Candace Bushnell: Sex, success, the city and the zeitgeist
Candace Bushnell, once called 'Jane Austen with a martini', turns a sharp, forensic gaze on New York's super-rich in her new novel
Friday 07 November 2008
When Sex and the City hit the big screen earlier this year, the characters looked a little older, if not necessarily wiser. It was, after all, more than a decade since Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte exploded into our Friday nights with their taboo-breaking, ball-breaking tales of sex and the single woman in a city where the perfect Manolo proved a damn sight easier to find than the perfect man. Carrie's creator, and alter ego, Candace Bushnell, looks not just a little older than her super-glamorous jacket photo. She also looks more fragile. This is a woman who has worked for success, and it shows.
It's 14 years since she started writing the column that became the novel that became the TV series that became the film, 14 years since her clear-eyed portrayal of toxic bachelors and nerdy no-hopers in a society with "its own cruel mating rituals, as complicated and sophisticated as those in an Edith Wharton novel", propelled her from a land of hope to a land of glory, 14 years since those martini-sipping Manhattanites shattered the stereotype of sad spinsterhood, perhaps for ever.
And now, in her fifth novel, One Fifth Avenue, there's a character who "had watched every single episode of Sex and the City at least 'a hundred times'," and comes to New York in search of "her own Mr Big". Postmodern irony, you might say, except that Bushnell's satire on the New York sexual landscape has itself become such a part of that landscape that it might be more unrealistic to ignore it. Sex and the zeitgeist has proved a potent cocktail, and a lucrative one.
If Bushnell, like Carrie Bradshaw, once had a love of fashion that tended to the wild (a look, incidentally, now branded and sold at that temple to the comfy trouser, M&S), today, in the tea-room of a posh London hotel, she is looking – well, a little more Cindy McCain. Super-smart camel coat, exquisite purple dress, high heels, of course, and leopard-skin handbag. The effect is baby doll with a hint of steel.
The voice, however, is more steel than baby doll: deep, husky, and with that distinctive New York timbre that says "I know what I want and I'm going to get it". Bushnell, as it happens, always knew what she wanted. "I just wanted to be a writer," she declares. As a child in small-town Connecticut, she read "everything". "I was always attracted to books by English authors," she says. "I thought they were very, very glamorous. I read Evelyn Waugh and thought that was the ultimate."
And there is something of Waugh in Bushnell's work: the pitiless eye on an often merciless world, the skewering of a culture and its mores, the cool, relentless gaze. In Sex and the City, it was the Manhattan dating scene of thirtysomething women who bore a startling resemblance to Bushnell and her friends which hit the satirical, and popular, jackpot. In Four Blondes, it was a world of tough, upwardly mobile women seeking love, lingerie and Louis Vuitton luggage. In Trading Up, it was one in which every asset – from your sparkling eyes to your silicone implants – was a commodity to be registered, flaunted, and, yes, traded up.
So was she aware of Waugh as an early influence? "Absolutely," she nods. "Of course, he's a far superior writer, but I love the satire and it's something I think the English do really well." But what, I wonder, about American telly? What, for example, about Saturday Night Live? "The Americans do parody," she replies firmly. "I used to watch Saturday Night Live when I was a teenager in 1976, but I don't think I'm going to be watching TV at 11.30 on a Saturday night." Well, sorry for asking. And what, I wonder, about Sarah Palin, that crusading enemy of the metropolitan elite, of everything Bushnell's characters stand for? "You know," says Bushnell, with a weary sigh,"I'm just going to pass on political questions."
It wasn't, I say, a political question. "Yeah," she says. "I understand. Look, for anybody in the limelight, it helps if they have a story, a story that is readily understandable. I think that she's someone who has a story." And what, I ask, about her story? Famously long-term single, serially dating powerful men, including the real-life "Mr Big", Bushnell, at 43, met and fell in love with a man 10 years younger, Charles Askegard, principal dancer at the New York City Ballet. They married eight weeks later, on a beach in Nantucket. Fairy-tale ending. Quest fulfilled.
