In the battle between the sexes, I like to consider myself Switzerland, and can often be found expounding my views on enlightened neutrality as I lounge poolside, a copy of Madame Bovary in one hand and my feet resting comfortably on the back of my latest doxy. I realise my benign indifference to sexual politics is hardly catholic, of course; while the sexual revolutions of the last century or so have gone a long way in fostering equality (probably a good thing), any social upheaval worth its salt will spawn backlashes and regressive elements, and one can observe this on both sides of the gender divide. The finger of accusation is generally pointed first at those schools of radical feminism that would happily take a brick in either hand and, with the sort of well-aimed blow generally reserved for wild horses, render not just the patriarchy but all men obsolete. However, while some might insist that chauvinism is the masculine equivalent, I would argue that there is a social sub-set which is becoming increasingly prevalent, especially since the Gordon Geckoes of the 80’s, foundering beneath the weight of their own machismo, sank rather than swam under the sensitive new-age SNAG-ery of the 90’s – the cringing, passive-aggressive misogyny of what Chuck Palahniuk sneeringly labelled “a generation of men raised by women”.
I’ve met not a few such chaps, and I dare say you have too… men slouching dolefully towards middle-age, who feel disenfranchised by a society whose women who no longer need depend on their existence, and are mired in a sulky adolescent fantasy of victimisation by women who reject them without ever taking the time to get to know the real them. Or, to put it rather more bluntly: guys for whom the chicks just ain’t putting out, and who feel deeply, pathologically resentful because of it. Now, just in case you begin to get the wrong idea, gentle reader, let me rush to assure you that your humble reviewer does not fall into this category. I ain’t never had no problems with the ladies, being as how I’m, like, totally ripped and handsome and debonair have a really really big penis. Ok? Neil Strauss – author of The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-up Artists – evidently did, however.
The opening chapters of this memoir/confession are narrated with an apparently disarming honesty (which, given what occurs in later chapters, comes to seem highly suspect by the close of the book): despite a career as a successful journalist, short, balding, pudgy Strauss suffers from low self-esteem, which he attributes to the fact that women keep turning him down. He longs for love – and, not to put too fine a point on it, sex – and feels that without either, he can’t be happy. Determined to improve his life and experience as much coitus as humanly possible, he answers the cheaply placed advert for classes held by one ‘Mystery’ – a pick-up artist extraordinaire, who promises that by the end of a short course, his students will be able to get any woman they want. What follows is Strauss’s induction into and eventual leadership of a secret society…a secret society of nerds.
Now, indulge me here a moment… let us consider your average nerd. Not, you understand, that I’m in any way familiar with nerds, or that I feel their oft be-pimpled features to be worthy of extended study. Nonetheless, if pushed to guess, I’d say they’d generally have been picked on at school, ignored by women, are often of above-average intelligence, and are generally obsessive. Whether fixated on computer programming, or dungeons and dragons, or blogging, whatever their passion, they know it inside out. Now…imagine if a group of nerds focused all their resources on picking up women. Strauss’ new friends (who all have equally ridiculous code names: ‘Mystery’, ‘Sin’, ‘Vision’, ‘Tyler Durden’; Strauss adopts the moniker ‘Style’) share strategies and techniques, study human behaviour, anthropology, speech patterns, body language, hypnosis – and begin to perfect a foolproof system which guarantees if not an exchange of bodily fluids with the woman of their choice, then at least an exchange of phone numbers.
At this stage, I’m going to presume that most female readers are currently scoffing at the notion that pick-up lines might work on them; that most guys are secretly wondering if the system actually works. To answer you respectively: yes, apparently you would, and yes, apparently it does. The more intelligent a woman, we are told, the more likely the system is to succeed. Sales people, motivational talkers, evangelists, all use highly refined pitches based on what they observe about their target to minimize the chance of them walking away without buying their product/idea/god; Strauss’ ‘game’ is based on very similar principles. All the women I know who’ve read The Game laughed, until at some point during the proceedings they realised that in all likelihood they would have been hooked by a particularly cunning manipulation.
Style and Co’s sport swiftly becomes morally repugnant, and what began as exercises in confidence building and self-improvement deteriorates into a particularly vile competition in which girls who’ve often been lied to or humiliated become pieces in games of one-upmanship – whether against fellow pick-up artists or the female gender. The term ‘scoring’ is no longer a metaphor. And of course, it all goes hideously, hilariously, deservedly wrong. Pit an obsessive against other obsessives (computer games, martial arts, chess, etc.) and the competition will soon get out of hand. It’s not long before the pick-up artists’ society is attempting to score off each other’s girlfriends; and then each to con the other out of money or business; and are soon manipulating others to destroy their erstwhile friend’s lives. Eventually, no time at all is spent with women, as ‘Style’/Strauss and his former cronies, holed up in a rented Hollywood mansion, desperately, idiotically, try and out-manoeuvre each other, having variously lost friends, fortune and chances at happiness.
Unfortunately, while Strauss obviously exaggerates, and lies to and manipulates his audience as well as he would any potential girlfriend, most of the deplorable activities and catastrophes that occur, however improbable, are a matter of public record. Certain sub-plots are questionable (art imitates life imitating art as ‘Tyler Durden’ steals Strauss’ identity in an endeavour to create an army of fanatically loyal game devotees), and others trite (Strauss discovers that true love is more important than sex with hundreds of women), but the majority of his story is obviously true, or near enough as makes no difference. And although, yes, the pick-up artist’s activities are frequently misogynistic or just plain repulsive, Strauss narrates his career as a lothario with enough self-deprecating wit that the reader finds themselves laughing as often as squirming. And it’s impossible not to sympathise with the majority of his protagonists (including scene stealing cameos from, among others, Courtney Love, Heidi Fleiss, and a terrifyingly assertive Tom Cruise) who tend to be ridiculously pathetic people who’ve succeeded in deluding themselves rather than reprehensively vile ones.
The Game is essentially a Rake’s Progress with a happy ending, and in his role as penitent, Strauss intends it (or so he claims) to act both as a deterrent for men who fancy themselves pick-up artists of the ‘Style’ school, and a guide for women who want to avoid being played. It’s snake oil that makes these platitudes at the close of the book so easy to swallow, though. I suspect it would be as easy not to think about a pink rhinoceros, once mentioned, than for a single guy not to attempt at least one of the strategies outlined…
Not me, mind you. Not since my girlfriend, who gave me the book, explained to me in careful, and inventive, detail exactly where and how hard she'd insert The Game should the thought even cross my mind. Fear beats curiosity, every time.