Monday, November 30, 2015

Book review: Aziz Ansari on modern romance

Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
reviewed by Devapriya Roy 

Getting married and starting a family was once seemingly the only reasonable life course. Today we’ve become far more accepting of alternative lifestyles, and people move in and out of different situations: single with roommates, single and solo, single with partner, married, divorced, divorced and living with an iguana, remarried with iguana, then divorced with seven iguanas because your iguana obsession ruined your relationship, and finally, single with six iguanas (Arturo was sadly run over by an ice cream truck).

When we do marry, we are marrying for love. We are finding our soul mates. And the tools we have to find our soul mates are incredible. We aren’t limited to just the bing bongs who live in our building. We have online dating that gives us access to millions and millions of bing-bongs around the world. We can filter them in any way we want. When we go out, we can use our smartphones to text any number of suitors while we are out barhopping. We aren’t constrained by landlines and relegated to whomever we have made firm plans with.

Our romantic options are unprecedented and our tools to sort and communicate with them are staggering.

And that raises the question: Why are so many people frustrated?

Actor and standup comedian Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance is a clever sort of a handbook. Filled in with as many charts and graphs as jokes and digressions about food (Ansari is open about his acute food obsession), the book tells you how to navigate love, sex and dhoka in the contemporary world, in which “(wo)men may come and (wo)men may go” but your primary commitment remains to your smartphone. 

Modern Romance tells you many useful things, ranging from exactly what kind of profile picture is likely to get you maximum “Heyyy!s” or “Wsups” on online dating sites – “based on this data, the answers are clear: if you are a woman, take a high-angle selfie, with cleavage, while you’re underwater near some buried treasure” – to predicting your dating future with a hundred percent certainty if you are a man who uses the word “texty” in his first SMS to a girl (here’s the prediction: you’re not getting a date, even though your resume is dotted with Ivy League names).

The offspring of medical professionals from Tamil Nadu who moved to South Carolina, Aziz Ansari is definitely the coolest desi in the US. Well, after Mindy Kaling, that is, let’s be feminist in this matter please. As we speak, his recent show, Master of None, remains by far the quirkiest mainstream series being downloaded and binge-watched in the English speaking world – maybe even Japan – and his Twitter feed is getting newer and newer followers (at last count it was 8.12 M).Modern Romance is his first book.

To write Modern Romance, Ansari collaborated with Eric Klinenberg, American sociologist and author of the pathbreaking 2012 book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Together, they conducted focus groups and interviews with tens of hundreds of people in New York City, Los Angeles, Wichita, Monroe (NY), Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Paris and Doha.

Their subjects not only shared the most intimate details of their romantic lives with the interviewers, but even gave them complete access to their phones, so their dating encounters could be tracked with accuracy through their e-mail, text messages, online dating profiles and even their swipe memories on Tinder. Ansari and Klinenberg also created a Modern Romantics subreddit forum on Reddit, where thousands of responses were received and analysed.

All this authentic, virtual oral history stuff provided the researchers with a vast pool of resources from which, through Klinenberg’s number-crunching, broader trends emerged – trends that, among other things,  help Ansari come up with the nuggets about the high-angle selfie and the dude who used “texty”.

With chapters titled Searching For Your SoulmateThe Initial AskOnline DatingChoice and Options,International Investigations of LoveOld IssuesNew Forms: Sexting, Cheating, Snooping, and Breaking Up and Settling Down, there is no doubt Modern Romance is a fun, breezy book, and you are going to learn a great deal about why unlimited choice is often leading to sub-optimal decision-making in relationship games and  a sense of ennui quickly descending upon the soul. (Do note: Ansari’s arguments primarily pertain to the First World, though they certainly apply to the classes whose lifestyle choices approximate First World memes in other parts of the globe).

Now, there’s one question that I must raise here. I’ve often been confronted by this as a reader. Following the laws of perceived expectation and rewards in reading (I just invented this law, btw, but bear with me), if the news of a book advance does the rounds before a book is out – Ansari was paid $ three million in advance – does the fact of this advance colour its reception? In other words, does a book ever live up to its $ three-million advance? (Well, the answer is yes for me, but only because of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.)

But with Modern Romance, you do find yourself murmuring at the end, hmm okay, it’s a great-ish book though there is nothing wildly revelatory in it, and the fact that there are others suffering from the same condition does nothing to comfort me in this needle-in-haystack hunt that online dating has become, but I suppose the advance is a really great statement for brown people as a whole, brown actors in showbiz and writers in general. So that’s alright, I feel. So on and so forth.

Incidentally, there were a spate of articles in the press about how one had encountered such a song-and-dance about Lena Dunham’s $ 3.7 million advance for her memoirs Not That Kind of Girl – is a 26-year old woman worth it? – but there’d been no such controversy about Ansari’s book deal, as though it’s perfectly okay for male actors and comedians to get that kind of money, especially if they throw in a few charts and graphs and “social science” questionnaires.

But controversies aside, here are five super-interesting concepts that you will learn about from Ansari’s book.

Herbivore men: This term has become popular in Japan in the last few years, as Japan tries to cope with its fast-diminishing fertility rates and dwindling number of marriages. (The Japanese government is probably the only government in the world that runs an online dating service for its citizens). “Herbivore” men are Japanese men who are very shy and passive, and display no interest whatsoever in sex. They may or may not be in deep relationships with their video games.

The chongo: In Argentina, the word “chongo” literally means “strongman” or “muscleman”, something akin to the Indian bahubali (I am going out on a limb here though). But in popular culture, it is often extended to refer to a casual sex partner or a friend with benefits. Ansari writes:

One married woman at a focus group (in Buenos Aires) told us that during her previous relationship she’d had a chongo whom she saw regularly for several years. “It was just skin,” she explained, to make sure we understood she wasn’t cheating on her relationship, only meeting a sexual need. “I didn’t even know his parents’ names.”  

Monogamish: Journalist and sex columnist Dan Savage came up with the term “monogamish” to describe his unique open relationship with his partner, wherein they are allowed to have sexual activity outside the relationship (within terms and conditions previously agreed upon by both parties) though they have a deeply committed relationship to each other. But “monogamish” is not a rigid category. Each couple is welcome to riff their own particular variation.

Snapchat: An app developed by Stanford students, Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown, in 2011, Snapchat is unique because the photos and images sent through it get deleted after a maximum of 10 seconds. The anti-Kodak moment approach is thus deemed perfect for sexting. In Doha, for example, Snapchat has revolutionised dating. Ansari writes:

“We have always been a photophobic society,” one of the Qataris we interviewed told us. People don’t want any record of themselves in public…Then came Snapchat. The app has allowed young Qatari singles to take risks in the privacy of their phone world that would be unthinkable otherwise. “People send all kinds of photos, from explicit to casual,” a young woman explained. “The technology is making people more ballsy.”    

Tenga: This is the latest “game-changing” invention in the colourful world of Japanese sex toys, Tenga advertises itself as “the future of masturbation”. Their signature product is a single-use silicone egg that men are supposed to fill with a lubricant inside and take a go at. When one is done, one simply seals it up and throws it away. The intrepid Ansari tries it out in the interest of research. But to find out his verdict, you have to read the book.