Forty Dates and Forty Sites

Online serialized storytelling tackles the rom-com dynamic.

Sometimes there’s a truly engaging piece of longform storytelling that begs to be read in its original presentation. You can’t save it to Pocket, you can’t even print it out. These narratives, when done well, establish a mobius strip between content and form, each looping back on one another: see “Welcome to Pine Point” and “The Wilderness Downtown.” (Most of the compelling work in this space can be attributed to Canada’s National Film Board.)

The latest? Jessica Walsh and Tim Goodman’s “Forty Days of Dating.” Two friends, both luminaries in the design industry, commit to forty days of daily contact comprised of dates, weekly sessions with a couples therapist, constant self-assessment, and one trip out of town:

Will they fall in love? I know: prime rom-com territory so far. (Let’s go with Natasha Lyonne for Walsh’s quirky friend, Adam Driver for Goodman’s.)

What sets “Forty Days of Dating” apart, beyond its light gloss of reality TV, is its presentation. His ‘n Hers columns bisect the scrolling narrative into a literal “he said, she said” with the days demarcated by chapter breaks and type-heavy frontispieces. The illustrations, often created by notable graphic artists, subtly invoke the community of friends and colleagues weighing in on Walsh and Goodman’s unfolding project. Indeed, friends of both participants will try to dissuade them from continuing on when the dates hit a rough patch.

The question for the reader becomes: Why keep coming back? Why not wait until August 16th and binge-read the entire narrative? After all, we’ve grown accustomed to binge-viewing TV seasons, abetted by Netflix’s original programming.

“Forty Days” demands serialization. Its episodic nature mirrors the slow and steady rollout of, well, two people going on dates. We’d all like to spend nine hours vegging on the couch on a Sunday with the object of our affection. It’s just not likely on date number two.

As often happens with great writing, once I started reading I couldn’t stop. The narrative’s documentary nature, even taken with a grain of salt, establishes pathos and narrative tension where straight fiction might fail. When Walsh’s debilitating migraines worsened around Day Twelve — she consults a neurologist — I wasn’t hoping for her recovery for sympathetic reasons; I just didn’t want the story muddled by that hoary old Nicholas Sparks trope of young love derailed by illness.

Thankfully “Forty Days” sidesteps this cliche, and many others. It establishes, almost as if by happenstance, an acute picture of thirtysomething dating recognizable to many creative professionals, especially those of us in New York. Contrasted with the quarter-life crisis crew of Girls and their profligate free time, Walsh and Goodman have successful and demanding careers, and their friends are pairing off in long-term relationships. (Emily Nussbaum, writing about the characters on 30 Rock, captures this personality type succinctly: “Ambitious nuts who lived for their jobs.”)

Our protagonists are no longer racking up experiences and stories just to have them. They’ve done the one night stands, the spontaneous road trips with weekend flings, the drugs. Clear trends are emerging, not all of them positive.

Which might be profoundly boring if not for their brutal honesty, gung-ho approach, and tendency toward self-destruction. You believe in both their natural chemistry and their rifts and schisms.

Which is all to say the innovative presentation and layout faded into the background as I kept reading. I was hooked. And in the tradition of great onscreen pairings — Clooney and Lopez in Out of Sight, Hawke and Delpy in Before Sunrise — moments of real charm shone through the material: Goodman’s video to Walsh after she suffers a particularly stressful workday is pure Lloyd Dobler. Or should I say pure Tim Goodman?

Ryan Chapman works for Atavist Books and hosts infrequent literary trivia nights in NYC. You can find him on Twitter.