Saturday, October 31, 2015

Modern Romance - Aziz Ansari (with Eric Klinenberg) (2015)

Do I really need to write a review of this book?
Haven't you already seen the reviews, like five months ago?
This is actually one of the few books that most lay people (i.e. non-readers) of a certain age know.
They know it because they know Aziz Ansari, and it's about dating, and he's right: it's both a wonderful and horrible time to be single.
This book is candy to Penguin Press.

Do I need to parrot the ideas of this book or can I just write this as a special comment on Tinder?

I always try to "personalize" these reviews so they're more valuable than the "objective" stuff you'll find in any number of major newspaper markets across the country.  But this is a real opportunity for extreme personalization, and I don't want to go there.  I will start off with a pertinent quote, so you know what to expect:

"One thing that I definitely want you to know up front is that this book is primarily about heterosexual relationships.  Early in the process Eric and I realized that if we tried to write about how all the different aspects of romance we address applied to LGBT relationships, we simply wouldn't be able to do the topic justice without writing an entirely separate book.  We do cover some issues relating to love and romance among gays and lesbians, but not at all exhaustively." (8-9)

Because of this, while I initially flirted with the idea of putting this on the "best books" list, it fails.  I'm not that strident of an activist so I really don't care to start a fuss over the idea that LGBT relationships are different from straight ones, but I will comment briefly that a law school classmate of mine wrote a law review article about domestic violence in LGBT relationships and found that there wasn't much of a difference (I mean, obviously, in straight ones it's usually the dude doing the hitting, I'm guessing).  I do think gay dudes are way less picky when it comes to sex partners, in general.  That's about all I can say, though.  I'm not too angry, because I do think there should be a book about dating for bi people.  I just think it's a little troubling, economically, particularly when that big SCOTUS decision came down just as this book was released (June 16, 2015).  Straight people wouldn't be interested in reading about non-straight people, I guess.

What would a book about dating for bi people be like?  It would be the most fucked up thing in the world.  Do you disclose, or do you pretend?  Do you delete all your old Facebook references to anything that might give a potential date the idea that you had never strayed from the straight and narrow?  I really don't think there is any problem whatsoever for a bi dude to tell a same-sex partner that he likes girls--I think they're more excited by the idea of a straight dude than a gay one (at least for a casual thing)--but does that work on the opposite level for girls?  I mean, of course, girls don't want to go out with bi dudes, but are lesbians open to going out with bi girls?  Frankly, if Mr. Ansari would like to entrust such a project to a fellow '05 NYU Alum, I will rip up my law license and skip down the street.

I've been a little bit harsh in starting off this review, so let's move onto the positives: this is probably the funniest book I have reviewed on Flying Houses.  I laughed out loud while reading it more than a few times, and on the CTA that was sometimes embarrassing.  I think this was the line, yesterday:

"I'd run the Hardee's and probably be pretty good at it.  Maybe I'd catch wind of a guy who was running a huge 'biscuit extortion' scam to smuggle biscuits across the border to Georgia [from South Carolina].  The scam would work like this: The guy and his partner would steal biscuits from our store and then sell the stolen biscuits at a lower cost on the biscuit black market.  After getting suspicious of his frequent trips to Georgia, I would hide in the bed of a Ford F-150, under a bunch of biscuits, and when they reached their destination, I'd dramatically pop up and go, 'GIMME BACK MY BISCUITS!'
The family would be proud." (237)

It's not even that funny, really, but the image cracked me up.

Upon further review, it was actually this passage that made me laugh to embarrassment:

"My Dearest Charles,
I hope this letter finds you in the halest and heartiest of conditions.  I'm sure it will, as your constitution, as I recall, was always most impressive for its resilience and fortitude.
What do you make of this so-called 'Revolution'?  I fear that, win or lose, we shall be feeling its reverberations for decades to come.
In other news, in addition to your sister, I am fucking Tina, this woman I met at the bar last week.  I also caught syphilis from a prostitute I met in Boston.
Fondly, your brother-in-law,
Henry" (225)

Is Mr. Ansari a good writer?  I think so.  It's unclear to me how much of this book is written by him and how much is written by Klinenberg, but it feels like it's mostly Ansari, even when there's not a joke being thrown in every few sentences.

The constant jokes aren't a distraction.  Instead, they change the book into something different entirely.  Now I know that comedians get book deals, and sometimes their books are funny, but this is more impressive because it's about something else, something that most younger people might want to know.

