Some time ago, Aziz Ansari met a woman he liked and drove himself crazy when a post-make-out text message went unanswered. He relayed his problem in a stand-up performance, mining comedy from both the scope of his frustration and the new aspects of the angst—past generations did not fret over the meaning or non-meaning of delayed or unreturned electronic messages—and the bit was not just met with laughter but relief: anyone who has been single in the past 10 years has experienced some of these issues, and finally, here was someone talking about them.
The bit was the genesis of Modern Romance, Ansari’s hugely entertaining and remarkably insightful new book, and while he’s covered this ground before—particularly in his Buried Alive special—he uses the extra space offered by a literary format to probe deeper and more expansively. The result is a book that recalls Nate Silver and Malcolm Gladwell as much as Dave Barry.
Ansari is the ideal person to tackle this topic. His stand-up persona—as well as Tom Haverford, the status-obsessed wannabe-playboy he played on Parks And Recreation—is an appealing mixture of sleekness and self-reflective vulnerability. His natural habitat is the internet, which makes him the comedian for the times, probing a key issue of modern life—the collision between our off- and online lives—with as much deftness as Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks once tackled race relations or consumerism.
The most surprising thing about Modern Romance is that, while never less than compulsively readable, it works more successfully as a work of anthropology than a work of comedy. While it will inevitably be stocked in the humor aisle, it will be the sole title there that begins with an explanation of methods and ends with a list of citations.
There’s an illustrative comparison to be made with Colin Quinn’s recent The Coloring Book, a comedic take on race relations that essentially boils down to two points: “Here are some stereotypes I find accurate,” and, “When I grew up, all the races gave as good as they got, insult-wise, so people need to get over political correctness already.” Those are inherently less successful than Ansari’s theses; if you disagree with Quinn’s generalizations, then there’s no sense of insight, and if you do, there’s no deeper analysis. Ansari covers a breadth of material on dating in the 2010’s, and backs up his points with such specificity—hard data and graphical analysis—that readers can’t help but feel repeated pangs of recognition or surprise. While some readers may miss the manic qualities of his stand-up delivery, here Ansari is mature enough to get out of the way of his material. There’s no joke quota; the laughs emerge from the material fairly naturally.
It helps that a lot of the attitudes he covers are hilariously goofy, while at the same time being quantifiable for behavioral scientists. There’s an analysis of how people respond in text message conversations; Ansari brings in studies about economics (by not texting back, you make yourself seem scarce and more desirable) and discusses rats pushing on levers to get food at random intervals (to illustrate the anxiety of not getting a response). While the voice is pure Ansari, this is where co-writer Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU, is most instrumental. Aside from the jokes, the science of Modern Romance holds water, and is absolutely fascinating.
It’s hard to think of another celebrity book that also feels like breaking news. Ansari’s research takes him from Tokyo—where a myriad of issues have resulted in what’s essentially an asexual generation—to Buenos Aires—where the dating culture is so aggressive it crosses frequently into harassment. That smartphones have had seismic impacts on restrictive societies like Qatar is not surprising, but the details he offers—and the cumulative effect of his information and insights—is staggering. If the anxieties are familiar, the specifics comes as news, and if some sections feel underdeveloped, that’s only because they’re so interesting they cry out for further discussion. (Ansari admits to limiting his scope to heterosexual, middle-class relationships, as LGTB and class are too big of issues to get into here. One topic he doesn’t broach at all is internet porn, and while that’s more sex-based than romantic, it feels like an oversight given its centrality at the intersection of technology and the way men and women view each other. There have been studies indicating viewership can skew what people expect and want out of a sexual relationship, and addressing this would be an interesting complement to the section on how an abundance of choice leads to dissatisfaction.)
“That’s the thing about the internet,” Ansari writes. “It doesn’t simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it.” That idea is at once exciting and exhausting, and Ansari understands both reactions. As he’s said repeatedly, Modern Romance isn’t a guide for pick-up artists or a screed against technology. This stuff is happening, it’s big, and this is his sincere attempt to grapple with it all. If Match.com or OKCupid wanted to increase the number of successful relationships that start through their sites, they’d send out a free copy with each membership. Users would fall upon it with relief: at last, a clear voice in the insanity.