"You know, I never think of that as my story," she says. "I always think of my story as somebody who knew what they wanted to do at a young age, and has been very determined to do that. I've never given up." The American version of Cinderella, in fact, the one where she sweeps up those cinders day after day and finally gets the recognition, Prada frocks, and prince.
There was a time in New York when she was sleeping on a foam mattress on the floor. Most wannabe writers would have given up. "I do think that people who are successful are willing to go through a certain amount of discomfort," she says. "They're willing to push through it. In the pursuit of anything, there are ups and downs." Indeed. Well, the ups, when they came, were pretty good. Bushnell was offered a column about her love life in The New York Observer, and was soon one of the most sought-out girls about town. And the novel, when it came out, won both critical and popular acclaim, shooting into the bestseller charts and earning its author a reputation as "Jane Austen with a martini".
When the series came out, in 1997, Bushnell wrote Four Blondes and then Trading Up and then traded up her status from single to married, swapping her party-girl image for that of domestic goddess, with a brilliant career thrown in. "We're just a regular couple," she says. "There are some evenings when Charles is free and some evenings when he isn't, so sometimes we go to things together, and sometimes I go with a girlfriend. He has to read everything," she adds. "We share work. We're lucky that way. We're both in creative fields."
Her characters, however, increasingly are not. While her fourth novel, Lipstick Jungle (also a TV series) portrayed a world not a million miles from Bushnell's own, a world of fortysomething designers, editors and movie producers, her new one, One Fifth Avenue, focuses more on people who make money for money's sake. Set in one of the smartest apartment blocks in Manhattan, it turns a forensic gaze on the super-rich. There are writers, and media types of various kinds, but the real objects of fascination are the hedge-funders who can make millions in the micro-seconds it takes to send money from one computer to the next.
If the plot is rather less convincing than some of her earlier ones, her eye for the zeitgeist – the amoral anonymity of the blogger, the desire for success without achievement, and the "overwhelming ache for prime real estate" – is as sharp as ever. But while her world of helicopters to dinner dates in the Hamptons, and apartments the size of palaces, holds a certain amount of anthropological interest, it's also rather hard to engage with. Why, I ask, is she so interested in the rich? "I think dramatically one needs characters who want something," she replies. Well, yes, but you don't, surely, have to be super-rich to want something? "I find it fascinating," she says firmly.
It's all very entertaining, but the fact remains that Bushnell's real strength as a novelist lies in her depiction of the relations between the sexes. If she's not exactly Jane Austen, or Evelyn Waugh, she has a real talent for portraying the nuances of the mismatched expectations of men and women. And if she hasn't solved it, she has certainly identified the crisis.
The word is barely out of my mouth and Bushnell looks pained. "I don't see a crisis," she says fiercely. "I see people getting on with things. The people I know who are married seem to be happily married, and engaged to life. They don't expect their husband to bring home the bacon. If you're very wedded to a narrow idea of what life should be," she adds, pointing her finger at me, "you're going to run out of time."
Who's "you", I ask? "You!" she says, jabbing her finger again. She seems to be responding to a conversation we didn't have, in which I confess my lifelong desire to marry a merchant banker, but before I can challenge her, she's off again. "Do you realise that human beings are doing better than they ever have? People live better than they ever, ever did. We don't walk around the streets of London and have somebody leap out and knife you."
Well, actually, if you're a young black boy, you sometimes do, but let's not go into that. Anyway, we've run out of time. "I wish we could have a drink and argue some more," says Bushnell, confusingly. And as I stagger out into Covent Garden, I do something I almost never do. I hit the shops. Among my purchases, ridiculously, is a little red dress. Red, the colour of sex. Red, the colour of anger. Red, the colour of energy. Because success, I realise, like the pursuit of happiness and the American Dream, is all very well, but boy does it leave you tired.
'One Fifth Avenue' is published by Little, Brown, priced £12.99
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