(Penguin Press, 2015)
Recently, reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which are set in Naples in the 1960s, I was struck by how easily her characters make their marriages. By the age of twenty-three, all the young adults of the neighborhood have paired off and wed—not all good matches, but matches nonetheless. They don’t look beyond the stradone, or avenue, for a mate. They simply woo, wed, shack up, and settle down. Though these characters are of my parents’ generation, their situation is inconceivable to me. I have no confidence or certainty that I will ever marry. I have no childhood playmates courting me—the New York apartment building where I was raised begat no couples that I’m aware of. Reed H. from downstairs used to come up to eat Cheerios while I planned our wedding, but we had stopped playing by kindergarten and now we don’t even say hello in the hall. I have no local pool from which to fish for mates, and if ever I marry at all, it could be anyone, from anywhere. Ferrante’s characters have certainty and companionship; I, choice and freedom. Who has it better?
These are the anxieties and obstacles that face most young, middle-class urban Americans, and they are the subject of Modern Romance, comedian Aziz Ansari’s first book, which mixes sociology, satire, self-help, and humor. According to Ansari, he turned to the question of modern love after a bewildering rejection. He made out with a friend while listening to Beach House, but when he texted her the next day, inviting her to a Beach House concert, no response; he calls it “Tanya’s silencing of 2012.” After turning the experience into a stand-up bit, Ansari says he realized that his experience was widely resonant: “I got laughs but also something bigger, like the audience and I were connecting on a deeper level.” And so, he became “fascinated by the question of how and why so many people have become so perplexed by the challenge of doing something that people have always done quite efficiently: finding romance.”
To adequately address the big questions of modern romance, Ansari enlisted the help of Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University and the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, because, as Ansari puts it, “I, bozo comedian Aziz Ansari, probably couldn’t tackle this topic on my own.” The two conducted focus groups and interviews in New York City; Los Angeles; Wichita; Monroe, New York; Buenos Aires; Doha; and Tokyo; they created a subreddit; they read through text message exchanges; they consulted with modern love “experts” ranging from anthropologist Helen Fisher to the ubiquitous Dan Savage to OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder; and finally, they mined Ansari’s stand-up audiences for embarrassing anecdotes and hilarious text exchanges. Perhaps surprisingly, the result is a book that’s often data driven, complete with nifty graphs.
What did they find? Well, true to Ferrante’s novels, people used to marry quickly, and close to home. In 1932, one-thirdof 5,000 couples in Philadelphia had lived within a five-block radius of each other before they wed, one in six within a block, and one in eight at the same address. But today, according to the University of Chicago psychologist John T. Cacioppo, more than one-third of couples who married in the United States from 2005 to 2012 met online. Dating has gone digital, and the Internet now presents us with an overwhelming abundance of choice. According to Ansari, this has created an unprecedented dilemma: when the possibilities are endless, how does one choose? “How many people do you need to meet to know if you’ve met the best?” asks one sociologist. “The answer is every damn person there is.”
Most likely none of this sounds new to you. Partly, that’s because we live with these truths day in and day out: the difficulty of choice, the fear of being left for someone hotter or more successful, the loneliness of the big metropolis, the awkwardness of text exchange. But there's also a thin quality to Modern Romance's revelations. For all their research, many of Ansari and Klinenberg’s conclusions feel commonplace or even cliché: “The search for the perfect person can generate a lot of stress.” “The interesting thing about text is that it separates you from the person you are speaking with, so you can act differently from how you would in person or even on the phone.” “Scheduling chatter is one of the things that makes dating in the digital age so frustrating, especially for women of twenty-five, since they have less patience for constant text exchanges.” (He never quite explains that last one.)
Though all of Ansari’s observations feel true, they lack a certain depth and texture. I kept wishing he would dig a little deeper, like Louis CK, who blames our reliance on digital devices on a fundamental failure of empathy and a lost ability to truly see one another. (If Louis C.K. is the David Foster Wallace of comedy, Ansari is more like its Malcolm Gladwell.) It may seem strange for a comedian to write pop sociology, but then again, good comedians are by craft and nature astute observers of the modern world. I wanted Ansari to exercise this faculty more, using a comedian’s shrewd candor to transform dry facts and figures into something alive. I wanted more Aziz.
Ansari’s brand of humor has always been good-natured and generous, from his cameo as Randy in Funny People to his role as Tom Haverford on the über-sunny Parks and Recreation. With Modern Romance, Ansari seems to want to give us (especially the men among us) a stiff slap on the head and teach us how we can all just get along. Straighten your tie, dude! Don’t text “wsup!” Don’t give up after one date! Don’t be an all-around bozo! Even when Ansari quotes from real text exchanges, often read out loud in performances from a hapless audience member’s phone (these are the book’s funniest bits), he is never demeaning or dismissive. He’s sort of like your smart friend who gives pretty good advice.
His ample charm lies in his faculty as the upbeat and reasonable everyman, bugging his eyes and shouting, what is HAPPENING to us, guys? As Kelefa Sanneh wrote in a 2010 New Yorker profile of Ansari, one of the comedian's greatest assets is “a counterintuitive ability to observe ridiculous behavior and react not with simple mockery or exasperation, as many comedians would, but with half-crazed wonder. Rather than fuming at the world’s stupidity, he delights in its endless absurdity.” It’s a comforting voice to read, designed to make a reader feel that everyone is mired in the same dating bog. Indeed, while Ansari laments, he also promises: “The main thing I’ve learned from this is that we’re all in this together.”
Nevertheless, reading Modern Romance, I couldn’t forget that Ansari was a celebrity (privilege police will have a field day with his assumptions), surrounded by interesting and attractive people, plus a large fan-base of women willing to give him a shot at romance. Presumably that colors his dating life in big ways. Moreover I couldn’t quite forget that he is a man. Consider, for example, Ansari’s assessment of his own dating history: from twenty-three to twenty-five, he was in a relationship, which ended when he moved from New York to Los Angeles. Then, he says, "I was very happy being single between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-one.” Around thirty-one, however, Ansari began to feel burnt out from all the partying, and maybe a little lonely. He decided to take dating more seriously and try to find a girlfriend. “A few months later,” he writes, “I ran into an amazing woman whom I had met years earlier.” They begin to date and are still together today.
Yes, within a few months of deciding to settle down, Aziz met the right girl and made it happen. Now, this could happen to anyone, but in my experience, it happens far more to men than women, which is probably the result of more women who want to be in serious relationships than men. Ansari’s story cuts to the heart of Modern Romance'sbiggest flaw: it takes for granted that men and women all want the same thing out of relationships. Ansari chalks up any antagonism between the sexes to miscommunication and residual sexism, rather than deep gender divides on how and when a relationship should proceed. The few sections where Ansari moves beyond this assumption—considerations of sexually paralyzed men in Tokyo and sexually aggressive men in Buenos Aires—are easily the book’s best.
“I don’t think we can defeat the insecurities and tendencies built into our internal psychology,” Ansari writes in a section about dating’s power plays. “But let’s all realize we are in the same boat dealing with the same shit.” Ansari’s continual insistence that we all want the same thing left me a little cold. Then again, like Ansari, I too dream about “making love to someone [I] truly love in a Jurassic Park-themed love hotel in Tokyo.” So maybe we really are more alike than we think.
MADELINE GRESSEL is a writer and journalist currently based at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Formerly the music critic for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, she now focuses on environmental issues and the criminal justice system.