The problem is that we all already know.  There is some interesting research that the book brings out, but all of the perceptions, all of the subjective stuff, we know.  We know about not texting back immediately for fear of seeming too desperate.  We know about selecting profile pictures.  There is a lot of stuff "we" know, but we don't really know that other people feel it too, and I guess that's why this book is nice.  Ansari is never mean-spirited with the jokes here, and that's impressive in this arena.  It also has the potential to get extremely raunchy, but the dirty stuff is kept relatively safe.

The central thesis, if you will, is that "good enough" partners are not good enough for people anymore.  We now require a soul mate.  Along the way in that search, we might discard some really amazing people, and Ansari advocates on behalf of "quality" rather than "quantity."  It's better to get to know a person really well and find out everything that's great about them, rather than to meet a lot of people and only get to know them superficially before deciding there's someone better for you.

This is kind of the romantic issue of our time, and Ansari is clever to seize upon the moment and call it out for what it is.  Thousands of people have written about these issues over the past half-decade, but Ansari is the first to turn it into a book with mass appeal.  And he is the right person to do it because the humor complements the material in a strange way.  In a sense, it almost detracts from the material, but this turns it into a strength.

Perhaps this sounds strange.  Really what I mean is, you can't take a book with this subject matter all that seriously.  You're not supposed to.  Ansari isn't saying WE ARE ALL LIKE THIS; he's just sharing stories that he heard in focus groups and surveys and sociological studies.  He also writes about his own romantic travails to powerful effect, though I contend that he leaves an important element of dating/mating out: money.

Maybe I'm cynical, okay, but we can't all go out every weekend night and spend 5 hours in a bar or club and spend $200 on drinks.  And when we think about who would be a good partner, tell me nobody cares about their job.  Of course, many more women pursue a professional career than in the past, and marriage has become a kind of status symbol--more of a "power couple" thing than the traditional "sole breadwinner" thing.  I would have liked to hear more about stay-at-home dads.

Ansari effectively describes the shift in marriage habits, from our grandparents' and parents' generations to ours.  Perhaps this is why I often said I wished I was 10 years older, back in '01 and '02.  But maybe it's more like 20 or 30 years older.  The difference is, the older generations did not have the experience that we do of "emerging adulthood," the period between, say, 23-30, when we pretty much live on our own and seek a mate that is most complementary to our vision of a worthwhile existence.  Ansari thinks this period is a great thing, more or less, but personally I'm not sure.  Now, I have no problem with their being tons of single people getting older and not having kids--so long as we're not lonely.  But I do have a problem when I am 32 and I look around and see that most people my age are married, or engaged, or have kids, or have a good job with a retirement plan, and I have nothing.  I guess it would hurt a lot more 20 years ago to be in the same situation at my age, but my belief is, it wouldn't be this way 20 years ago.  But I should shut up before I say something dumb and insensitive.

There are some really intriguing parts, particularly about Japan and the way their government is responding to the low-birth-rate crisis by subsidizing singles' parties.  And of course there are some priceless stories:

"Back in June of 2012 when I was 43, my boyfriend broke up w/ me via a text message after being together for 8 years!  I practically raised his daughter, and had been totally committed to him [and] everything that came w/ him.  I was really offended and hurt as I felt that I at least deserved to be broken up with in person or at least on the phone! 
Apparently the wound didn't run too deep, though, because look what happened next:
After 10 months of no contact, his uncle passed away [and] I called him [and] left a message w/ my condolences.  We finally talked after that [and] eventually got back together.  I still love him completely [and] have forgive him for how things went down.  And you best believe I gave him hell for that text! :-)
No offense, but at this point let's take a moment to be thankful we are neither of the people in that relationship." (194)

I could go on, and on and on about this book and excerpt every single great joke, but I'm gonna wrap things up here.  I just can't resist putting in my favorite part, which is where Ansari advocates for monster truck rallies as ideal venues for first dates:

"One of the social scientists I consulted for this book is the Stanford sociologist Robb Willer.  Willer said that he had several friends who had taken dates to a monster truck rally.  If you aren't familiar with monster truck rallies, basically these giant-ass trucks, with names like Skull Crusher and The ReJEWvinator,* ride up huge dirt hills and do crazy jumps.  Sometimes they fly over a bunch of smaller cars or even school buses.  Even more nuts, sometimes those trucks assemble into a giant robot truck that literally eats cars.  Not joking.  It's called Truckzilla and it's worth looking into.  Frankly, it sounds cool as shit, and I'm looking at tickets for the next one I can attend. (140)
"*Okay, I made up ReJEWvinator, but it would be cool if there were a Jewish monster truck scene." (141)

The book also ends on a really sweet story about a couple meeting and how they left notes to each other on the doors of their apartment complex.

