The scene: a funeral parlour in New York. Doors clang as a family relative, the ‘black sheep’, saunters in halfway through his brother’s eulogy and brazenly strolls down to the front pew, ignoring the scandalised glances. He’s late, a whisper spreads, because he had a meeting with director James Toback. Wait. James Toback? Lame! The hearse leaves, and the congregants assemble on the street. An attractive brunette in her late forties weeps desolately. Did she know the deceased well? Not at all: she has discovered that someone at the service walked off with her Christian Dior trench and left her with a shabbier coat from a chainstore.
All this happened — about two weeks ago on Upper East Side, where I live, and so, apparently, for a year or two, did Wednesday Martin, PhD. Martin’s controversial ‘memoir’ Primates of Park Avenue supposedly takes us inside the author’s traumatic experience of moving uptown and trying to fit in to a neigbourhood full of razor-thin, rich, beautiful ‘mommies’ with financier husbands, second and third homes in Aspen and Southampton and children en route, whether they like it or not, to the Ivies. Part of the controversy has been that Martin seems to have made up some of the more scandalous details — not least the eyebrow-raising notion of a ‘wife-bonus’.
Even if you overlook the fabrications — and I’m not suggesting you should — the real problem with Primates is that it does not take us inside anything; not even Martin’s head. If this is a memoir our first job should be to get to know — and empathise with — its author. Martin steadfastly keeps us out: her voice is oddly impersonal and, worse, contrived. She seems unaware that she is as condescending to the ‘tribe’ of rich women she writes about as, she tells us, they are to her.
And what exactly are their crimes? They seem shallow. They drink. They take anti-anxiety pills. They look overdressed at school drop-off at 8 a.m. They compete fiercely for their children. They are terrified of getting fat. She tells us that she is different from them, but nowhere does she show us any evidence of this. Arguably, she behaves worse than her subject material. She dispatches her poor businessman husband all round the world in search of a Birkin bag; at her son’s school she flirts with a married man, a so-called Alpha Dad, in order to set up a play-date.
The insufferable superiority of Martin’s tone here is consistent, and is made worse by scattered lectures likening her neighbours’ doings to various chimp behaviours of the kind Jane Goodall observed. Sadly these interludes are even more boring than the outdated anecdotes she rehashes about certain Upper East Side women: one feels that they’ve been hamfistedly inserted to remind us that Wednesday Martin, is, as the dust-cover says, a PhD: she is an anthropologist. Which is good, because she is most emphatically not a writer.
Manhattan’s very rich, very selfish and very myopic inhabitants have been a treasure chest for writers, among them Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Jay McInerney and, some might say, Candace Bushnell. What these have in common is that they showed the complexity underneath the nonchalant gloss. It’s a nasty fact that money drives absolutely everything in this town; but the city’s energy — its soul, if you will — comes from the friction created by the need to pretend it does not. New York’s most vivid characters are caught in flux, as if figuring out the answer to a question that hovers permanently and invisibly over their head: are they worth just a bank balance figure, or something more? The ways in which they manifest this quandary on a day-to-day basis are both heartachingly sad and very, very funny, depending on your point of view.
Martin tells us that the people she meets uptown don’t sleep at night because they are so troubled, whether about money, children, infidelity or being overweight. Right there you have the seed of something. Back to the funeral: what makes people cry over a missing raincoat that is so easily replaced? What makes them appear so consumed by the small stuff right after they’ve seen a hearse head for a cemetery?
The answers are not easy — nor, actually, silly. As the character of Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan shows us, the unwritten role of a moneyed aristocrat is to keep the rest of the world guessing at what is going on internally. The joy of Fitzgerald is that he brings the reader close enough to feel the personal cost of such careful carelessness. The pain of Martin is that she’s far too far removed from her subjects to see anything beyond the surface.