I spent my Labor Day weekend reading Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue, a memoir disguised as anthropological study of wealthy women on the Upper East Side. I picked it for two reasons. First, for the frisson of pleasurable envy and schadenfreude that comes from glimpsing the lifestyles of absurdly rich people—they’re even more horrible than I always suspected they were! I think of it as the Emily Gilmore factor—one gets a little thrill at how fabulously awful the rich seem to be. (Especially rich women. It’s unfair and sexist, but it’s the women, in their glamorous furs and gems, who inspire this kind of hate-watching or hate-reading. The men, the kind of men who quietly destroyed the economy and plundered its corpse behind closed boardroom doors in 2008, somehow get a pass.) I don’t think I’m alone in this perverse fascination with the sociopathically rich, either. How else to explain the fact that there are approximately forty Real Housewives series in production?
Second, Primates of Park Avenue looked like one of those books that bridge the gap between academic research and popular audiences, the kind of book I would like to write someday. Martin has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale, where she wrote her dissertation on Freud, modernist literature (Henry James and Joseph Conrad), and Bronislaw Malinowski, who is probably best known for advocating participant observation in anthropological research back in the early twentieth century. Primates of Park Avenue, reviewers said, turns the anthropological lens onto the “tribe” of the Upper East Side, where Martin engaged in participant observation to better understand her research subjects. I thought, based on our shared interests in modernist literature, science (especially primatology), and crossover writing, that Martin and I might be kindred spirits.
On the first count, I was not disappointed. Primates of Park Avenue is full of impeccable outfits, lovingly described, and subtly cutting power maneuvers that remind me of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and yes, Henry James. Meditating on the fetishistic allure of the Birkin bag—an extremely rare, expensive, and desirable handbag—Martin invokes Wharton’s House of Mirth. Wharton’s tragic heroine Lily Bart covets beautiful, expensive things, Martin explains, “because she, too, wants—she needs—to be a wanted thing.” Women in this social world are captivated by luxe commodities because they are themselves luxe commodities. Recognizing their role in the prestige economy of the Upper East Side, the women do that utterly understandable, utterly reprehensible thing: they turn that misogyny in upon themselves and their peers, crafting themselves into flawless objects and policing any woman who falls short. One suspects that Martin’s years spent studying Henry James in graduate school taught her to be the kind of attentive reader who can pick up on these barely perceptible moments of social policing.
I’ve always been compelled by the feminist argument that the pressure to conform to beauty standards is a way to distract women from other, more important work. If women didn’t have to spend so much time on their hair, makeup, clothes, shoes, and other body regimes—Pilates, SoulCycle, juice fasts—imagine what they (we) could get done! The women of Park Avenue are the richest, most privileged women in the world—the most powerful, by some measures. Reading Martin’s book, I couldn’t help thinking, what if they just walked out of the department stores and the barre studios, put on some comfortable shoes, and marched on Wall Street? Or the police union? What if they took their Ivy League educations and did something truly useful with them? It’s a pipe dream, I know—wealthy white women as a group are just not going to join the vanguard of social change this century. (They’re more likely to spend their free time bullying the homeless via social media, apparently.) Still, all that work and energy and intelligence, poured into such shallow pursuits… it hurts me to think about.
As a slightly trashy, slightly snarky, but often warmhearted beach read, Primates of Park Avenue does not disappoint. As a work of pop anthropology, though… it didn’t much impress me. The “anthropology” felt, to me, more like a glib joke than a genuine inquiry, a “LOL what if we talked about rich white people the same way that anthropologists used to talk about the San people, or the indigenous Australians?” It seems like there ought to be something subversive about turning the ethnographic gaze on Upper East Siders, but if there is, I couldn’t find it in this book. The old-timey anthropological language—“display rituals,” “shamans,” “going native,” “tribalism”—is present, but in a curiously gimmicky, uninterrogated way. Without it, Primates of Park Avenue would still be an autoethnographic memoir; it’s not clear to me what it adds.
Martin’s use of primatology similarly irked me. I love reading about great apes and thinking about how we use apes to tell stories about ourselves. But, given there is so much behavioral diversity among the apes (not to mention within the human species), I think we need to have a healthy skepticism about claims to have found the root of some human behavior in our ape relatives. “Mike,” an alpha male chimpanzee in the community that Jane Goodall studied in Tanzania, “got himself a beautiful purse,” says Martin, comparing the chimp’s use of kersone canisters as props in dominance displays to the Upper East Sider’s use of the Birkin bag. Well, okay. But what if our interpretation of Mike’s behavior with the canisters as “dominance display” is shaped by our familiarity with commodity fetishism and the competitiveness of postindustrial capitalist society? What if, in a paradoxical way, it was the Birkin bag and not the canister that came first?
Martin doesn’t bother asking these kinds of reflexive questions about anthropology or primatology as modes of interpretation. Instead, Primates of Park Avenue purports to find some universal human nature within the seemingly cold-blooded and inhuman denizens of the Upper East Side. Which is fine; it’s just that, from a kindred spirit from the world of literary study, I had hoped for more.