Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Game by Neil Strauss

Subtitle: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-up Artists

(Book Review)

From the back cover:

Nothing you have heard about The Game will prepare you for it. Neil Strauss reveals the bizarre world of the PUA (pick-up artist)—men who devote their lives to seducing women. None of this is fiction. PUAs have their own language and codes of honour, they trade strategies on-line, attend each other’s seminars and share houses called Projects.
Strauss lived among the players and survived—but not before he proved that the game works. He transformed himself from a balding, skinny writer into the smooth-talking Style, a man irresistible to women. Once an AFC (average frustrated chump) he became a legendary PUG (pick-up guru).
Here he describes not only his techniques of seduction, but his unforgettable encounters with everyone from Tom Cruise to Courtney Love, from Paris Hilton to Britney Spears. And that’s before things start to get really strange.
Shocking and hilarious, The Game is compulsively readable. It will change the lives of men and the way women understand them.

I came across the book by accident in the bookstore. I picked it up, looked at the back cover, flipped through it briefly, decided this wasn’t the kind of book I usually read, and then put it back on the shelf and moved on. Why waste my time reading junk like this when there were so many more serious history books on my reading list?
I walked on to look at the next book shelf, but then found myself walking back and picking up this book again. Was this just a marketing gimmick or was this for real? Was there really a secret way to pick-up women? And if I didn’t read this book, would I spend the rest of my life wondering?

So I ended up buying it.

For better or for worse (I’ll get to the flaws of the book later down) I found it to be a highly addictive read. I’m usually the kind of person who takes weeks to finish a book, but I had a hard time putting this down and blitzed through the whole book in a couple of days.

This book first came out back in 2005, and apparently was a best seller and a cultural phenomenon (W) long before I got around to it. So, as usual, I’m once again behind the times (one of the consequences of living abroad for so long I suppose).
Friends of mine who saw me reading this book mocked me for being interested in it, and then said they had read it years ago.
So, this review may be commenting on a cultural trend a few years too late. So be it.

The topic of this book pretty much sells itself—every male is interested in learning about the secret to picking-up women. With these kind of guaranteed sales, you might expect this to be the kind of book that the publishing industry simply cranks out and dumps on the public.
It is therefore a pleasant surprise to find out that this book is also well written.
Neil Strauss is a talented writer. He has an engaging style—the right combination of an eye for picking up little details, but a narrative that doesn’t get bogged down by them. To quote a sample piece:

When we arrived, the social workers led him down a long, dark hallway and into a claustrophobic cubicle with a sheet-vinyl floor. The therapist sat behind a desk, running a finger through a black tangle in her hair. She was a slim Asian woman in her late twenties, with high cheekbones, dark red lipstick, and a pinstriped pantsuit.
Mystery slumped in a chair across from her.
“So how are you feeling today?” she asked, forcing a smile.
“I’m feeling,” Mystery said, “like there’s no point to anything.” He burst into tears.
“I’m listening,” she said, scrawling a note on her pad. The case was probably already closed for her.
“So I’m removing myself from the gene pool,” he sobbed.
She looked at him with a feigned sympathy as he continued. To her, he was just one of a dozen nutjobs she saw a day. All she needed to figure out was whether he required medication or institutionalization.
“I can’t go on,” Mystery went on. “It’s futile.”
With a rote gesture, she reached into a drawer, pulled out a small package of tissues, and handed it to him. As mystery reached for the package, he looked up and met her eyes for the first time. He froze and stared at her silently. She was surprisingly cute for a clinic like this.
A flicker of animation flashed across Mystery’s face, then died. “If I had met you in another time and another place,” he said, crumpling a tissue in his hands, “things would have been different.”
(From page 6).

My friend said of this book, “A lot of people think it’s a book about how to pick up women. But it’s not that at all. It’s a story about the kind of guys who pick up women.”
It is true that this book is first and foremost a memoir. However it does integrate all sorts of tidbits of pick-up wisdom.
In addition to his story telling abilities, the second part of Neil Strauss’s genius is his ability to integrate this pick-up information into a narrative structure. And this is a lot of what makes the book so addictive. On one hand you’re caught up in the story about this fascinating world of pick-up artists (and the soap opera like personality conflicts they have with each other). On the other hand, you’re learning tons of information about how to pick up women in bars.
As I read this book, I was constantly thinking to myself, “Aha, is that what I’ve been doing wrong all these years?” It can be a real eye opener.

Neil Strauss is also very compelling as the narrator. He approaches the world of the pick-up artists as a complete naïve, and his own admitted lack of success with women makes him the perfect everyman type narrator for this type of story. Because I identified so much with him and his social awkwardness, it made it a lot easier to see this whole world through his eyes.

It is no easy feat to sign up for a workshop dedicated to picking up women. To do so is to acknowledge defeat, inferiority, and inadequacy. It is to finally admit to yourself that after all these years of being sexually active (or at least sexually cognizant) you have not grown up and figured it out. Those who ask for help are often those who have failed to do something for themselves. So if drug addicts go to rehab and the violent go to anger management class, then social retards go to pickup school.

A man has to primary drives in early adulthood: one toward power, success, and accomplishment; the other toward love, companionship, and sex. Half of life then was out of order. To go before them was to stand up as a man and admit that I was only half a man.

The reason [we were] here [at this workshop] …. was that our parents and our friends had failed us. They had never given us the tools we needed to become fully effective and social beings. Now decades later it was time to acquire them.

(from p. 16 and 21)

Unfortunately, this likable everyman narrator does not stick around for the whole book. As Neil Strauss completes his transformation from average frustrated chump to master pick-up artist, he gets more and more full of himself.

He brags about how he was voted the best pick-up artist by the online community, and how the rest of the newer generation of pick up artists began emulating all his tricks.
The lowest point is perhaps when he devotes a whole chapter to listing his sexual conquests.

I realize the purpose of his bragging is to emphasize his transformation, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.

Finally, the book is written as a memoir. As memoirs go, I thought it was pretty good, but it does also suffer from the limitations of the genre.

For one thing, we’re limited to the perspective of Neil Strauss, who has clearly swallowed the kool-aid of the pick-up artists’ method.
As the book progresses, Strauss does question many elements of the pick-up artists’ lifestyle. He questions whether the obsession with finding routines and programs to pick up women turns the men into “Social Robots”. He questions if the obsession with picking up women comes at the expense of developing an unrounded personality, particularly with the younger members of the pick-up community who lack life experience. He questions whether any of them are any good at holding down a long term girlfriend. And he details how many of them are complete narcissists or control freaks.

But one thing he never questions is that these methods do definitely work to pick up girls. And that even the most socially backward person, by attending these workshops and practicing these techniques, will grow into a confident person able to successfully pull girls.
It sounded a little bit too good to be true, and I at times wished for the inclusion of a more objective outside view.

In fact, if one were inclined to be cynical, you could read this whole book as one long infomercial. Neil Strauss is still engaged in the business of the seduction community, and is selling books and DVD courses (W) related to it. Could his portrayal of his own social awkwardness at the beginning of the book be exaggerated to make the transformation that much more dramatic? Could his unquestioning view of the success of seduction techniques be related to his desire to drum up business for it?

For that matter, if one wanted to be really cynical, could this book also be designed to discredit his business rivals?

Which brings us to the second common failing of the memoir genre: the author comes off as the most likable and sane person in the whole story. Everyone else is at fault except him.
Even the friends of Neil Strauss, like Mystery (W) and Courtney Love (W) come off as likeable enough, but obviously mentally unstable.

His rivals, like Tyler Durden (W) come off much much worse.
(One of these days I’m going to have to research what the finer points of the libel law are. Obviously Neil Strauss got away with it, but one can’t help feel a bit sorry for Tyler Durden and Papa, hardly high profile figures outside of the seduction community, and the very public trashing they got in this best selling book. If they really are the manipulative scheming figures Neil Strauss portrays them as, then I guess they kind of deserved it. If…)

Final verdict: Highly entertaining, very addictive read. But judge for yourself how much of this is truth and how much of this is fiction.

Additional thought:
I’m thinking the writers of “How I Met Your Mother” must have all read this book. So much of the character of Barney Stinson and the theories he always spouts seems lifted right out of this book.

Link of the Day
The Meaning of Vietnam


Whisky Prajer said...
The "pump and dump" aspect to it all is repulsive and depressing, of course. Mary has made a case (persuasive, I think) for segments of society that go "feral" in some regard, and the "Game" community (should put scare-quotes around that word, too) more than qualifies. Also, n+1 did a terrific survey of Strauss and Mystery and their various Game spin-offs since Strauss's book, but it doesn't seem to be available on-line (alas). If I find it, I'll pass it along.

But a little "Game" goes a long way -- not a bad thing to be cognizant of, for either gender. In fact, my daughters will have their own copies of this book in another year or two. I will be making sure of that.

I've got a couple of friends (male) who obsess about this stuff. They cull blogs devoted to the subject matter, and pare down the various strategies. The one is married, the other not. Curiously, they both register on the Asperger's spectrum. Not sure what that says.

But it's worth the read -- so long as you find a used copy. I can't bear to think of filling his coffers any further.
Joel said...
I agree. It does seem to be a good thing to be aware of. And you wouldn't want to get too sucked into that subculture.

I bought a copy in Cambodia that was a photocopied rip-off (like most of the books here are, for better or for worse). So I guess my conscience is clean on contributing to his coffers

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