JULY 26, 2018
IT’S MORNING IN AMERICA — or at least, it’s morning in New York City, where a radiant Reaganomic sunrise is tinting the East River in auroral pastels. Maxi Amberville wakes up and gropes around her unfamiliar bedroom:
Maxi had not slept in her new apartment before she had left for Europe two months earlier. At that time, like many of the apartments in Trump Tower, it hadn’t yet been finished although Maxi had bought it from floor plans several years earlier from her pal, Donald Trump. […] Finally she located the right cords and opened the heavy, interlined, apricot silk draperies.
The narrator of Judith Krantz’s 1986 novel I’ll Take Manhattan is consistently torn between the duties of a storyteller and the preoccupations of a luxury-commodity fetishist. This disembodied persona — who sounds like an omniscient Bel Air chatelaine after one too many spritzers at the Bistro Garden, and is presumably an avatar of the author herself, more or less — has to tell us that the draperies are interlined, even though the word and its flanking commas affect the momentum of the sentence the way an open manhole might affect a person running for a bus. Why? Because, without this detail, we’d have no way to distinguish Maxi’s top-of-the-line curtains from the cheap kind that goes commando.
I’ll Take Manhattan is as stuffed with references to high-end retail as Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (1985), but if consumer materialism in Ellis’s novel is an index of nihilism, Krantz’s metaphysics are the opposite: her fictional cosmos is founded on the very ’80s proposition I shop, therefore I am. Here is Maxi heading for a meeting with her pal:
Maxi pushed her way through the crowds listening to a pianist and violinist playing “Alice Blue Gown” in the lobby of Trump Tower. She didn’t notice the eighty-foot-tall waterfall which was running at the highest of its three speeds, or the walls and floor of shrimp-pink and mango-colored Breccia Perniche marble, nor did she spare a glance for thriving ponytail palms and the lovers kissing on the escalators.
Marble that suggests the flesh of a fruit or crustacean; happy lovers and well-adjusted palm trees coexisting in harmony: it’s as if the waterfall is aerosolizing some kind of upscale élan vital that infects everything with the same brand of synthetic life. A process of rampant reification makes things seem more like people and vice versa. A bauble described early in the book — “an immense black pearl crowned by two plumes of diamonds from Van Cleef and Arpels” — sets the tone for this fantasia. Pulling the pearl from between her breasts, where she’d hidden it in order to sneak it through customs, Maxi is enchanted by the night-blooming vibrancy of this “glowingly baroque, prodigally opulent and outrageously conspicuous” jewel. The sex scenes in the novel, while graphic, seem perfunctory in comparison with the prolonged tantric sessions of shopaholic jouissance. When Maxi parts the apricot folds of her interlined curtains and gets a load of the Manhattan view, she experiences the Krantzian equivalent of Molly Bloom’s rapturous Yes:
Lord have mercy, she thought, it is Manhattan and I’ve bought the whole damn town! She was filled with glee, the kind known as unholy. Manhattan belonged to her! She must be the only person awake this early, the only person with this view. […] She was floating, but not adrift, anchored in a nest that […] was almost as high as the wispy white Fragonard-like clouds that were turning pink over the park. […] Maxi realized how lucky she was to possess a view that altered the spirit. “I’ll take Manhattan,” she sang, “the Bronx and Staten Island too.”
It’s unclear whether Maxi knows that “I’ll Take Manhattan” is not actually a song about purchasing park views with your trust fund. But the notion of real estate as both the greatest love and the greatest commodity of all — of luxury apartments as engines of joy, conduits to sensuous consumption — is a recurring theme of the novel.
At one point, Maxi, suddenly strapped for cash, hatches a plan to hawk her apartment to Trump. Waiting to see him, she muses, “New York was never just a city, it was a place that had to belong to you or be chased from your consciousness.” Trump’s secretary (“Years of working with restless, unpredictable Donald Trump had made her immune to shock of any kind”) interrupts this reverie, waving Maxi into the office of “the brilliant, ambitious young real-estate man whom even his enemies had to admit was disarmingly unaffected.”
