What does “The Year of Making Love” teach us about relationships?

Answer: probably nothing. But there's a deeper point - is going on telly what it takes to find love these days?

Will brought a rose. Kay looked suitably impressed. “Do I fancy him?” she asked the camera. “Maybe. I don’t know his personality yet, so that’s a big thing. I’m looking forward to finding out what he’s like.” Will was a little more forthright in his assessment. “I wouldn’t say I fancied her yet,” he told the camera with what a tabloid reporter might describe as a ‘cheeky smile’. “One thing that’s clouding my judgement at the moment is that I’ve seen another girl sitting quite close to our table that I do find attractive and is probably more my normal type...” Then I watched Rogan and Natalie go on a first date before “sharing a bed” (demure choice of words the voiceover lady’s, not mine). Next morning, Natalie divulged no information; Rogan smiled demurely at the camera. And then Andy went with Kirsty to Amsterdam, his plan being to “ask her out when we get there.” Months – or twenty-something minutes later – Newquay sunset in the background, Andy leaned in and told Kirsty: “I’m in love with you. You’re absolutely an amazing girl.” They kissed in the surf and the programme-makers played a gentle neo-folk song over the moment. 

I have been watching The Year of Making Love on BBC Three for the last few weeks, and I am exhausted. It’s basically a social experiment, something they’ve called “Britain’s biggest blind date”, in which three experts have used “scientifically robust” compatibility tests to match up hundreds of couples. Their cameras will follow the pairings for a year, to see if scientific matchmaking can yield love. “Millions of people are single because they’re hooked on this crazy idea that there’s just one perfect person out there,” says Thomas the profiler. “The reality is that we have several potential good matches.”Over the course of the six episodes, we see just a few of these unions (if not the ‘science’ that matched them in the first place) and not all of them are good.

The overwhelming take-home from watching other people actively seeking and then pursuing love is “gosh, that looks like a lot of work”. There was snogging, there were awkward chats, a lot of booze. And there were a whole series of baffling (to my clearly under-achieving eyes) dates set up: one woman set up her date at the gym, where the fledgling couple took a lesson in Muy Thai boxing. One told her date to prepare material for a short set at an open mic comedy night. Another couple went sky-diving. I sat watching at home, wrapped  in a blanket, agog. Whatever happened to a nice cup of tea and a sit down? Never have I been more bewildered by the mating habits of Britain’s young. Is this what it takes to find love nowadays? Well, buy me a cat and a lifetime prescription for animal allergy tablets, because spinsterhood looms large and I never saw a stereotype I couldn’t smash. The question is: will no one think of the lazy-in-love?

It’s a question I have been asking more and more recently, for whatever reason. There’s been a glut of long form essays on relationships: deep ruminations on whether love is supposed to fade, or if we are killing romance, or if dating is not a recipe for love but the fleeting joy of “hook-up culture” (these articles always have something made up and buzzy in them). Did our parents and grandparents worry like this? Is love really this complex? Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari gave an insightful interview to the AV Club last week, in which he talks about modern love in relation to modern manners and technology and laments the tyranny of choice. One bit stood out for me: 

I read this one guy’s texts where he texted a girl once and then texted again an hour later, after she didn’t respond. There were audible gasps in the audience when I read that.

Communication was a big thing in The Year of Making Love . There were men who said they would call and never did. Women who sent text messages that went unanswered. One memorable standing up; her to camera at the last minute: “I don’t think I can put myself through it.” Him to camera, outside the restaurant: “I’m not hurt, [I’m] pissed.”Many iterations of the sentiment behind the statement: “I don’t know if he/she is really into me”. People who promised themselves (again, on camera) they weren’t going to do something and then doing exactly that. So many feelings! All on display for our viewing pleasure. It was excruciating to watch: have you ever really watched two people kiss? What a ridiculous idea it is. It’s the most awkward thing in the entire world, and never more so than when practiced by young, sometimes lightly intoxicated people who barely know one another. Falling in love is hard – who knew? 

By the end of episode one, Natalie had “shared a bed” with Rogan again, and hadn’t heard back. “That gives me all the answers I need, really,” she told the camera. Between a shaky breath and blinking back tears, she added: “For the sake of my sanity, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to continue being involved in this.” Meanwhile Will and Kay, the first couple to be matched on the day, were also the first couple to drop out (the tyranny of choice strikes again – I had been right to judge him harshly!). Beyond all the flirting, and the bravado, and the snappy dialogue, when things fell apart, they all looked so young. They all looked so broken. And so I remembered the untouchable Annie Hall: relationships are “totally irrational and crazy and absurd. But uh, I guess we keep going through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.”

Marching off into the sunset. Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism