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.