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Pickup Artistry for Nice Guys™

Bro Bibles: A review of Aziz Ansari’s ‘Modern Romance’

Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.

I frequently forgot, over the course of reading it, that Aziz Ansari’s softcore sociology book is titled Modern Romance. It’s an apt banality for this well-padded, repetitive snooze of an Amazon algorithm pick. This is the kind of book you get from your befuddled parents as a birthday or holiday gift, because hey, it’s that funny guy you like, and it’s about dating — doesn’t that sound fun? It sits on your coffee table for a while, then migrates to a closet, and before your next apartment move, you drop it off, unread, at Goodwill.

Anyone yet unconvinced of the breakneck speed at which our world turns would be amazed at how Modern Romance has aged in the three short years since its publication; Ansari frets over this himself, worrying whether Tinder will stay as relevant as it was in 2014 or vanish entirely, leaving parts of his analysis obsolete. His concern is founded but misplaced, as elsewhere he credits “the privacy of Facebook” (lol) with a bloom of digital cheating, and calls out the affair-arranging website Ashley Madison for making clandestine adultery far easier. Only a month after Modern Romance came out, Ashley Madison suffered a major data breach, with hackers posting searchable user data from millions of accounts — and among those accounts were quite a few bots.

A failure of prescience is one matter, and Ansari’s personal life is another. Six months after Modern Romance hit shelves, he broke up with the unnamed girlfriend alluded to in its pages, chef Courtney McBroom. Gossip writers joked that he might “want to have another read through” his own advice (ouch), but the speculation that Ansari’s work schedule was to blame, and his cringeworthy descriptions of the relationship in its prime (“I was the guy eating Skittles and having lots of fun, and then I was like, ‘I need a nice nutritious salad’ — she’s the salad”) map directly onto the blind spots in the book, which is largely concerned with getting together, less so the nature of long-term partnership.

In fact, Modern Romance rarely moves past the securing of a date to say how one might behave on that date, which gives it the air of Pickup Artistry for Nice Guys™ and brings us to the allegation of sexual assault leveled at Ansari in a piece on Babe.net in January. This narrative of a first date gone hellishly wrong was a flashpoint for the #MeToo movement, which some then said had gone too far — not that Ansari has suffered any professional consequences.

I agree with those who refused to dismiss the story as an episode of blameless “bad sex.” Many details (Ansari repeatedly forcing fingers down the woman’s throat, moving her hand to his penis “five to seven times” as she kept drawing it away) indicate an aggression unchecked by the nuances of consent. The divide between this behavior and Ansari’s woke ally persona — it was his choice to wear a “Time’s Up” pin to the Golden Globes that led to the Babe interview — is stark. “I’d seen some of his shows and read excerpts from his book and I was not expecting a bad night at all, much less a violating night and a painful one,” Ansari’s accuser said.

I’m guessing those excerpts didn’t come from Ansari’s introduction to Modern Romance, where he recounts his inspiration for taking on the project: Once, he and a woman hooked up at his place after a party in L.A. That week, he texted to invite her to a concert. She never answered. That’s…it. A run-of-the-mill ghosting resulted in the epiphany that “[t]he madness I was descending into wouldn’t have even existed twenty or even ten years ago,” and Ansari using stage time at a comedy club to address “the awful frustration, self-doubt, and rage that this whole ‘silence’ nonsense had provoked in the depths of my being.”

Put aside that terrible, tin-eared writing for a second to ask yourself: What the fuck? The guy is so fixated on smartphone etiquette that he never touches the issue of why this woman was avoiding him. Later on, he shares a text exchange with McBroom in which response delays as short as 16 minutes cause “uneasiness” on his end. “All of this change in my perception of her feelings and my own mood was purely because of the temporal differences in texting,” he concludes. My own dating tip is to never take a dating tip from anyone neurotically obsessed with timestamps.

