Sex and the City has been on my list of books to read for a long time.
Okay, maybe I should back up and explain, considering my wife gleefully informed me that I’d lost my “man card” when I returned from the library with a paperback emblazoned with an image of Sarah Jessica Parker wearing nothing but a laptop and heels. I’m not talking about the risqué TV show about expensive clothes, or about the cheesy movies with the same cast. I’m referring to the original essay collection by Candace Bushnell, which I’d been told is a far more honest and cynical look at the mid-’90s dating market among upper-class Manhattanites — a work of sociology mixed with dark comedy rather than of chick lit, even if its latter-day marketers thought a movie tie-in edition would boost sales.
It was a good time to check this particular item off my bucket list, because this month marks the book’s 20th anniversary, or at least it does according to Wikipedia. (The Guardian celebrated the anniversary last month; the copyright is from 1996. Who knows?) At two decades’ distance, what stands out most about the collection isn’t its supposedly groundbreaking sexual candor, which actually doesn’t take center stage in most chapters, but the fact that the people it depicts are clearly Millennials from the future. Cigarettes are everywhere, and the cell phones are the kind you can only talk on, but otherwise these stories provoke a deep sense of déjà vu.
Remember all the handwringing a while back about the new phenomenon of “emerging adulthood,” in which college graduates “fail to launch,” living off their parents for years after finishing school and putting off marriage for ever-longer periods of time? Well, Candace Bushnell was born in 1958. That makes her a Baby Boomer — not even Generation X — and when this book was published she was pushing 40. While some of her friends are well established economically as the events of Sex and the City unfold (“Miranda” is a cable executive, for example), they’re still flitting around Manhattan each evening, stumbling into short-lived relationships that, to their own frustration, they can’t quite put labels on.
Throughout the volume, in fact, we come across dilemmas frequently discussed in young women’s think pieces today, such as whether one should “settle” for a decent guy at some point rather than holding out for perfection. One source informs Bushnell that guys lower on the totem pole are just as big of jerks as the alpha males higher up. Bushnell herself proclaims that the time New York women get married is when they’ve “slept with too many guys, or they know nothing’s ever going to really happen with their career, or maybe they really do want kids.” Looming over these stories, and sometimes stated explicitly, is the brutal fact that the mating market takes an abrupt turn around the age of 35, after which the men have all the power — thanks to the reality that a man’s career status grows over time as a woman’s looks deteriorate, these things being, for better or worse, what is most valued in a male or female mate respectively.
And remember how critics fawned over Girls, the unflattering portrayal my own insufferable generation deserves, for its awkward rather than glamorous portrayal of sex? That probably was a sharp break from Sex and the City, the TV show and movies, but it has nothing on Sex and the City the book. Here, for instance, is Bushnell’s report on a trip to a sex club:
What did we see? Well, there was a big room with a huge air mattress, upon which a few blobby couples gamely went at it; there was a “sex chair” (unoccupied) that looked like a spider; there was a chubby woman in a robe sitting next to a Jacuzzi, smoking; there were couples with glazed eyes (“Night of the Living Sex Zombies,” I thought); and there were many men who appeared to be having trouble keeping up their end of the bargain. But mostly, there were those damn steaming buffet tables (containing what — mini hot dogs?), and, unfortunately, that’s pretty much all you need to know.
Oddly, though, visits to sex clubs aren’t something that just happens in the wild and crazy life of a New York socialite; this was a purely journalistic sex-columnist stunt, of which there are several in the book. Most aren’t even field trips, but rather staged gatherings in which men will get together so Bushnell can ask them about threesomes, or in which a bunch of women who’ve dated the same rich guy will meet to swap stories. The essays that take the form of naturally occurring narratives, meanwhile, can come off as little more than recitations of what Bushnell happened to do that week and the life histories of the people she knows.
Looming over these stories, and sometimes stated explicitly, is the brutal fact that the mating market takes an abrupt turn around the age of 35, after which the men have all the power.
In other words, the pieces often read like mailed-in newspaper columns, which of course is how they started out. As a result, truth be told, much of the book is boring. Sex and the City also could have benefited from a thorough edit to make the various essays flow better when read in succession; some of the pieces here are presented from a first-person perspective, while others are in the third person, with Bushnell subsumed into her apparent alter ego “Carrie.” Sometimes even “you” experience the events.
But forget the nuts and bolts of writing; what’s this all about in the end? My paperback included an introduction added in 2001. “Most of all,” Bushnell writes there, “Sex and the City sets out to answer one burning question — why are we still single?” With the benefit of hindsight, she reports she can “safely conclude that we are single because we want to be.”
That desire must have been pushed down deep if it took half a decade or so to reveal itself. But maybe she’s right.
I haven’t seen the first Sex and the City movie, but even I know that’s the one where Mr. Big and Carrie, the show’s Ross and Rachel, finally get married. The book tells a different story. In the volume’s last two chapters — added in 2001, like the introduction — it’s revealed that “Carrie” and the real “Mr. Big” actually broke up. “Mr. Big is happily married,” the epilogue concludes. “Carrie is happily single.”