This isn't necessarily "required reading," but I wouldn't be surprised to hear about this book being passed around between groups of friends in "emerging adulthood."  That is the way the most culturally relevant books attain their cache.  This is increasingly rare, and I applaud Ansari for rejuvenating the medium.


Anonymous said...

For me, it was mildly entertaining. I always appreciate your comments, but I don't think the book was worth all the time you spent on writing this. It was funny but but nothing his special. His new TV show is better than the book.

JK said...

This comment is really short sweet and to the point. Agreed that "Master of None" is "higher art" than Modern Romance. Agreed that I spent too much time on this review--but I spend too much time on every review, too.

Anonymous said...

I know you spend a lot of time on the reviews, and I do appreciate that, and I'm sure I'm one of many. It's really nice to see someone write in depth and at length in a thoughtful way, especially online.

I need to tell you that I reread Kerouac's On the Road after decades, and I was totally wrong about the book and you were right. I don't know what I didn't see in it the first time, but probably it just didn't fit my idea of literature in the 1970s, and that has something to do with me and something to do with the time. It's hard for me to remember, but I think I was saying I had thought it was superficial or something, that I was writing that in response to Taipei. But Kerouac does exactly what I think Lin doesn't do -- so far, anyway -- in that he creates diverse and memorable characters who are nothing like himself. When I said that everyone talked the same in Lin, I think you replied that most people talk the same -- which struck me as totally wrong. In Kerouac, the people share the same sensibility, mostly, but they talk very differently and uniquely. Whether it's a major character or a minor character, Kerouac can -- like some classic fiction writers of the 19th century, like Dickens -- make them come alive in a few sentences, acutely observed. Lin has moments where he can reflect on society, but his people seem too much like names (in Taipei, like "John, 24" or "Liz, 27" and they all blend together without anyone being memorable. Even the two girlfriends in that novel were hard to distinguish. Maybe Lin's next novel will be different.

I'd be interested in seeing you take on two really long novels I've read lately: Book of Numbers and City on Fire, both by young white male authors (to be reductive and somewhat offensive) clearly trying for the GAN white whale. But they really are long!

Anonymous said...

Oh, and as for being bi: Well, my experience tells me always disclose, but I was young and dating long before social media existed, so I guess that was difference. No woman or guy ever seemed to care, so either I always selected people who I knew wouldn't care (in a negative way) or else. . . well, I don't know; It's hard to believe people were more tolerant or cool 30 and 40 years ago.

I just assumed Ansari's book would be about straight dating. Since I long ago aged out of that, just as foreign to me personally was the whole social media/smartphone emphasis. (I don't own a smartphone, and actually, the book I read was a library book originally taken out by my dad, who's pushing 90 and thought it would be funny but since he doesn't even use a computer, he gave up right away because he didn't understand what was being talked about.)

JK said...

Thanks again for your comment--I appreciate the appreciation! All too often I feel like I'm pouring these reviews into a hole, like a time capsule--which is fine so long as Google doesn't remove it for lack of activity in 75 years or whatever.

I'm glad you were better able to appreciate "On the Road" this time around. And I see where you can compare Kerouac to Tao Lin. I may be wrong about my comment on people talking the same way. Specifically, I meant the people that know Tao and make up the characters in his fiction probably talk very similarly, in that they are generally ensconced in internet speak. I doubt people are saying things like "TBH" IRL, but I think discourse changes when it has an online antecedent. This has always been the case with Tao's work, but his online presence has shifted dramatically over the past seven or eight years, and he is no longer so "in your face" and you may be right that his next novel could reflect that shift.

I heard a feature on NPR about "City on Fire" and I'd like to read it. Like "The Art of Fielding," the advance is jaw-dropping. Haven't heard of "Book of Numbers" but will look into it. Right now I'm reading a big Raymond Carver biography and should be getting Patti Smith's "Just Kids" from the Chicago Public Library soon. So that's on my plate for now, but I'll try to do one of those as a follow-up. Thanks for the rec!

Thanks also for the comment on "Modern Romance"--your story about your father taking it out of the library made me laugh and brightened my day.