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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

`Sex and the City' author's new novel is a long, trite conversation

BY PATRICK O'GARA
BLADE SENIOR EDITOR

TRADING UP. By Candace Bushnell. Hyperion. 404 pages. $24.95.

Truman Capote once complained that what Jack Kerouac did wasn't writing, but typing. What Candace Bushnell, author of Trading Up, does isn't writing either, but chattering.

I would bet my boots to her Manolo Blahniks she babbles at length into some sort of recording device, whereupon assistants - a team of elves, possibly, with English as a second language - transcribe it.

Only that can explain the following:

“Each day `officially' began with a group lunch at the beach restaurant 55 (pronounced Cinquant-Cinque).”

Oh, yeah. Kinkwant Kank. Know it well. Snazzy.

Or is Ms. Bushnell trying to be funny? The book jacket tells us it's “a hilarious tour de force” and “bitingly witty.” Jackets can tell much about their books, almost always untrue. My guess is, Ms B. is deadly serious. Trading Up has many qualities, nearly all dismal, but humor is in short supply. This is as it should be. Greed, venality, ambition, and deceit, the great American virtues, are not mocked.

One observation did make me smile: “. . . Janey wondered why it was that in France, bald men always managed to look elegant, while in America, they all looked like Bruce Willis.”

Trouble is, such penetrating insights in Bushnell's blowzy blockbuster are as rare as the follicles on the aging actor's pate.

Readers who have stuck with me this far will be wondering when I'm going to get to the plot. Never, because there isn't one - or, if there is, it would take a far less inquisitive mind than mine to track it down.

And, as the book is painfully long-winded, the plot has lots of places to hide. Maybe it's tucked away in the central character Janey's $2,000 Chanel purse, or in her Louis Vuitton duffel bag or beneath the hood of her silver Porsche Boxster convertible.

It is unlikely to be nestling in her bra, as there cannot be room, even for the teensiest little plot in so snug a garment. Janey, you see, has surmounted the crippling handicap of having a beautiful face and an slender, almost perfect body coupled with breasts that are just too big.

The majority of women so afflicted would consign themselves to a nunnery forthwith, but she has resourcefully parlayed these setbacks into a winning hand by becoming a Victoria's Secret model. In this line of work, it seems, such flaws are considered almost advantageous.

Trading Up chronicles the nubile Janey's quest to collar a suitably wealthy husband; one, moreover, who will not look askance at a wife who spends her working day being snapped lolling around in her skivvies.

Unsurprisingly, sex is a constant topic. But while it is discussed at length, gratifyingly few actual bodily encounters are subjected to Ms. Bushnell's laborious descriptive style.

This is a mercy because the sex in question is almost invariably what President Bill and Monica did in real life (lewinskying?) In the book, the act in question is employed, not for love - and certainly not for fun - but as inducement or reward. In the manner of Machiavelli, Ms. Bushnell passes no moral judgments on either scenario.

Ms. Bushnell's aim is to provide us with a good read. I think she fails, but try the following for yourself: “As she scanned the line of cars, her eye was caught by a rare 1948 Jaguar XK120 with a six-cylinder engine. The car was so extraordinary (the first two hundred were crafted by hand) Janey had only seen one in her life - at a classic car show at the Old Bridgehampton racetrack. She had even considered having sex with the owner to get closer to the car, but it turned out he wasn't there.”

And there is page after page like that. A weird mixture of utter irrelevance and teenager-like attempts to shock. And it goes on and on with the relentlessness of an Energizer bunny. I spent the best part of a day floundering through a jungle of non-sequiturs. But then, it must have taken her almost that long to write it.

And so what? Her two previous books sold over a million copies, it says here. Bushnell should care. Cynics, said Oscar Wilde, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Ms. Bushnell's values seem somewhat hazy, but she sure knows the prices of things. Most every item mentioned in Trading Up comes with a tag: $150,000 diamond necklaces, $500,000 cars, $10 million apartments, $30 million husbands. And she knows what sort of a discount a girl should demand - not on the husband, of course - 30 percent.

Candace, famous as the inspiration for the Sex and the City TV series, is 44. In the book jacket's picture she looks about 15, skinny; sporting a flawless complexion, flashing teeth, glittering eye, innocent smile. She is clad in what appear to be a couple of car-wash chamois-leathers stapled together. (Versace? $45,000? Minus 30 percent discount, $30,000?)

Despite being touted as a novel, Trading Up is trading under false colors. It is a manual, a “how to” book - on how to snag the right sort of man (a rich one, natch).

So the clunky language is beside the point and may even add authenticity, like those instructions for assembling a bicycle that have been inexpertly translated from the original Japanese. Information is on offer here, not art.

Regardless of my whining, Trading Up will surely shoot straight to the top of the best-seller lists. If you must buy it, so be it. But make sure you ask for 30 percent off.



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