To read "Having It All" is to be perched on the horns of a dilemma: Is it to laugh or to cry? Quite unintentionally, Helen Gurley Brown has written a devastatingly funny parody -- of herself, of her previous book ("Sex and the Single Woman"), of the magazine (Cosmopolitan) she edits, of American middle-class striving and self-centeredness. Equally unintentionally, she has composed a poignant self-portrait in which she reveals herself to have spent virtually her entire 59 years in obsessive pursuit of just about everything in America that is tacky and/or glitzy.

There is enough of both to keep a busy little gal on the go both night and day, and Helen Gurley Brown is nothing if not a busy little gal. Hers is a true Horatio Alger story of pluck and luck, of a pert young thing from Arkansas -- shades of Lorelei Lee! -- who skipped out of the Ozarks just as soon as she could and, once she had made it to the big city, beavered her way from the secretarial staff right into the editor's desk. As she tells it, it is a story of the rewards to be gained from an unflagging willingness to perform the most trivial chores, to spend uncivilized amounts of time at work and to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity.

By her own description Brown is one of a species which she calls "mouseburgers" -- yes, "mouseburgers" -- which she defines as "people who are not prepossessing, not pretty, don't have a particularly high I.Q., a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets." This book is her guide for the upwardly mobile mouseburger, female variety, whose goals in life are "having a great career and loving a man." Lest the reader be uncertain whether she qualifies as a mouseburger, Brown provides a 17-question true-and-false quiz, in which the most revealing item is No. 8:

"You're more selfish than altruistic. Idealistic would not exactly describe you -- you are not mad to move to India to push birth control or to Riyadh to hasten civil rights until you get something together for yourself."

How nicely, succinctly put! "Having It All" is a manual for the unabashedly greedy, for the sort of person whose concern when the marriage of friends breaks up is not for them but for herself: "Do not come down hard on either side when a marriage is in trouble. Listen. Support. Sympathize . . . that's it. If the couple gets back together and you have badmouthed (with reason) one of them, they will never forget and you will eventually lose not one friend, but two." A mouseburger may sound just as cute and cuddly as all get-out, but she has a heart of steel.

And the constitution of an ox. If you want it all, Brown counsels, you've got to be prepared to spend a lifetime plugging away. She says that "the only thing that separates successful people from the ones who aren't is the willingness to work very, very hard." That happens not to be true, but never mind: It is the illusion Brown peddles that counts, the illusion that by just working her little fanny off the mouseburger can be editor of Cosmo, dine regularly at the Four Seasons and other glamor spots, and go "guesting" and "hosting" with Merv and Johnny and Phil and all the rest of the gang. Talk about the good life!

As Helen Gurley Brown sees it -- or at least as she tells her readers she sees it -- life is a project. Decide what you want, plan how to get it, and go to work. To others, marriage may be wedded bliss, or hell on earth, or something between the two, but to Brown it is a "power base." No kidding. Nothing is valued for itself, but for what it can lead to, whether that be power or status or sex or money or admission to Studio 54. The name of the game is manipulation; the object of the game is to win the entire pot for me. Me! Me! Me!

That no one can "have it all" is of course beside the point. Helen Gurley Brown is selling a dream, not reality. That she sells it cynically and ineptly doubtless will be of absolutely no consequence to those readers who will flock to this book under the mistaken impression that it offers the key to a better life. Rest assured that the only key it offers is to disappointment, for it takes much more than hard work and long hours to elevate oneself to a seat next to Ed McMahon. Though Helen Gurley Brown surely knows this, it is not in the interests of this tawdry book for her to say so.