Call me by your name-drop
Sex and Vanity, last summer’s novel from Kevin Kwan, author of the Crazy Rich Asians series, purports to be a retelling of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View. And, it’s true, the novel does feature characters named Lucy, Cecil, and Freddie. There’s a scene where people swap rooms at a fancy Italian hotel. Our protagonist does leave her fiancé for her one true love. But where A Room With A View was a romantic comedy that subtly satirized the manners of the idle rich, Sex and Vanity is a ludicrous, and literal, orgy of excess that spends much of its time fronting brands. Kwan might as well have titled it Call Me By Your Name-Drop.
Everyone in Sex and Vanity is so wealthy and the settings are so exclusive that there’s nothing relatable anywhere. There’s no distance from the wealth and exclusivity at all. The satire falls flat and lame.
It’s one thing to feature a character who’s rich, but it’s quite another to feature him, relatively uncritically, buying an entire block in the West Village and building a replica of a Venetian canal inside his new megahome. Sex and Vanity celebrates excess in a way that’s not funny, and it left me feeling poor and gross. Cornelia Guest, not someone based on Cornelia Guest, but the actual Cornelia Guest, pops in toward the end to teach our heroine a Life Lesson. And then Kwan thanks her in the credits, like she’s Paris Hilton dropping by an Adam Sandler movie.
It’s really shocking how vulgar and stupid this book is, given the warmth and subtlety of the source material. Crazy Rich Asians was no literary masterwork, but at least it featured a couple of good soapy twists, and also pulled back the curtain on the decadent culture of our new global overlords. While there are some Asian Manner bits in Sex and Vanity, and some potential good drama contained within, Kwan instead extends his purview to rich people in general, and they just look like entitled assholes.
Maybe that was his intention, but even his most sinister characters get happy endings. Whenever they want. The major plot point of Sex and Vanity, as opposed to the one passionate kiss in Room With A View, revolves around our heroine receiving cunnilingus at an after-party for an exclusive Capri wedding, while drones film her. The horror! Cousin Charlotte is shocked, shocked! But you also get the sense that she’s seen it before. Everyone has seen everything, because someone is always serving it to them on a limited-edition plate. Here is “Lucie’s” climactic speech when she gives Cecil the heave-ho in favor of George, a gorgeous Australian surfer dude who really appreciates her art.
“And I know you think it’s wrong of me to say this now, but I know you’ll be miserable being married to me in the long run. You deserve someone who actually has an Instagram account with more than eight posts. You deserve someone who loves sitting in the front row at the haute couture shows in Paris, who loves wearing huge emeralds while sunbathing on your superyacht. Someone who likes tying you up in the gondola and reenacting the wrestling scene from Death in Venice…For a while, I thought I was that person too, but I’ve come to realize I’m not.”
That speech has everything and nothing: Poor diction, shallow contemporary references, ludicrous wealth worship, and disgusting sexual imagery. It sums up this disastrous, mean-spirited, unfunny, shallow book very well.
Sex and Vanity especially pales by comparison with another recent literary experience I had. I spent the better part of April and May immersed in the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. Those books are the deepest exploration of trauma and addiction that I’ve ever read, and they are also a blistering satire of the manners, mores, pretensions, and sick perversions of the entitled wealthy. St. Aubyn is incredibly astute about how the super-rich attain their money, about how they lose it, and about how they are desperate to hang on to it, and their possessions, at all costs. But there’s no sense of loss in Sex and Vanity. Everyone just glides along, hopping the globe, eating one another out and doing drugs in the beautiful forever.
Sex and Vanity also gets yoga all wrong. One of the characters, who floats in an out without ever receiving a word of critique, is a ludicrous guru type named Auden Beebe, who runs a “Puppy Yoga” cult in The Hamptons. There’s more than a germ of satire in this notion, but it’s hard to mock rich people’s need for exclusive enlightenment when you’re already cheering them for having reached nirvana.
One of the Patrick Melrose novels revolves around a country-house party that people give for Princess Margaret. The Princess is a character in the book, and she’s actually the queen of grotesque, a monstrously racist snob who deserves our ultimate contempt and scorn. Kevin Kwan doesn’t have it in him to write satire this bitter and mean. He’s too busy describing watches and fabulous movie premieres. Sex and Vanity doesn’t read like an excoriation, or even affectionate critique, of the rich. It reads like the diary of someone who longs for their acceptance.