Friday 23 August 2019

The dark side of Sex and the City - how Candace Bushnell's subversive depiction of New York was forgotten behind Cosmos and canapés

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City
The cast of Sex and the City
Candace Bushnell. Photo by Colin O'Riordan

Alice Vincent

Candace Bushnell has returned to what transformed her from skint journalist to an author as monied as the people she immortalised. Is There Still Sex in the City?, out this week, is Bushnell's ninth book. In it, Bushnell continues the quest that made her name: sex, marriage, and whether people are embarking on either.

Now 60 (but looking 15 years younger), she's been married and, like those pitiable women in her first book, moved to Connecticut. But then she divorced and moved back. Is There Still Sex in the City? explains what she has found. The screen rights have already been sold.

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Now, of course, Bushnell's offerings exist firmly in the "popular fiction" category. But, before stilettos and gold handbags adorned her covers, before Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall came to embody the cat-fighting that punctuates Bushnell's prose, Sex and the City captured something far more cynical and distant from romance. It dealt with money and misery, betrayal and bitchiness. It was steeped in the disenchantment of the more moneyed members of Generation X. And then it spawned a multimillion dollar screen franchise so enormous that Bushnell's book - and the literary ambition that inspired it - was smothered by it.

But the hysteria over Manolo Blahnik shoes belied the surprising subversion of Bushnell's writing. As Sex and the City made its way to the screen, the sex became sanitised and the city something more sparkling, like the reflection of the Chrysler Building in a puddle. Bushnell's literary credentials went that way, too, her book was republished and wrapped up in illustrations of stilettos and cocktail glasses, inspiring hundreds more to follow.

Candace Bushnell. Photo by Colin O'Riordan
Candace Bushnell. Photo by Colin O'Riordan

Bushnell was 19 when she moved to Manhattan from an outdoorsy upbringing in Connecticut, and she lasted in the city - scraping by selling the odd story to now-defunct women's mags and sleeping on friends' sofas when she wasn't spending the night "on a piece of foam rubber in a studio apartment with moss growing on the walls" - for 15 years before landing a column in The New York Observer, a publication better known for its pink paper than its journalism.

"Peter [Kaplan, the late Observer editor renowned within New York media] and I came up with this idea that she would report on sex and New York City and society and dating," Peter Stevenson, the paper's former editor told the New York Times. (Stevenson admits he dated Bushnell for a while, "It was lovely and I couldn't keep up with her.") Kaplan decided to call the column 'Sex and the City' and ran it on the front page.

Bushnell's copy wasn't always filed with ease. Kaplan said that editing sessions would leave "blood on the floor", but that "very often she'd bring in the steak cooked and just drop it on the desk." Those who knew her said her entries were barely removed from her diary, bar a few changed names. For her debut, she went to a sex club. It cost her $85. "Le Trapeze was, as the French say, Le Rip-Off," she concluded.

"With Candace, you just light the fuse and step away," Stevenson remarked. "She has a novelist's heart and a reporter's brain."

The "characters" who appeared in Bushnell's column were so closely based on real people that it generated its own gossip at parties, with people trying to identify who was the millionaire "modeliser" (men who serially pursue models) or the wide-eyed and clingy 25-year-old PR party girl (someone Bushnell later said had become "very successful"). That Bushnell only wrote about the very rich, the very thin and the very successful - New York's largely Wasp-y elite - became one of her detractors' main criticisms. The writer, though, took it as evidence of her belonging to a grander literary canon: "There is a fine tradition of chronicling them - Edith Wharton, Fitzgerald and Hemingway all wrote about New York society... I cover the same territory," she told the New York Times in 1995.

The columns were published as a book in 1997, two years after Bushnell negotiated a publishing deal with Grove Atlantic CEO Morgan Entrekin at midnight, in the Bowery Bar - a scene that could have been lifted from the subsequent publication. Bushnell adorned the cover, sprawled on a bed.

The book was called a novel but it was more of an anthology, really. A collection of staccato short stories that made portraits of different, usually nocturnal, corners of Manhattan. Critics were surprised by how well it was written. "Sex and the City reads a lot less like wacky episodes of Friends and a lot more like something darkly - and often hilariously - Ray Carver-esque," wrote the LA Times' reviewer.

More than two decades on, and Sex and The City reads yet more darkly still. Drugs, heavy ones, proliferate. Nobody stays in, but everyone seems bored. Love is replaced with sex, and the sex is fleeting and atomised. Men are either too old and unfaithful, or young and hopelessly naïve. All of them are wealthy. Women are both powerful and brittle, desperate for marriage while trying to survive in a city where, according to the book, matrimony doesn't exist, but can sometimes be offered in exchange for a nice apartment. Carrie never winds up with Big, as happens in the television show and films - he cheats on and confines her. "Mr Big is happily married. Carrie is happily single," declares the book's final line.

