The only edition of Neil Strauss’ The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists available at my local bookstore comes bound in gold-embossed faux leather with gilded page edges and a satiny red ribbon to mark your place. It looks like a combination of Bible and diary, which matches its contents: one part rules to live by, one part gut-spilling. Published in 2005, The Game recounts a two-year period during which Strauss, an entertainment journalist for the New York Times and Rolling Stone, hung out with and absorbed the strategies of the pickup artist, or PUA, subculture, men who have transformed the delicate dance of flirtation into a kind of step-by-step recipe. It culminates with Strauss and a troupe of other full-time seducers moving into “Project Hollywood,” a rented mansion just off the Sunset Strip—the former residence of Dean Martin—where they attract scores of disciples, lead dating workshops, and eventually turn on each other like crabs in a bucket, but not before Courtney Love crashes in a commandeered bedroom for a few months. “She was probably the sanest person in the house,” Strauss writes. “And that was a scary thought.”
The Game portrays Strauss as a reformed nebbish. Under the tutelage of a series of pickup gurus—in particular a former stage magician calling himself Mystery—Strauss is reborn as Style. (Dopey monikers are de rigueur in these circles.) As Strauss, he was pale, skinny, balding, and barely capable of uttering a word to an attractive woman; as Style, he is declared the No. 1 PUA of 2003. The techniques by which he attained such heights aren’t detailed in much depth in The Game (for that you need a copy of The Rules of the Game, published four years later), but you get the general idea and a few tips. It was a huge best-seller.
Reviews of The Game were haughty and dismissive, pointing out how inane PUAs’ routines are, accusing them of puerility and alienation, and noting, accurately, that these Lotharios seem far more wrapped up in one another and their “community” than they do in the women they pursue. None of this would be news to Strauss, however; the shortcomings of the PUA scene are in fact one of the themes of his book, which opens with Strauss hauling Mystery off to a psych ward before his mood-disordered mentor makes good on threats to kill himself. By the end, Strauss and Mystery have been forced out of Project Hollywood, and Strauss has paired up with a woman, the guitarist for Love’s band. She is impervious to PUA tricks, most notably the “neg”—a backhanded compliment intended to communicate that the player is not intimidated by his target’s beauty. Strauss moves on, abandoning a closet full of paraphernalia used in the Game, because “real life beckoned.”
He didn’t make it that time around. As Strauss relates in his new book, The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships—also available in a faux leather edition—after he split up with the guitarist, he also blew it with a subsequent girlfriend, Ingrid. He could not rein in his compulsive womanizing, even after finding someone he deeply loved and with whom he wanted to start a family. The breakup precipitates a soul-searching quest, recounted in The Truth, ranging from sex-addiction rehab to experiments in polyamory, swinging, and other nonmonogamous relationships. “This is the story,” he announces in the first chapter, “of discovering that every truth I’ve desperately clung to, fought for, fucked for and even loved for is wrong.”
I’m aware that I’m supposed to scorn The Game, but in fact I loved it. As the sentences I’ve quoted thus far indicate, Strauss’ years writing celebrity profiles and co-writing celebrity memoirs (including Jenna Jameson’s best-selling How to Make Love Like a Porn Star) have honed his ability to squeeze the maximum amount of cheesy drama out of every situation. He really knows how to set a scene and sketch a character. The villain of the first bit of The Truth, a puritanical counselor at the rehab center he checks into when Ingrid leaves him, “raises her head like a cobra about to strike” whenever someone in his group therapy session uses the word girl. Strauss is also smart, with a well-developed sense of irony. When a counselor asks his group to calculate how much money they’ve squandered in chasing fleeting sexual encounters over the years, right down to the last condom, he silently totes up the opposite: “My sex addiction pays for my phone, rent, and health insurance. It pays for breakfast, lunch and dinner; for movies, books and the computer I’m writing on; for socks, underwear, and shoes. Fuck, I couldn’t afford to be here getting treatment without it.”
