Tag Archives: Neil Strauss

The Game, Neil Strauss

<em class="BookTitle">The Game</em>, Neil Strauss

Harper, 2005, 452 pages, $C46.50 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-055473-6

I seldom think twice about buying books I want to read, but even after loving Neil Strauss’ Emergency, I admit that I hesitated a bit before getting his best-known work The Game.

Sure, it’s an expensive book.  But the way it looks did more to drive me away than its cover price.  Dressed in imitation leather, clad in gilded rounded edges, sporting a red cloth bookmark and cover silhouettes of exotic dancers, The Game affirms its personality before you even crack open its golden-edged pages.  If it was a person, The Game would be your mysterious and seldom acknowledged uncle from San Francisco who picks you up on your 18th birthday, slaps you heartily on the shoulder, stuffs a lit cigar in your mouth and says “Let’s go to the strip club, son.  Tonight, I’m gonna teach you how to be a man.”

This, as it turns out, is pretty much what The Game wants to teach you anyway.  Billed as an exploration of a secret society of pick-up artists, it’s an autobiographical memoir of Neil Strauss’ years in the seduction underground.  Learning from the masters, Strauss sheds his geeky writer’s persona to become Style and eventually becomes a master of seduction.  It’s a lively story filled with hilarious anecdotes, a compelling narrative, sharp characters, celebrity cameos and growing doubts about the power of picking up women at will.  He even cracks the threesome code.

Let’s not try to pretend otherwise: The sole reason why The Game is so expensive and as over-packaged as a peacock is that it’s being sold as a summary of the rules of seduction.  Pick it up, promises everything in the book’s physical appearance, and you too will learn everything you need to know about seducing women.  It’s all about confidence and interesting patter, but members of the pickup-artist community tend to be from geeky backgrounds and so many of the hints become about routines and scripted encounters –as if you could hack the human interaction algorithm.

Amusingly enough, it seems to be working: As Strauss details techniques and openers and steps to follow, it’s easy to deride those who attempt to boil down seduction to a flowchart… but no one will deny that the traits meant to be bolstered by the routines are those that do make you a more interesting person: A bit of fearlessness, a few useful talents, some verbal wit and a lot of self-confidence.  The Game is geared toward singles bar pick-ups and I’m definitely not a player, but I can recognize that when I’m at my most charming (whether it’s one-on-one or giving speeches to an entire room), I end up independently running through many of the techniques that Strauss outlines.

But I’ll let other AFCs (Average Frustrated Chumps, in The Game’s highly specialized jargon) take advantage of the book’s didactical aims, because the real reason to read the book isn’t the bag of tricks as much as Strauss’ storytelling and the unbelievable adventures in which he finds himself.  His path from geek-writer to a model for an entire community is richly told, compulsively readable and frequently hilarious.  The community attracts its share of characters and since much of the action takes place in Los Angeles, celebrities sometimes pop up in the narrative: Tom Cruise ends up teaching Strauss a few lessons in natural pick-up ability, while Courtney Love has an extended role as a mad dervish.  Meanwhile, Strauss finds out that his seduction techniques serves him well when comes the time to interview Britney Spears, while one of the book’s secondary characters successfully picks up Paris Hilton using Style’s scripted routines.

Better yet, though, are Strauss’ clear-eyed epiphanies about the monster he has helped create.  After everyone comes to adopt his techniques, after anti-seduction mechanisms start being used against him, he comes to the most basic realization of all: Learning how to pick up women is supposed to be a mean to an end, and no rote repetition of bar encounters will help him in building a stable relationship.  The Game may end on a strikingly traditional note, but it does manage to sweeten what could have been an unbearably misogynistic book.  (Not that Strauss has given up on the game: A look at his web site shows that he’s still involved in teaching other how to improve their pickup skills.)

There’s no use pointing out that The Game is very much a young man’s book or that it outlines ways of handling interpersonal relationships that may curdle into dishonesty and exploitation.  It is borderline reprehensible (especially if you stop reading before the end) and can empower twisted minds.  Which is why my recommendation for the book comes with a kilogram of salt: Try to think of it as a book of good stories, not a way of life.

