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[whitespace] book cover Undressed for Success: Being a postfeminism means never having to say you're sorry for taking your clothes off.

Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women
By Elizabeth Wurtzel
Doubleday; 414 pages; $23.95 cloth

Elizabeth Wurtzel strips for action

By Traci Hukill

IF ELIZABETH WURTZEL'S luck holds, this year's $64-million pop-culture question will be, Is the cover of Bitch, the young author's feminist follow-up to Prozac Nation, ironic or a witless attempt at sass? Assuredly it's a marketing coup. Wurtzel's svelte, naked babehood (with nipple Photoshopped out), the manicured hand that lazily flips the reader off and the bored sneer on her delicate face have won this book the distinction of a waiting list at the Metro office.

But how those features relate to a philosophy separate from Katie Roiphe's and Naomi Wolf's "do me" style of seduction-as-power-grab feminism remains unclear, muddled by Wurtzel's intellectual confusion and hyperventilating prose. Wurtzel aptly notes that feminism has failed us, or at least got us stuck between an ideological rock and a desirable hard place, but this book's frustrated rants, uncertain message and simpering conclusion don't help to point the way free.

Wurtzel's capable enough. She's smart, observant, educated and adept with language. But she's grappling with a complex problem--how women can get their emotional needs met without bringing on themselves the wrath of God, the media, men and other women--armed with a myopic strategy, namely one too focused on a coterie of starlets and professional brats.

The introduction, "Manufacturing Fascination" (a possible clue to the cover's inspiration), concludes with the thesis statement: "This is a book about women who wrote and write their own operating manuals, written in the hope that the world may someday be a safer place for them, or for us, for all women."

What follows is a who's who of history's bad girls--Delilah, Amy Fisher, Anne Sexton, Courtney Love--their apologies penned by Wurtzel herself, interspersed with stories of victims no less famous than Sylvia Plath, Princess Di and Nicole Brown.

Most are excused for their mistakes, tantrums and marriages and are molded into examples of how the world punishes "brilliant creatures who shine." The exception is Hillary Clinton, whom Wurtzel lambastes for not demanding a salary and for ignoring Bill's indiscretions; strangely, however, Wurtzel simultaneously praises the First Lady for having "succeeded [at marriage] where so many others have failed or given up or snapped." Others--Paula Jones and Pamela Harriman most notably--Wurtzel shreds, and her litmus test for who merits exoneration and who deserves public humiliation defies analysis.

ODDER STILL is the way Wurtzel, as if dipping into one of her exhaustively chronicled black moods, occasionally fires withering criticism at her subjects for no good reason. For her presumably sympathetic treatment of depressive women to include a sentence like "Margeaux Hemingway seems to have spent the last 20 years thinking that she should have been able to do something with herself because she was beautiful, when in truth, on the evidence, she was capable of absolutely nothing" undermines Wurtzel's humanity, maturity and coherence. Here is cattiness couched in a 400-page attack on sexist nastiness. Go figure.

If Wurtzel's logic suffers unnerving swings, her manic writing should be committed. Pretentious and obfuscating allusions to history and popular culture, parallel-structure sentences that ramble on for most of a page, too many personal confessions and a bad habit of prefacing her opinions with the word "look" (as in "Look, I think many people have rescued themselves from this game") bespeak the mistaken notion that people are privileged to read her self-absorbed, stream-of-consciousness meander through difficult intellectual territory. It's like having a precocious 13-year-old at the dinner table; she may be clever, she may even be right, but her constant need to interject herself impedes the conversation's progress.

And that may be the book's biggest flaw--that Wurtzel is annoying. In spite of her mastery of pop-culture history and her inability to shrink from the truth about where feminism has left women, her voice sounds too young and unseasoned to trust. Even the litany of her naughty escapades--screwing an Italian tattoo artist, snorting heroin, screwing a man twice her age, snorting coke--smacks of smugness, not depth and wealth of experience and sorrow of the sort that makes people speak quietly and honestly.

In the final chapter, she weaves toward a glimmer of humanitarianism in the statement "and [forgiveness over vengeance] has to be the guiding principle, it is the only chance any of us has for happiness." But that's a half page from the end, and the rest of the chapter consists of Wurtzel dissolving into despair that she'll be old and unmarried--or else that outcome would be fine with her (she says both). Ultimately, the forgiveness shtick just seems like so much theater.

When she's disciplined and experienced, Wurtzel will be a force to reckon with. Until then, readers will need patience and occasionally the help of a good dictionary.

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From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of Metro.

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