“Hey you, pretty girl, what’s the problem?” Trump asked.
“I need cash, and I need it fast.”
“That happens in the best of families,” he grinned, grabbing her by the pussy.
[Krantz did not really write those last five words.]
“Can you sell my apartment, Donald? This week?”
Trump is taken aback. “I’ve always got a waiting list for your apartment,” he tells Maxi. “[N]ext to mine it’s the best and biggest in the whole tower, but once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. And there will never be another great one like it. It’s an L and an H thrown together.” Reeling at the thought that someone might consider selling such a vast spread, Trump reflects that Maxi “loved her apartment the way he loved his, as a part of herself, as an extension of her capacity for life.”
In real life, Krantz and Trump seem to have been somewhat simpatico. Her 2000 memoir, Sex and Shopping, features a picture of the two of them in a warm tête-a-tête at her I’ll Take Manhattan book party. Like Trump, Krantz is a native New Yorker who was born nouveau riche and got nouveau richer. Though she has spent most of her adult life on the West Coast, she and Trump inhabited overlapping social worlds during the ’80s, shared the same points of reference. Her own autocratic elitism is subtle, camouflaged by the narrator’s rather winning joie de vivre, but it’s there.
As I’ll Take Manhattan opens, the Concorde has just landed and is sitting on the tarmac at JFK. Maxi approaches a flight attendant and demands to know what’s taking so long. When she is asked to return to her seat, Maxi pouts, “The hell I will. I’m in a hurry.” She doesn’t stamp her foot, but she does “stand her ground,” her “feet planted” in flat boots. Apparently, we’re going to be spending the next 300 pages with a vile imbecile who thinks that yelling at flight attendants will speed up the debarking process. But Krantz clearly believes she has just won us over with this proof of her protagonist’s proud feistiness. This is not the only time Maxi mistreats a subordinate in a manner we are supposed to find adorable.
With his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe appointed himself the Petronius of ’80s New York. But satire entails ironic distance, and Krantz is incapable of irony, which is precisely why I’ll Take Manhattan is such a weirdly vivid depiction of a particular Weltanschauung. She’s channeling the sensibilities of a certain segment of the rich in the long 1980s — the long, long 1980s, which are still going on, and which give every indication of being eternal. Her description of Trump’s response to Maxi’s request to sell her condo is a more credible representation of his self-image than such ghost-written first-person musings as The Art of the Deal. And if Trump sees his triplex as an extension of his capacity for life, then he presumably sees the entire tower as a massive extension — a carapace, a shell — of his own ego.
In I’ll Take Manhattan, Krantz in fact seems to have predicted that one day we would all find ourselves in the power of this Godzilla-sized hermit crab. Revisiting the novel not long ago for the first time since I was a tween, I expected to feel amusement and nostalgia, but what I felt instead was slow, creeping, horror-movie dread, as the conviction dawned that some kind of cackling clairvoyance was at work — that Krantz was an oracle who had offered us a glimpse of our destiny, if only we’d had the acuity to see it.
This precognition is most chillingly suggested in a scene where Maxi’s 11-year-old daughter Angelica is hanging out in front of Trump Tower, examining “the various pushcarts on Fifth Avenue. Wallets, belts, scarves, jewelry, all made halfway across the world and laid out on the once-immaculate sidewalk in front of the finest retail stores in the world. The Troops [the building’s juvenile residents call themselves the Trump Tower Troops] had never seen Fifth Avenue in the days of its glory” — i.e., before the pushcarts brought unsightly clutter. For the Troops, the vendors are just “part of their world, a natural counterpoint to their multimillion-dollar apartments.”
