hyperion; 404 pages; $24.95.
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Sex, What a Pity