We meet Sarah, who drunkenly rollerblades in her basement at 4am. "A grown woman clinging to the role of the ingénue. Is there anything less attractive?" Bushnell asks. "I don't think so." And George, a man who is "worth a few million" and pays out when he impregnates 19-year-old models. The reader learns that, "when he smiles, the tops of his teeth are grey". Bushnell was most roundly praised for her ability to write dialogue and she deploys it like a gloved fist. George is given the devastating closing line in one chapter: "Look at me," he says. "I'm an old man at 29."

Cut away the froth of Sex and the City's television adaptation, the instantly recognisable riff from the opening credits, and Bushnell's book could have sat alongside those of Mary Gaitskill, which document the malaise of sex in New York; Linda Yablonsky, whose A Story of Junk: A Novel also came out in 1997 or Kristen Roupenian, whose New Yorker-published short story 'Cat Person' went viral in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Roupenian recently described Gaitskill's voice as "the sense of a line strung taut between horror and humour, a laugh and a scream". It feels applicable to Bushnell, too.

The cast of Sex and the City
The cast of Sex and the City

"That's all I wanted to do, write books," Bushnell said in 2018. "When I moved to New York, I thought that I was just going to start writing novels and they would be published. And I was 35 and I was really facing, 'Am I ever going to write a book?' I put everything in my life on the line so that I can publish a book and somehow make it. You know, that's the thing about Sex and the City. It's written by somebody who is desperate for a roof over their head, really."

"She was definitely hovering between being an edgy literary writer and being a mainstream popular writer," says James Annesley, head of Newcastle University's School of English. "She started out, like many people do, thinking she was writing a kind of Edith Wharton-type novel for the 20th century, but maybe in the end the juggernaut overtook her."

That juggernaut was the media fascination, the television adaptation that softened her female characters and made them more vulnerable and the blockbuster films that became accused of cultural appropriation and consumer fetishism.

While Bushnell kept company with the elite she wrote about, she was never truly part of that world. Perhaps the most remarkable part of her Sex and the City is the illusion of it all; that a woman who slept on a fold-out couch could ever actually know what it was like to inhabit a world where money wasn't an object.

"There was constant angst," she said, 20 years after the book's release: "I can't say it was bleak because, listen, we had a lot of girlfriends who were having a great time. But this wasn't a group of women that people were saying, 'You're fabulous. You go, girls'. Instead, we were really considered pariahs."

Bushnell may have been writing about singledom, yet she was in a relationship - Mr Big was based on her then-boyfriend, Vogue publisher Ronald A Galotti. She turned up to interviews wearing head-to-toe Dolce & Gabbana but had been thrown out of her sublet.

She wasn't alone in trying to maintain an illusion, either: her good friend Brett Easton Ellis was rapidly becoming a success story as an enfant terrible of new literature but was so meticulous about networking that he dedicated a white board to it ("He'd put all of his events and engagements that he had to go to on it," according to Bushnell).

"To me that they were part of the commodity story even as they were talking about the commodity story," says James Annesley. "It's almost a fantasy for her. There's something quite yuppie about these novels about yuppies."

The screen versions of Sex and the City don't quite stand up now; in hindsight they seem homophobic, transphobic, culturally appropriative, painfully lacking in diversity and frequently sexist. Bushnell's book has not aged well either. "I think people would say it was misogynistic," says Annesley.

In other ways, though, it provides a fascinating insight into the frustration and apathy of being successful in an increasingly loveless society. Nobody writes emails or sends text messages; 'cellular phones' are both an irritant and a status symbol. Rendezvous are arranged through landlines, which everybody keeps by their bedside. And yet the anxieties are the same in our digitally connected world: not enough time, not enough connection. "The world is more f***** up now than it was 25 years ago," lambasts one of Bushnell's characters. "Most people my age don't believe they'll have a secure job. When you're afraid of the financial future, you don't want to make a commitment."

Bushnell knew all too well what he meant; it made that book deal in the Bowery Bar glow like a beacon. At that point, nobody knew what Sex and the City would grow into. Bushnell, who is unfailingly described as "model-thin" in profiles - even now - was fun and glittery, a person as entertaining and titillating as the copy she turned out. Hers is a Cinderella story; she achieved the fortune that for so long she had observed from a distance. And yet certain things suggest her literary ambition, to be considered as something more than just a purveyor of chick-lit, still runs deep. Upon returning to Manhattan she opted for the Upper East Side, she said in a recent interview: "In the same building where Dorothy Parker lived."

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