Emergency, Neil Strauss

<em class="BookTitle">Emergency</em>, Neil Strauss

Harper, 2009, 418 pages, C$21.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-089877-9

I don’t laugh at survivalists.

While their threat-assessment algorithms may be out of whack, their basic message of self-reliance isn’t something I’m willing to dismiss easily: Our civilization is far more interdependent that even a generation ago, and I don’t have half the survival skills that my father (skilled wood-worker, outdoorsman, scout leader) or my grandfather (farmer: owned a horse, could slaughter and eat backyard animals) had. Survivalism, correctly applied, is about being prepared and having useful skills. I’m still dead meat on the scale of “who’s most likely to survive the apocalypse”, but I didn’t suffer through the North American ice storm of 1998 and the Northeast Blackout of 2003 without making at least a few contingency plans.

It helps, I suppose, that I’m a Canadian and that our social security net has historically proven pretty effective in case of disaster. Neil Strauss, sadly, doesn’t have that luxury, and as he details during the first third of Emergency, he has spent most of this century’s first decade convincing himself that the end was nigh. What follows is a decade-long personal immersion in the survivalist subculture, where he comes to learn essential survival skills, reassess his life and eventually develop a surprising philosophy of how to best be prepared to survive emergencies.

This isn’t the first of Strauss’ personal journalism efforts. His best-known book so far, The Game, detailed his “penetration” of a not-so-secret subculture of pickup artists. A former music critic and ghost-writer to the stars (Emergency is filled with mentions and cameos of people such as Britney Spears, Tom Cruise and Leonard Cohen), Strauss may have emerged from The Game with a less-than-honourable reputation, but he knows how to write engagingly, and his descent in the survivalist mindset is hilarious to read about: Emergency, despite a somewhat depressing subject and a fairly lengthy narrative, is never less than a joy to read, especially when it charts Strauss’ evolution from a somewhat self-centred writer to a full-fledged member of his community… all thanks to his evolving conception of what it takes to survive the unthinkable.

Emergency may be billed as a book that “will save your life”, but it’s not a how-to manual as much as it’s a reasoned description of the survivalism mindset. It does have a few tips and tricks (many of them entertainingly presented as short comic-book pages illustrated by Bernard Chang, who previously collaborated with Strauss on The Game and the disappointing How to Make Money Like a Porn Star.) It’s a gateway of sorts for those looking into how to tackle survivalism: As Strauss investigates a second citizenship, money transfers outside the US, cache-making, goat-slaughtering and weapons training, it’s enough to make any sane reader consider whether they really have to fortitude to commit to such a lifestyle.

Because, no mistake about it, Strauss describes a life-altering experience. Without giving anything away about the book’s conclusion, Strauss hints that it’s impossible to be a serious survivalist without making permanent and irrevocable changes to the way one lives. This, I suspect (and testify), is likely to be the biggest stumbling block to most people’s quest for self-sufficiency: few of us have the resources, drive, time or interest (not to mention support from loved ones) to seriously pursue self-reliance. I may admire Strauss a lot for what he did in-between the beginning and the end of his Emergency voyage of discovery, but there’s no way I can do the same. Although… you never know: I ended up deliberately locking myself in the trunk of my car to experience a small chunk of what Strauss describes –can weapon training be far behind?

In the meantime, Emergency is a pretty solid read: After a shaky, whiny, self-pitying start, the book becomes stronger and stronger to end on a note of sheer admiration for Strauss’ odyssey. Beautifully designed (it even includes a treasure hunt through hidden clues), it’s a fun book to read, and that fun doesn’t preclude a number of gripping observations on the way we respond to unforeseen circumstances. I may be far more optimistic about human nature and the likelihood of widespread social breakdown than Strauss can be, but Emergency earns its right to make a vigorous case otherwise. After all, he suggest, the worst thing than a good survivalism outlook can do is make us a better, more capable human being.