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The Game

by Neil Strauss

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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The Game
Although The Game is subtitled "Penetrating the Society of Pickup Artists," Neil Strauss does far more than infiltrate a subculture and report on its doings. He actually becomes a PUA, as pickup artists call each other online. In fact, he becomes one of the most well-known and successful PUAs, moves in with other PUAs, and lectures AFCs-average frustrated chumps-before his world implodes.

The Game is at heart a cautionary tale, the sort told by rock stars. Strauss, a writer for Rolling Stone and other publications, has co-written books by porn star Jenna Jameson, rocker Marilyn Manson, Motley Crue, and Jane's Addiction bandmember Dave Navarro. Strauss' PUAs appear as implausible and out of control as any rock star, including a pre-rehab Courtney Love, who visits Project Hollywood, a house near the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles that Strauss moves into with several other PUAs.
The pick-up artists come across as nerdy, emotionally underdeveloped men, usually young, who have chosen to reinvent themselves as sexually irresistible predators by analyzing the nuances of social behavior and "running programs" that hijack these social structures. If this sounds like computer hacking, that's not too far off: Ross Jeffries, one of the first people to run lectures on PUA techniques (and supposedly the model for Tom Cruise's character in the film Magnolia), promotes a technique called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that combines hypnosis with a language of gestures and verbal cues to entice women to have sex.

Other PUAs employ other techniques, including the "Mystery Method," a technique based on the concept of an "indirect approach," befriending the companions of a target while ignoring her in order to make the PUA more attractive. Strauss befriends Mystery, a profoundly damaged professional magician, who developed this technique, and learns his secrets. After learning and some practice, Strauss shaves his head, trades in his clothing, and becomes "Style." Style successfully hits on dozens of women, possibly hundreds-if this story is to be believed. (Strauss insists that this is a true story.)
Any good cautionary tale involves a high degree of titillation: it must describe, in loving detail, the activity that is too unhealthy, dangerous, or immoral for the reader to try. This has two components: the brag, and the instruction manual. True to the form, Strauss writes sentences like "But now, when I walked into a club, I felt a rush of power, wondering which woman would have her tongue down my throat within a half hour." (p. 150) Strauss describes many successful models and techniques, teaches the argot of the seductionists, and points readers at other books that contain further instructions.

The cautionary tale, of course, must also have its unsavory or unappealing aspect. Strauss describes a world that dehumanizes not only the women but the men; a world in which many of the men are social robots, unable or uninterested in any activity beyond seducing an endless number of sex objects; a world without the friendship of women. Soon enough, this insular world consumes itself in arguments over women, over money, and over status. Some fail to escape, or fall into depression; others look to fill the holes in their life with religion; and Neil Strauss gets himself a girlfriend.
Because the cautionary tale brags about how the protagonist triumphs over the thing that brought him so much pleasure and so much pain, in the end it reinforces a conventional morality. This does not lessen the temptation of the immoral, hedonistic lifestyle that the story condemns, nor does it render ineffective the models of that subculture. The morality tale allows the narrator to maintain a sensual and depraved charm while remaining morally irreproachable.

References to the novel and film Fight Club abound: one PUA goes by the name Tyler Durden; another turns Project Hollywood into a dormitory for aspiring PUAs; Strauss consistently describes the PUAs imitating him as an army, or a group of clones. At one point, consciously or unconsciously echoing Fight Club he writes: "Every time we left a city, a lair sprung up if one didn't exist already, bringing together students eager to practice their new skills." (p. 149)

At times, The Game beggars belief. Style's exploits seem so implausible, so cinematic, that it's hard to be sure that the story is true, despite Strauss' assurances. Strauss seduces the reader using the program of the cautionary tale so perfectly that the reader must wonder if he or she is the one being played.
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