Most of the kids live overseas; their parents use the apartments only as pieds-à-terre. As their choice of moniker suggests, the Trump Tower Troops are just like the adults in I’ll Take Manhattan: douchebags with fucked-up value systems and no taste to speak of. They’ve recognized Angelica as their leader “because she was American and had the biggest apartment, an L combined with an H.” Krantz takes this opportunity not only to remind readers of the sensational marriage of L and H but also to review the splendors of the lobby. The Troops “knew how to get through the concealed security booth, manned twenty-four hours a day […] into the vast, six-story-high, pink marble atrium of the building’s retail arcade, where a truly marvelous waterfall ran by magic.” Angelica thinks fondly of how ordinary New Yorkers love to wander into this magical space to relax, “while in one of the many wildly expensive boutiques only a few floors above them, four-thousand-dollar nightgowns were being sold to women from many lands.” But the proles in the atrium don’t know “about the floor where the live-in maids’ rooms were located,” nor have they had the privilege of meeting “the beautiful blond Mrs. Trump,” who allowed the kids “to visit the garden of her triplex,” planted with “full-grown trees.”
This long vertical pan, from a sidewalk obstructed by container-ship junk to the shady garden of a penthouse in the clouds, is as close as Krantz ever gets to a tour de force. In the mid-1980s, just a few years after Republicans had devised their incredibly successful strategy of pretending to believe that tax cuts for the rich will benefit the non-rich, Krantz foresaw the supply-side future. Folded into her tidy allegory of globalization are hints of things to come — intimations of the surveillance state, the service economy, the almost-always-vacant luxury apartments that have played such a key role in transforming Manhattan into a hyper-gentrified ecosphere hostile to all non-affluent life. Krantz appropriates the social topography of dystopian science fiction to show us that the stratified worlds of Metropolis or Blade Runner, with their miasmic streets and glossy Deco aeries, don’t look so dystopian from the top. Millions of readers liked the view.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Krantz was dramatizing a gravely consequential event in the moral history of capitalism: the replacement of one cardinal virtue, ambition, by another, aspiration. Ambition was the virtue of Horatio Alger, of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps (a physics-defying action difficult for even the most intrepid white man to pull off, and pretty much impossible for everybody else). Aspiration is about letting everyone know that you want Hermès bootstraps and being congratulated for having enough faith in yourself to dream of owning such an iconic accessory. “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere” — that’s ambition. “I’ll take Manhattan” — that’s aspiration.
Krantz directs her readers’ vision upward, showing us who the man in the penthouse of this future will be — and what he will be: a real estate developer whose properties are the centerpiece of an aspirational brand that markets an electroplated vision of luxury. Most of Trump’s wealthy contemporaries long ago forsook the gilded trappings of the Bonfire era and learned to love understated “minimalism,” but Trump’s beloved triplex is still decorated in Junk-Bond Rococo. Millions of voters apparently like it that way.
In their 1972 treatise on vernacular architecture, Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour discuss their concept of “pleasure zones,” places of fantasy and escape exemplified by the eponymous city, as well as by “the Alhambra, Xanadu, and Disneyland.” An accompanying diagram of the pleasure-zone aesthetic reads, in part:
SYMBOLIC ARCHITECTURE AND GARDENS
IN A HOSTILE CONTEXT, THE OASIS
In a hostile context, the oasis. Here, surely, is the basic psychogeography of hyper-gentrification, and of Trump’s fantasies. He has always cast himself as a purveyor of pleasure zones (casinos, resorts), and he lives in one — his tower, with its magical marble interior and its crowning triplex, a heavily fortified Versailles. The “hostile context” is the territory beyond the nation’s southern border, or it’s the low-income neighborhoods that purportedly seethe with American carnage. For him (and many others), hostile contexts are genuinely threatening, but they’re also essential. They provide an excuse for generalized paranoia, and they’re full of people who can be demonized, hunted, pressed into low-wage service.
These outlands are also the site of another kind of development project — the for-profit penal colony, shadow twin of the neoliberal pleasure zone. GEO Group, which you or I might call a private-prison corporation, in fact bills itself as “the first fully-integrated equity real estate investment trust specializing in the design, development, financing, and operation of correctional, detention, and community reentry facilities worldwide.” The company converted itself from an ordinary corporation into a real estate investment trust (REIT) in 2012, and its major competitor, CoreCivic, did the same soon after. The 2017 tax bill, passed on a party-line vote by the GOP Congress, effectively bestows billions of dollars on REITs by slashing their tax rates by 25 percent. Things are good all around for punitive REITs these days; mass incarceration and the ICE round-ups that help clear neighborhoods for luxury development also give GEO Group and CoreCivic the crucial resource they need: the bodies of poor people of color.
