Nov 142005

Anyone who reads this bestselling, critically acclaimed novel becomes part of the focus group for the inevitable television or Hollywood stinker.

“Lipstick Jungle” by Candace Bushnell. (Hyperion)

By Harvey Blume

Easily the most intriguing passage in Candace Bushnell’s numbing new novel reads as follows:

“Where r u?” the text read. It was from Wendy.
“in subway?”
“srching 4 inspiration”
“inspiration @ mike’s? 1 p.m. ? big news.”

This, of course, is an example of cell phone text messaging, a medium that encourages users to take drastic measures to achieve txt cmprssn. Bushnell displays an aptitude for this medium that is conspicuously absent from the writing in the rest of the book. In fact, the sheer quantity of information tucked into the above terse exchange supports the notion that “Lipstick Jungle” would have been much improved had Bushnell (cell) phoned the whole thing in.

Consider, for example, Victory’s amazement that she finds herself “in subway?” Note, especially, how much work the question mark at the end of the phrase manages to do: “Moi?” it says, “*Moi*, Victory, in such a milieu?” Wendy’s exclamatory “u!!!!!!” drives home how difficult it is to envision Victory “in subway.” But Wendy has no need to ask if Victory is going “uptwn dntwn or dnt tll me brkln!?!?” Victory swiftly informs her she’s descended to mass transit only because she’s “srching 4 inspiration.” Anyway, Wendy knows that neither Victory nor anyone else in their crowd would actually get on the subway for the profane purpose of *going* anywhere. To go places, they slip into limousines, helicopters, jet planes (private, when possible), or a yacht.

The text message exchange makes it plain that the book will not tarry in New York’s nether regions. In fact there’s nothing in what precedes or follows this exchange that has the complex frisson and civility to be found on an average Manhattan subway car. Somehow, Bushnell has dreamed up a colorless, monoglot, ethnically homogeneous New York City, a town magically purged of Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Latinos, Pakistanis, Arabs, and Afro-Americans, among others. One suspects that a Jew or two has been secreted into the plot, but only after swearing a solemn oath to be silent about their origins.

Bushnell is the author of “Sex and the City,” the source of the television series. Like its predecessor, “Lipstick Jungle” has been credited with offering fresh views into today’s New York. One such fresh view from Bushnell is that — appearances to the contrary –New York is a white-bread town. It’s certainly a white-bread town for Bushnell’s characters: millionaires and billionaires all of them, except when chauffeurs and nannies make their cameos.

The billionaires are men, the kind who might once have been lionized in an Ann Rand novel but seem to have suffered brain damage since. They are now vain and infantile, unworthy of their jets, yachts and the Manhattan city blocks they convert into playpens for themselves and their cronies. Bushnell’s millionaires are women. We’ve met two already, Victory (a peculiar name to be sure, but then again if a man can be called Victor) and Wendy. There’s also a Nico. But the minor variations in occupation, marital status, and dress — what will Barbie wear today? — Bushnell gives them, fails to confer individuality. We’re left with a NicoWendyVictory conglomerate.

All three of its members sense that something is wrong with their lives. That something, they conclude, is that they’re not billionaires. Billionaires, in their view, have all the fun. The very very very rich really are different from the merely very very rich. But the billionaire club seems governed by an unwritten rule that no women need apply.

This prompts deep thoughts among the outcasts. Bushnell leaves no doubt about when a deep thought is coming. Her characters get girlish at its approach. One, for example, nibbles a “finger in consternation.” Another looks out the “window again, frowning.” As for the kind of deep thought they’re likely to entertain, here is Victory (or maybe Nico or Wendy) complaining to an overweening billionaire date: “Your life is like a big Broadway show. And my life is like a smaller, off-Broadway show. It might not be as big, but it’s my show, and it’s just as interesting as your show.”

And here’s Wendy, (or maybe Victory or Nico) on a visit to Cannes: “Marvelous how the French had their own movie stars, she thought.” And then there’s Victory (if not Nico or Wendy) crossing Fifth Avenue : “It was like stepping over some imaginary line,” she mused. “The side of the city east of Fifth Avenue was so much nicer than the west side. Had the architects gotten together years ago and spelled it out — our side is going to be better than yours?”

There’s plenty in “Lipstick Jungle” to make you wish for the merest whiff of the irony that was supposedly rotting out our culture not long ago. There’s not a touch of irony to save Bushnell’s characters from their earnest idiocy. As it happens, the deep thought that Victory (or whoever) had about real estate as she crossed Fifth Avenue was not only boorish but wrong. As any Manhattan broker can tell you, property values on the west side are now outstripping those on the east side. If you can’t expect Bushnell to know that sort of thing, what can you expect her to know?

But the real scandal of “Lipstick Jungle” lies outside its dreadful pages. The scandal is that critics have treated this as a real book, a genuine attempt at fiction, instead of as the bad pilot for an awful television show that it more resembles. Anyone who reads the book becomes part of the focus group for the inevitable television or Hollywood stinker. That includes this hapless reviewer. No amount of spleen in a review can right the balance. What Wendy said to Victory (or Victory to Wendy) — “whaaaa?” — is the kind of attention this book deserves.


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