By Katy Goodwin-Bates
I recommend Modern Romance to two main groups of people. The first is people like me: married, settled, intrigued to actually know what Tinder is but with no desire whatsoever to have to use it. The second group to whom I recommend this book is that consisting of single people, particularly those around my age who perhaps also don’t actually know what Tinder is but wonder if it would be rather helpful.
Hopefully, you’re familiar with Aziz Ansari from his stellar work as shallow but sweet Tom Haverford in the TV series Parks and Recreation, or perhaps from his own show, Master of None, or his stand-up work, which overlaps with the content of the book in many ways. Ansari is an appealing comic and this winning charisma is evident as he, with the help of sociologist Eric Klinenberg, dissects the dating culture of the 21st century in an insightful and sensitive way. The book is divided into sections covering a range of aspects of dating, including the influence of technology, changing trends in gender roles, and how the dating scene differs across the globe.
Phone world is the place you go when you want to find someone to see a movie with. It’s where you go to decide what movie to go see. It’s where you buy the tickets. It’s where you let your friend know you arrived at the theater. It’s where your friend tells you, “Shit, I’m at the wrong theater,” and where you say, “What the fuck, man? You always do this. Fine. I’m off to see G.I. Joe: Retaliation alone, AGAIN.”
Two of the key things which make Modern Romance work are Ansari’s voice and approach; throughout, he seems genuinely fascinated by his material and he’s an enthusiastic student of the sociology and anthropology of relationships. He marvels along with the reader at the dominance of mobile phones in the development–and often the destruction–of relationships, bringing in his own experience in a self-deprecating way. The book begins with a reflection on his attempts to date a woman whose lack of response to his text messages drove him to the brink of emotional collapse: “Do I call? Do I text? Do I send a Facebook message? Do I send up a smoke signal? How does one do that? Will I set my rented house on fire? How embarrassed will I be when I have to tell the home’s owner, actor James Earl Jones, that I burned down his house trying to send a smoke signal?” Perhaps because of his own insecurities, Ansari is non-judgemental throughout Modern Romance, even when addressing more morally nuanced topics like infidelity. As well as Ansari’s own experiences, the book features anecdotes from dozens of online respondents, as well as audience members from Ansari’s shows, and he handles these admirably, poking affectionate fun at aspects of the stories without ever seeking to humiliate. An example is found in his response to a girl who was pleased to receive a voice mail saying the following: “Hey, Lydia. It’s Sam. Just calling to say what’s up. Gimme a ring when you get a chance.”
THAT WAS IT.
I pleaded to know what was so great about this. She sweetly recalled that “he remembered my name, he said hi, and he told me to call him back.”
Never mind the fact that what she described was the content of LITERALLY EVERY VOICE MAIL IN HISTORY. Name, hello, please call back. Not really a boatload of charm on display. To fail this test, a guy would have to leave a message that said: “No greeting. This is a man. I don’t remember you. End communication.”
I just guffawed while typing that out. Equally entertaining are Ansari’s frequent links between the level of effort involved in finding a partner and the lengths to which he goes to research potential brunch locations; having sought recommendations from four friends, checked several websites and filtering all these options “according to tastiness, distance and what my tum-tum told me it wanted to eat,” he finds the restaurant closed and is forced to make himself a peanut butter sandwich instead. Ansari’s fearlessness in presenting himself as hopelessly neurotic and indecisive is endlessly endearing. Creating an even greater appeal is the advice he offers throughout, some helpful, like “don’t text back right away”, some more niche, for example: “if your mother asks you to come beat up an elderly woman on the street for feeding stray cats – JUST SAY NO. It’ll always come back to haunt you.” He also seeks to reassure and normalize the experiences described, professing a hope that “the prevalence of online dating we’re reporting here will destroy the fears any readers have about it not being accepted.” While Modern Romance made me immeasurably relieved not to have to create a dating profile or actually speak to other humans, it also felt suitably supportive of those for whom these are realities. The only other book I’ve read relating to dating was Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (look, it was a long time ago and I read it because I thought it would be funny, and it was, okay? I read proper books too, you know), and it’s very, very safe to say that Modern Romance is several steps up from that.
Aside from the advice and humor, it’s worth pointing out that Modern Romance is also genuinely quite fascinating. The book is full of helpful graphs to illustrate the statistics discussed, and I was particularly interested in one which demonstrated that even a man with the highest “attractiveness percentile” on a dating website will receive the number of messages the woman with the lowest rating receives, demonstrating how much more tenacious one sex is than the other. The section on dating in different parts of the world was equally thought-provoking; traveling to Japan, Ansari learns that the Japanese government subsidizes dating programs, such is their concern about the drastically receding rates of marriage and birth. The scale of Ansari and Klinenberg’s research is huge and it’s no mean feat to pull it all together into a coherent document.
Modern Romance‘s great strength is its unifying nature; pretty much every adult will have experienced something described here and will be able to nod along, shudder in horror, or wince in recognition of their own relationships. Ansari is an entertaining and informative guide through this murky world of technology and societal change and, significantly, I now know what Tinder is (and find it vaguely terrifying).
Modern Romance is available now at GPL.