Just as an egomaniac actor is bound to write a pretentious novel, an observational comic like Ansari is disposed to get stuck in minutiae. Were he to surprise us with a fresh and humorous take on this stuff, as he often does in a live setting, he could be fun to read. Instead he hits the same mark over and over, and trust me, it’s nothing that anyone between the ages of 16 and 45 hasn’t figured out already. I scrawled “shut up” and “no shit” in the margins too many times to count, so here’s a single iteration of the mushy, recurring non-conclusion that drove me crazy: “And while it’s exciting, sometimes exhilarating, to have more choices, it’s not necessarily making life easier.”

When he isn’t dropping insights of the “technology-is-good-but-maybe-also-bad” variety, Ansari relates dry stats collected with his co-author, NYU professor of sociology Eric Klinenberg (weirdly absent from the front cover!), telling us which cool restaurants he’s been to and how tough it is to make brunch plans, quoting Woody Allen, or straining awkwardly to wedge a joke into the text. I’d say these gags have roughly a 10 percent success rate, with twice as many jarring duds. Early on, he and Klinenberg hold a focus group with senior citizens, hearing from older women who regret their direct, involuntary transition from adolescence to marriage. “I think I missed a stage in my life, the stage where you go out with friends,” one tells them, explaining that her father wouldn’t allow it. “So I tell my granddaughters, ‘Enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourself. Then get married.’”

Faced with this heartbreaking confession, Ansari seizes his chance to be wacky: “Hopefully this doesn’t lead to [her] granddaughters doing a ton of ecstasy and then telling their mom, ‘Grandma told me to enjoy myself! Leave me alone!!’” he writes. Way to read the room, my dude. In a section about breaking up, he reprints (from a Reddit page set up to gather book material) the story of a couple that split via text message after eight years together, then reunited 10 months later. “No offense, but at this point let’s take a moment to be thankful we are neither of the people in that relationship,” he quips. You might well have the same thought reading the post, but, uh, is that any way to treat your sources? Following one of the book’s rare nods to LGBT couples, Ansari adds: “(BLT couples — bacon, lettuce, and tomato couples — are inanimate objects and are not engaging in romantic pursuits.)” OK, sure. As he heads to the town of Monroe, New York, for research, he sets the scene this way: “If you click on the ‘Attractions’ tab on TripAdvisor’s Monroe page, it brings up a message that says, ‘I’m sorry, you must have clicked here by mistake, No one could possibly be planning a trip to Monroe to see its ‘Attractions.’ I have a feeling about why you’d want to go to Monroe. Here, let me redirect you to a suicide-prevention site.’” This is, I would venture, anything but cute.

Yet Modern Romance could have passed by as a forgettable fusion of obvious data and ill-adapted humor had we not gained another angle on Ansari’s allegedly relentless bedroom persona. Now some lines scan as red flags. “Why do we want what we can’t have and sometimes have more attraction to people when they seem a little distant or disinterested?” he wants to know, taking this model of allure as a given. He pulls the classic and highly suspect “I’m not like the other boys” rhetorical maneuver now and then by mocking his competition in the dating pool: “One firm takeaway from all our interviews with women is that most dudes out there are straight-up bozos.” Exploring the intensity of seduction in Buenos Aires, where a woman saying “no” is “usually just a prelude to ‘yes,’” he limply warns: “You can see how much trouble this could generate.”

Trouble for who? For the women? The men? Or is it trouble for Ansari, the young, beloved celebrity so poorly equipped to handle a brush-off from a woman he made out with on a single occasion that he sought to become the academic expert on problematic millennial flirting? The resulting book is perhaps no more than mildly offensive — with sex itself glaringly missing, thank god — but haunted by his driving claim that today’s romantic landscape is just too darn confusing. It’s a wonder he doesn’t throw a “Folks, am I right?” into every third paragraph.

Anyway, he’s wrong: The search for love in this society teaches you plenty about current values and expectations, and without a bunch of irritating throwaway bits to tie the lot together. Acting like (and pandering to) the men who insist that women are puzzles with inscrutable rules sets you up to play dumb when you violate a clause of the actually rather simple sexual contract. “Was that wrong?” won’t save you, though — because everybody is well aware you already knew it was.