I have always loved the story of how my grandparents fell in love.
Thatha was cycling down a street in Chennai, on his way to work, when he passed by Pattima’s house. She was on the balcony, brushing her beautiful long hair. They locked eyes and smiled shyly at each other. The rest – a marriage that lasted 52 years and produced three children and five grandchildren – is history.
Modern Romance, as Aziz Ansari will tell you, is an altogether different beast. In the age of Tinder, my grandparents may have locked eyes for the first time on a computer screen. Would they have both swiped right? Would their banter have been promising enough to make a meeting worthwhile? Would Pattima, in the end, have decided to go with the buff guy further down the street because he had a better grasp of punctuation?
It might feel like every contemporary American comedian has beaten Ansari to the punch. By the point Modern Romance hit shelves this year, Mindy Kaling had already spent three years wondering Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Tina Fey had been a Bossypants for even longer than that, and though she was a little late to the party, Amy Poehler had said Yes, Please – in 2014, the same year Neil Patrick Harris instructed his fans to Choose Your Own Autobiography and Lena Dunham assured us all that she was Not That Kind of Girl.
But Ansari – the Indian-American stand-up comedian best known for playing Tom Haverford in the late, great series Parks and Rec – does something more interesting to justify his 3.5 million dollar advance from Penguin. Intensely personal, yet immediately universal, his new book tackles a seemingly exhausted topic yet, somehow, manages to deliver a quirky, surprisingly smart but above all practical guide to Modern Romance. (One, you’ll be pleased to hear, is also available in e-book and audiobook formats)
In his introduction, Ansari pinpoints the book’s inspiration as being the moment when he realised his phone went from trusted communication device to the receptacle of a ‘tornado of panic and hurt and anger’. When a message inviting a girl he likes to a concert is ignored by the recipient (his phone helpfully marks it ‘read’), Ansari spends many, many torturous hours trying to make sense of the failure of his one-way text.
’I’m so stupid!’ he writes. ’I should have typed “Hey” with two y’s, not just one!’ The passage of 24 hours of silence only produces more angst: ‘Did Tanya’s phone fall into a river/trash compactor/volcano? Did Tanya fall into a river/trash compactor/volcano?? Oh no, Tanya has died, and I’m selfishly worried about our date.’ (Tanya, you’ll be glad to know is alive and well, just preoccupied.)
We’ve all been there – as Ansari discovered when he incorporated the incident into a well-received stand-up routine. That realisation kicked off an exploration of the intersections of love and technology in the modern world which spanned several months.
Written in collaboration with NYU sociology professor Eric Klinenberg, Modern Romance is an irreverent, informative read for the smartphone generation. There’s plenty of fascinating new data, mined from a forum on Reddit to in-person interviews and focus groups in locations as diverse as Qatar and Argentina. Klinenberg delivers on the analysis of behavioural data and surveys, and a host of experts like anthropologist Helen Fisher and Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, pitch in with their insights.
Ansari functions as a guide to this universe, paving the way with personal anecdotes, irreverent patter (sometimes annoying, most often not), heavy facts and plenty of agony aunt-style advice on finding and keeping love. He is so committed to the process that at one point he even masturbates into a Tenga – a Japanese egg-shaped sex toy – so you never have to. (‘It felt like I was masturbating with a thick, cold condom on…’)
The result of all this is an enjoyable hybrid of an anthropological treatise (‘For women in this era [1960s], it seemed that marriage was the easiest way of acquiring the freedoms of adulthood‘); irreverent geo-social commentary (‘If Tokyo is the capital of the “herbivore man”, then Buenos Aires must surely be the capital of the “rib eye-eating maniac”’); hard-core census data (‘France is the country with the highest rates of infidelity: 55 percent for men and 32 percent for women’); and the very latest scientific advice on how to take a selfie most likely to appeal to the opposite sex (‘If you are a woman, take a high angle selfie, with cleavage, while underwater near some buried treasure. If you are a guy, take a shot of yourself holding a puppy while both of you are spelunking’).
Ansari concludes, ’Technology hasn’t just changed how we find romance, it’s also put a new spin on the timeless challenges we face once we are in a relationship’: the agonies of online dating, whether there’s someone better out there for you, how to keep the passion alive, whether to have that affair or to risk a sext, to snoop or not to snoop on your partner, and crucially, how to breakup.
Modern Romance also succeeds as a variation on the celebrity memoir, with just enough about Ansari himself to whet your appetite. One thing is certain, Tanya really missed out when she ignored that text.
Published in Open on July 19, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel.