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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

(Movie Reviews)

I actually saw this movie a year ago.

I didn't write up a review at the time because I considered it an episode of the PBS TV show American Experience (W) and thus falling outside the scope of my movie review project.

The other day, however, I was doing a google search to see if anyone was comparing the Strauss-Kahn case to the Scottsboro boys (more on this below).
And I discovered that this film had originally been released as a documentary film, had a brief theatrical run, and even has its own Wikipedia page (W). So I thought I'd do a belated review of it.

My memory of it is not as sharp as it would have been if I’d done this review immediately after watching. So treat this review with caution. But I think I can still write down maybe one or two thoughts that have stuck with me over the months.

Thought 1:
For one thing, I remember this documentary as being extremely interesting. It held my interest from start to finish. It has lots of court room drama, and unexpected revelations or plot twists all artfully worked into the narrative by story tellers who knew what they were doing.

Thought 2:
I remember briefly covering the Scottsboro Boys case in a college level course on African American history. Outside of that, I'd never heard anything else about it until seeing this documentary. It’s a part of forgotten history that has gone down the memory hole.
Which makes it all the more interesting to watch this documentary and realize what huge news the whole thing actually was at the time.

Thought 3:
The Scottsboro Boys case stands as one of the more positive moments in the history of the Communist Party. It was the Communist Party that made the Scottsboro Boys case into an international incident, and saved these 9 black men from being legally lynched.

(Actually the prominence of the Communist Party in this case might go a long way to explaining why it has been largely left out of history.)

Although I identify myself more with the libertarian wing of the socialist movement (W ), I think it is important to give credit where credit is due.

The makers of the documentary, however, seem reluctant to give the Communist Party their due credit. Perhaps this is because there is an unwritten rule that Communists always have to appear as the bad guys in any mainstream American production (and this documentary was financed with money from PBS). Although the film makers could hardly avoid talking about the Communist Party's role in the whole affair, they feel the need to emphasize that after the whole court case was over, the Communist Party only provided minimal support to helping the Scottsboro Boys re-adjust to normal life, and imply that the Communist Party only used the Scottsboro Boys for their own purposes, and then discarded them once they were no longer useful.

I think this is unfair. The Communist Party was not buying a puppy. There was no commitment on their part to provide life long care for the Scottsboro Boys after the acquittal. They saw a case of gross mis-justice happening, and they did what they could to stop it, and I find that admirable.

Thought 4:

The case of the Scottsboro Boys show how race and class can be unfairly used in a rape case. Because they were black and poor, they were assumed guilty of the rape. If they had been rich and white they would no doubt have gotten off easily.
Although I suppose you could argue that the Duke Lacross team rape scandal (W ) a few years ago was the Scottsboro boys case in reverse.

However both cases provide examples of rushes to judgment.

Rape cases perhaps represent a difficult dilemma. On one hand we want to protect women, but on the other hand we should protect the Anglo-American judicial tradition that the benefit of the doubt must lie with the defendant, and that a defendant is assumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
For this reason I sometimes get uneasy when people talk in undefined terms about how we should make it easier to be prosecute rape cases. If the rape case is reduced to nothing more than a he-said/ she-said scenario, I don’t think anyone should be sent to jail.
Which is why the Strauss Kahn case made me remember this movie.

(I know this is a sensitive topic. If I’m wrong, go ahead and tell me so in the comments section.)

Thought 5

Actually forget about my review--read this review over here [LINK]. It's a much better summary of the film's strengths and weaknesses.

Thought 6
This is not the first time that this review project has been tripped up by the line between real movies and TV movies. For other examples see here and here .

Link of the Day
Vietnam: How Government Became Wolves

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Stealing from Facebook

Blogs are seeming more and more outdated. All my friends now use facebook to link to interesting articles and post their opinions.
But me, I'm still sticking with the blog. So here's a few things I thought I'd steal from my friends' facebook pages.

For starters is this poster that's making its way around facebook. I couldn't agree more.

While on the subject, recently did an excellent take down of the conservative arguments against the Occupy Wall Street movement:

Fox News, unsurprisingly, has been devoting more and more time to trying to discredit the protesters. Here's a Monday segment with Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, who calls the protests a "scary" attack on capitalism:

"As that one dumb woman was saying, 'if only rich people would share their wealth, we'd all be prosperous.' Look you don't get prosperous by taking other people's money, you get prosperous by producing," says Moore, apparently forgetting the multi-trillion dollar bank bailouts of the last few years that represent one of the biggest grievances of the protesters.

Next, a bit late in linking to this, but from my sister here is a rather disturbing article:
The GOP War on Voting
In a campaign supported by the Koch brothers, Republicans are working to prevent millions of Democrats from voting next year

And finally, one of my facebook friends wants as many people as possible to check out this site:
Oppose the Cambodian NGO & Associations Law

(This may be of limited interest to you if you aren't in Cambodia, but maybe if more people outside of Cambodia are informed about what's going on, it will result in more pressure for them to clean up their act.)

Link of the Day
The Soviet Union Versus Socialism

Sunday, October 02, 2011


(Movie Review)

This is another case of a movie that is hard to categorize. According to Wikipedia (W) it was released both as a 5 and a half hour film and as a mini-series on French television. Maybe it belongs under the category of TV miniseries instead of a proper movie, but I’m deciding to include it on this movie review project anyway.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie for a while. Back when I was at college, I remember reading about the life of Carlos the Jackal on-line and thinking to myself, “Man, what an interesting story! This would make a great movie.”
(In fact, that same website that got me so interested back in the 1990s is still online. For some fascinating reading, check out their multi-part history of the life of Carlos the Jackal [LINK HERE]).
A few years ago, when I was wasting time creating a blogging list of the top 10 biopics I would like to see, Carlos the Jackal was one of the top of the list.

So, naturally, when I found out about this new French production, I was very curious to see it. I managed to track down a copy here in Cambodia, and watched it the other week.

This is a movie that’s purely for the history nerds. If you’re not interested in history or politics, it will probably be a very long 5 and a half hours for you. Sure there are some explosions and gunfights, but there are also a lot of politics as you have to keep track of which group is being sponsored by which country and for what reasons.

However if you are a bit of a history nerd, like me, you’ll find this movie absolutely fascinating. Although the focus of the movie is only on one man, through the story of Carlos’s life we get a glimpse into several of the terrorist groups of the 1970s and how they were inter-related with each other.

It is a long movie. At 5.5 hours, I wouldn’t recommend watching it all in one sitting. However broken up over 3 days I found it to be a fantastic viewing experience. The length of the movie allows the filmmakers to fully flesh out the events without rushing through anything.

The challenge of making a movie about the life of Carlos the Jackal is that the filmmakers have to make him charismatic and interesting enough to hold the attention of the audience, but they don’t want to glorify him.
This film does a remarkably good job of walking that line. They attempt to explain Carlos’s motivations, and show how he viewed what he was doing against the backdrop of the counter-revolutionary terror that was occurring across South America at the time (Carlos was Venezuelan).
At the same time, they don’t glorify him. They show him as having a callousness towards human life that borders on psychopathic. And in his relationships with women they portray him as a controlling and sometimes sadistic.

I would highly recommend this movie/miniseries to any other history nerds out there.

Other Thoughts:

* It’s interesting that, aside from the Arabs, the two groups that Carlos ended up working with are the German Revolutionary Cells, and the Japanese Red Army. A lot of comparisons have been made between the West German and the Japanese student movements in the 1960s. In both countries, the 1968 generation was horrified at what their parents’ generation had done during the war, and believed that fascism was in danger of returning (partly because the old fascist guard really was being rehabilitated into high level government positions in the name of anti-communism). Both groups of students saw parallels between the Vietnam War and what their parents’ generation had done . Both countries had a violent student movement that spun off into terrorist factions. And in both countries once the Vietnam War finished, the leftover radical factions turned their attention to the Palestinian cause.

The Japanese Red Army (which for a time operated out of Paris blending in with all the Japanese tourists) is given a prominent part in the beginning of this movie when they work with Carlos to take over the French Embassy in The Hague in 1972.

As for the German radicals:
One of the great ironies of history is that during the late 1970s, the German radical movement began to confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, and therefore came full circle to repeating the mistakes of their parents which had so horrified them to begin with.

To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t dodge this issue but take the time to show the irony and explore it. When German terrorists hijack a French plane, they separate out the Jews from the rest of the passengers (W).
Another German radical Hans-Joachim Klein (W) is so appalled by this that he resigns from the movement. “Bose (W) separated out the Jews, just like at Auschwitz. I never thought a German of my generation could have done that,” Klein exclaims.

* This film is also fascinating because of the look it provides into international politics of the 1970s. It takes place during a time when the Communist bloc was loosely allied with Arab nationalism, and the film hints at backroom deals that went on between the governments of these countries. We get glimpses into the relationship that the KGB had with the East German Stasi, and the Hungarian government’s relationship with Moscow.
Arab leaders who have been in the news recently like Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein also play a prominent part in this story.

* In this post here, I questioned why there were no observation decks at airports back in the US. After having seen this movie, I no longer have that question. (In the film German terrorists attempt to shoot an airplane with an RPG missile fired from an observation deck.)


Minor Quibbles:
* As this is a French film, and as it takes place all over the globe and has an international cast of characters, several different languages are spoken (French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, et cetera). So if you don’t like reading subtitles, you’re out of luck.
However for me, the most difficult parts of the film to follow were the parts in English. The volume was so low I had trouble understanding what the characters were saying without the subtitles. (This may actually have been due to the poor quality of the DVD I obtained in Cambodia. I’d be interested to hear what other people thought.)
Actually a fair amount of the film was in English, because whenever characters from two different nationalities conversed, they used English as a common language. (If I were to rely solely on my stereotypes of the French people, I would have assumed they would have insisted on making French the international language in this film. But they graciously acknowledge English as the lingua franca.)

However several of the actors were using English as their second language and at times I think it showed. Their pronunciation was fine, but sometimes their delivery was a little off, and some of the lines sounded a bit cheesy. Either that or some of the acting was bad, I’m not sure.

* Some of the shoot out scenes were hard to follow. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but the camera moved a bit too fast for me, and sometimes I couldn’t tell who was shooting whom until the action had finished and the dead bodies were lying on the floor.

* If this had been a Hollywood production, I think the soundtrack would have been amped up a lot. As it is, there were a lot of key scenes that I thought could have used some more dramatic music. Maybe this is just a stylistic difference between American and French cinema, I don’t know, but I often found myself thinking, “This scene would be a lot better if they added some really dramatic sounding music to it.”
The few times when they did have music, it didn’t seem to fit the mood of the scene very well. There was even one instance where the music got caught off very abruptly, and I got the impression that whoever was in the editing room was just asleep at the wheel, or that the soundtrack was just thrown together at the last minute.

Link of the Day
International Terrorism: Image and Reality