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No One Has Affairs to Remember Anymore : SEX AND THE CITY. By Candace Bushnell (Atlantic Monthly Press: $21, 228 pp.)

July 28, 1996|Sandra Tsing Loh | Sandra Tsing Loh is a columnist for Buzz magazine and the author of "Depth Takes a Holiday: Essays From Lesser Los Angeles" (Riverhead Books)

Don't be fooled by the title. "Sex and the City" is a book best ingested, for those of us of a certain age, alone, at home, with a deep moisturizing mask and a stiff vodka. New York Observer writer Candace Bushnell's collection of semi-autobiographical columns about the sex lives of Manhattan elites, "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.

Welcome to the cruel planet that is Manhattan in the post-McInerney, post-Janowitz 1990s. Still crawling through hot spots like the Tunnel and the Bowery Bar are the glamorous super-droids we all know and love--the models, investors, book publishers, TV producers, downtown artists, playboys and playgirls. Of course, by now they are all 35, 45 or even God forbid, 55 (nevermind they say they're 42), but in true between-the-rivers fashion, few bring themselves to say uncle, last call and just go home.

Why? Because what's at home is . . . absolutely nothing. "I don't know how anyone makes relationships work in this town," says one unhappily married Manhattanite. "It's really hard. All the temptations. Going out. Drinks. Drugs. Other people. You want to have fun. And if you're a couple, what are you going to do? Sit in your little box of an apartment and stare at each other?"

Does the death of romance in New York really come down to a simple dearth of square footage? More open-ended serial novel than revelatory literary novel, "Sex and the City" does not really offer a conclusion--not even plot-wise, in the Carrie-Mr. Big story line that purportedly mirrors Bushnell's own life. Bushnell is scrupulous about never over-explaining or judging. Her brilliance as a writer is less in detailing the whys of human misbehavior than the hows. As a result, the occasional burst of emotion, as at the end of the piece about underwear model "The Bone," comes out of the blue.

Then again, who cares? What Bushnell has is an absolutely uncanny ear for dialogue, which she embellishes but sparely, with natural-seeming yet at the same time curiously potent stage directions. (Notes Bushnell cryptically of a "Modelizer," a man who obsessively chases models: "When he smiles, the tops of his teeth are gray.") In Manhattan, a place of hyper-articulate, hyper-aware and hyper-narcissistic talkers, to be able to hear and report the way its inhabitants truly speak is to wield a mighty club indeed. On face value alone, the parade is fascinating reading.

And what we learn is that lust is alive and well in the city, yes, but not for anything as mundane as breasts, buttocks and other fleshy appendages that, after all, do not hire, do not promote, do not draw up "A"-party invite lists. Bushnell's thesis: "No one has breakfast at Tiffany's, and no one has affairs to remember--instead, we have breakfast at 7 a.m. and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible. . . . We are all kept men and women--by our jobs, by our apartments, and then some of us by the pecking order at Mortimer's and the Royalton, by Hamptons beachfront, by front-row Garden tickets--and we like it that way."

In fact, as often as not, really great sex just provides an unwanted distraction. Consider the taxonomies of women in New York. As Bushnell's bachelors rabidly describe them, they are, in order of decreasing appeal, untouchable Supermodels (Linda, Naomi, Christy), Eileen Ford Girls (still tough), Elite Girls (a little easier), Wilhelmina Girls (easiest).

Below models are, well, females who are not models, a.k.a. "Civilians," ranked according to pulchritude as Potential Girlfriend, Hot Two-Week Fling and One-Night Stand (or as one thirtysomething male puts it, "uglier than me").

As two men muse in "He Loves His Little Mieskeit, but He Won't Take Her Home to Mom," what's perplexing is when you experience your hottest sex with a woman from the very lowest rung. As one wonderingly describes his affair with a woman who was--gasp--a bit on the chunky side, "I found myself very uninhibited. Because she wasn't pretty. The stakes were lower, the emotion higher. . . . She'd tell me her fantasies, which were tremendously elaborate. . . . I've always wondered if it was because she wasn't datable that she'd constructed this complicated inner life. You know, if you're not in the beauty Olympics, you can become a very interesting person." But not interesting enough to take home.

Never mind that "Sex and the City" finally becomes a book that is 10% sex and 90% talk about sex. For a certain type of dyed-in-the-wool urbanite, nothing satisfies more. One character--an artist whose eight-day romance with a journalist turns into a wonderful four-hour phone discussion about his paintings--happily sighs: "I could do this all day, every day. This is so much better than sex."

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