Krantz asks her readers to rejoice in the fact that the masses can wander into Trump’s Breccia Perniche wonderland, listen to “Alice Blue Gown,” and gawp. But these people have no right of access; they are suffered to be there, in an act of noblesse oblige, by Donald Trump. A similar dynamic operates in the grotesque parody of public space that is Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Oculus, 21st-century New York’s attempt at a glorious transit cathedral on the order of the old Penn Station. The result is the only thing that can pass for public space in New York City now: an ’80s-style retail arcade reimagined as the ribcage of a Brobdingnagian whale.
At least the sylvan glades and sweeping greenswards that lie at the foot of Trump Tower remain genuinely public and democratic. Here is how Frederick Law Olmsted described a stroll through the park he designed with Calvert Vaux: “You will find all classes largely represented […] poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile.” “Is it doubtful,” he asked, “that it does men good to come together in this way, in pure air and under the light of heaven?” Olmsted’s City Beautiful utopianism was undeniably naïve, but — to me, anyway — his vision of a civic Arcadia is profoundly moving.
Maxi’s Central Park, by contrast, is not a public space at all. It’s a Fragonard, a fête galante that exists for the delectation of the lucky few. “Manhattan belonged to her! She must be the only person awake this early, the only person with this view.” Let us again suppose that Krantz is in a mind-meld with her favorite young real estate developer, who views his towering redoubt as an essential part of himself, an extension of his capacity for life. Is it too far-fetched to postulate that Trump has always felt just as possessive of the land his tower overlooks — that his sense of entitlement has always encompassed the green space that furnishes the exceedingly valuable view? To what vulgar passions might he be roused by any sullying of that view, any attempt to mess with the real estate?
BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.
BRING BACK OUR POLICE!
What has happened to our City over the past ten years? […] What has happened to the respect for authority, the fear of retribution[?]
Many New York families — White, Black, Hispanic and Asian — have had to give up the pleasure of a leisurely stroll in the Park at dusk. […] I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed. […] I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.
Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!
I miss the feeling of security New York’s finest once gave to the citizens of this City. […] Unshackle them from the constant chant of “police brutality.” […] We must cease our continuous pandering to the criminal population of this City.
BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY AND BRING BACK OUR POLICE!
This might have been the first act of Trump’s political career — the full-page newspaper ads he took out in 1989, screaming for the deaths of five black teenagers falsely accused of raping the Central Park jogger. The teens were later convicted and imprisoned for years, then fully exonerated, though Trump has refused to concede their innocence.
White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian — how lovely that Trump imagines a rainbow coalition of protectees for his police state. But we may rest assured that the “criminal population” he envisions is considerably less diverse.
Why did the case of the Central Park jogger move Trump to this extraordinary gesture, this open display of the authoritarian sadism he’d been keeping under wraps, intentionally or instinctively, all those years? Part of it no doubt was the rage triggered by the idea of black males laying claim to the white female bodies he sees as his to use, but Trump has been a racist all his life. Something else must have been at stake too, and I’ll Take Manhattan strongly suggests what it was: a chunk of prime real estate that, in his imagination, had already been folded into the fully privatized fantasy world he and so many others have been gradually making real, from sea to shining sea, in the ever-expanding oases where the rich pursue their pleasures at everyone else’s expense.
In Trump’s mind, the park was already expropriated: it belonged to him, was an extension of him, which is how the Sun King saw his own domain. The real estate, c’est moi. Any commoner caught poaching a rabbit or a deer in the royal forest where Fragonard’s courtiers frolicked would have been tortured and executed — and it would have been understood by all parties involved that the purpose of this was not to get justice for the rabbit or the deer.