- Modern Romance
- Aziz Ansari, with Eric Klinenberg
- Penguin Press
For a guy who got famous doing stand-up about hanging out with Kanye West, his pop-culture micro-obsessions and his cousin Harris's thing for Cinnabon – and for playing a Brooks Brothers almost-bro on NBC's Parks and Recreation (you know, "Treat Yo' Self") – comedian and actor Aziz Ansari has also established himself as having more observational craft and moral depth than what even the sharpest, funniest riff about rappers or food or partying might indicate.
In a recent Netflix special filmed at Madison Square Garden, Ansari worked bits about immigration, the meat industry and misogyny into his set; he's one of a few high-profile male celebrities who are explicitly feminist.
With his first book, Modern Romance, Ansari – strategically or not – collaborated with NYU sociology professor Eric Klinenberg (who also wrote Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone) instead of writing the kind of comic memoir that has become a career requirement of the ascendant funny person. (Ansari references his parents' arranged marriage and uses some cute details about the progression of his relationship with his girlfriend, a chef, but like a lot of comedians who talk about relationships, he remains mostly detached from the emotional stuff of the material.)
Ansari and Klinenberg conducted original research – which included focus grouping and interviewing people in the United States, Qatar, France, Argentina and Japan about their dating lives (Japan proves to be the most interesting, obviously); asking people to share their phones, including texts, e-mails, dating sites and dating apps; and a forum on the website Reddit – reference studies such as the 1974 Capilano Suspension Bridge experiment (and the relationship theory of the movie Speed), and also talked to a variety of academics and writers about how and why people meet, date, fall in love, get married, get cheated on, get divorced, or not.
The approach here is a savvy extension of what Ansari has done as a performer, such as asking his audience to applaud for various dating behaviours: according to his Netflix special, it seems that very few people dump someone the way they would like to be dumped.
What Modern Romance does best, and uniquely, is steadily involve Ansari's comedy sensibility – juvenile, sometimes, but mostly pointed shit-calling – in exploring his curiosities, such as the very idea of "the right person" and how much that has changed in one generation and parsing evidence, because so much about contemporary dating mores is truly absurd when disassembled, isolated and considered objectively.
Ansari writes, about the ways in which people (read: men) act online and on apps: "If you were in a bar, would you ever go up to a guy or girl and repeat the word 'Hey' ten times in a row without getting a response? Would you ever go up to a woman you met two minutes ago and beg her to show you one of her boobs? Even if you are just looking for a casual hookup, do you really think this will work? And if so, do you really want to bone someone who responds to this?"
The book is super-hetero, which Ansari acknowledges – the ways in which gay men and women get together and come apart are usually different than the new traditions of smartphone-driven straight relationships. There is also less about sex-sex than there should be for a book so much about hookup culture, but that could be responding to Ansari's smart-but-never-alienating, dirty-ish-but-never-filthy brand. Whereas the book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha provides a more thorough analysis of many of the same ideas (Natasha Vargas-Cooper's 2011 Atlantic article, "Hard Core," about how high-speed Internet and its ubiquitizing accomplice, pornography, have affected dating and sex, should also be on any related syllabus), Ansari's hybrid book model does a kind of service that is greater than adding Jurassic Park riffs to sociological research.
Dating is hard and weird – a grandiose anecdote about the torture of waiting for a text from a girl Ansari liked isn't heightened for comedy, it's heightened because waiting for that kind of text is torture. The twin velocities of love and the Internet have come together to provide extraordinary romantic possibility and confusion, and this effort of making some kind of sense of it, even with interludes about Pitbull and The Rock, connects.
Kate Carraway is a writer in Toronto; follow @KateCarraway.