Lily Burana reviews 'Bitch' by Elizabeth Wurtzel.

By Lily Burana
Published April 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

I was so hungry for this book. "Bitch" has been hyped as a text that would examine the way women are punished for misbehavior that would seem merely piquant in men, how female sexuality and credibility are seen as mutually exclusive and how women have -- and haven't -- "gotten away with it." Ah, would that it were so.

Wurtzel is the Marisa Tomei of literature: a cute, bright girl who has invoked wrath not because she has the audacity to be unashamedly cute and bright, but because she plays up the cuteness (winsome waif on the cover of her first book, "Prozac Nation"; glammed out, topless and middle finger aloft on the cover of "Bitch") while creating mediocre works that those less attractive, less connected or simply less lucky probably couldn't dream of seeing so richly rewarded. She's seen as someone who skates by, an ugly reminder that life isn't fair and success isn't based on merit. People play on her self-absorption and problematic personality, too, but talent tends to obviate those things. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were forgiven their trespasses (as are Philip Roth and the rest of the boys) because they wrote like motherfuckers. The dismissal of Miss Liz isn't unchangeable; all Wurtzel would have to do to shut everybody up is write a really great book. Unfortunately, she hasn't.

"Bitch" should have been subtitled "In Praise of the Semicolon." Instead of the brilliant treatise that would silence Wurtzel's detractors, it's a fury of lists, signifying little. Wurtzel confessed in Newsweek that she had a drug problem during the time that she was writing the book, and the speed clearly drives the text. It jitterbugs from one woman stranded on society's sexual barbed wire -- Courtney! Delilah! Lolita! Margaux! Hillary! -- to another, all rat-a-tat cultural citations interjected with moments of great craft and observation, then squeals off on some really looooong tangent that ends with a recitation of a commercial jingle or song lyric that confuses the point.

Hey, Liz, where you going with that gun in your hand? The women that Wurtzel ruminates about include, among others, Nicole Brown Simpson and Amy Fisher. Why? Is Amy Fisher anyone's idea of a "bitch"? She's a confused kid from Long Island with a felonious approach to resolving her inner conflicts. Wouldn't Aileen Wuornos make a more interesting "bitch"? She at least chose her targets correctly. She felt helpless at the hands of men, so she attacked men. Fisher felt helpless at the hands of one man, so she shot his wife. And what about Tonya Harding? Unfortunately, Wurtzel focuses almost entirely on bitches vis-`-vis men. Bitch-against-bitch isn't in her sights.

The reader gets so ground down by this book's poorly presented arguments and solipsism, one's own inner bitch is tempted to wield the lash, especially when Wurtzel's sharp prose ends up nullified by cattiness. When, in trying to point out that Hillary Clinton gets short shrift, she writes, "The First Lady earns less than her secretary ... The First Lady earns less than you do. And she has thick calves," one wants to scream at the cover picture, "Damn, honey, no one's gonna confuse you with a beauty queen, either." "Bitch" begets bitchiness.

While supposedly celebrating women who call their own shots, to whatever effect, Wurtzel moans that the fate of a woman is to be at the mercy of the big bad man's world and her own biological clock. It doesn't quite work that way. Men may have the lion's share of the money and control, yet nonetheless they're extremely vulnerable to their desires. If it weren't so, the "femme fatale" would be archetype non grata.

Count on this book to raise some interesting issues, but don't expect any fresh or deep conclusions about them. I'm confident that Wurtzel has a great book in her, but she needs a forceful editor and all her wits about her to pull it off. "Bitch" is little more than occasional short puffs of fresh air in a long exercise in frustration for the reader (and, apparently, the writer). But I will grant her this: She has very pretty tits.

Lily Burana

Lily Burana is the author of four books, most recently, “Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith” (W/Harper). Follow her @lilyburana

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