Despite the indignation The Game once provoked, taking a moral position on that book hardly seems urgent. It’s set in an alternate, nightclub-rich universe of perpetual recreation. Surgically enhanced women visit it when they want a bit of adventure, and yet, sadly, it is populated by a vast sea of indistinguishably dull, thirsty guys, each equipped with khakis and a cable package stocked with every variant of ESPN. As depicted by Strauss, PUA tactics—from their flamboyant “peacocking” wardrobes to their prefab patter based on questions promised to reveal the respondent’s personality—are meant to make the player stand out in this crowd. Imagine, if you can, a milieu so boring that the approach of a guy wearing a furry top hat and offering to do magic tricks and give Cosmo quizzes would be a welcome relief.
The Game was a makeover story: Strauss shaved his head, got a salon tan, and learned to peacock. You can Google up a photo of him wearing a snakeskin-patterned suit the color of milky coffee, towered over by an eyelinered Mystery in platform heels. The Truth is a makeover, too, although less fun, for all the wild sexual shenanigans it recounts. Strauss goes blundering around trying to establish a romantic life that will enable him to “have my cake and eat it too,” employing methods plainly doomed to fail. Having found the demands of living with one woman suffocating, he decides to move in with three, none of whom have even met each other beforehand. This works about as well as you’d expect; hasn’t he seen Big Love? Strauss spends most of his stint in this love nest sleeping on the couch, while his jealous and resentful paramours stew in their rooms. At moments like this, Strauss’ naiveté strains belief—even given humanity’s legendary deficit of common sense in matters of love and sex—and you can scent the unacknowledged imperatives of a book contract. (The guy still needs socks, underwear, and shoes.)
The best part of The Game was the hot mess that is the PUA scene, with its highly entertaining intrigues, schisms and feuding gurus. The leaders infuse everything they do with an absurd, camp grandiosity derived from B movies. “You are being led into the inner sanctum of power, my young apprentice,” one pickup guru announces after extracting a promise that Strauss will not impart these lessons to his archrival, “and the price for betrayal is dark beyond measure of your mortal mind.” Then there’s a guy named Steve P. who allegedly teaches Strauss how to guide “any woman, through words and touch, to a powerful orgasm that ‘gushes like Niagara Falls.’ “ Inexplicably, this much-needed savant lives in a “small, squalid apartment” in San Diego.
Strauss meets his share of eccentrics and obsessives in The Truth as well, but the stakes are higher. For every nut who insists on providing a play-by-play narration to his wife having sex with Strauss, there’s a therapy session in which the sobbing author confronts the specters of his parents regarding what sounds like a truly damaging childhood. Some people’s lives just seem to be chronically dialed up to 11; when Strauss announces in the book’s preface that as an adolescent he discovered evidence of his father’s secret sexual life, you think it’s going to be homosexuality or crossdressing or maybe S&M, but no: He’s an amputee fetishist. Strauss’ mother quips that, as a 50th-anniversary present, she wants her son to shoot his father. The number these two did on Strauss’ head requires a litany of therapies to correct, each with its own practitioner. Among other things, Strauss punches pillows, writes gratitude diaries, undergoes hypnosis, and learns to “tap on energy meridians” and debug “my operating system.”
And yet Strauss still gets to have his cake and eat it, too. By that, I do not mean that he formed a committed relationship that allows him to fool around on the side—or maybe I do, only that relationship is with us, his public. For, while Strauss the memoirist presents himself as a screwed-up guy who has just barely figured out how to patch a decent life together, he also runs a number of side businesses peddling advice and “training” on how to be fabulously successful with women and master other challenges. There’s the Stylelife Academy, where you can take courses on how to “naturally attract women with unstoppable confidence,” using “the most comprehensive, all-encompassing full imersive [sic] seduction program you’ll ever experience.” Or, for $127, you can just buy five CDs that will “upgrade your interactions with women” by making you “the most interesting man in the room.”
You’ll find no mention of the Stylelife Academy on Strauss’ main website, although there you can sign up for a bunch of email-harvesting free newsletters or, for a fee, join the Society, a group of “high performing industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and influencers from the technological, entertainment, medical, financial, and self-development worlds” who get one-on-one consultations with Strauss and have recently enjoyed makeovers from “top Hollywood fashion stylists,” a trip to meet the king of Tibet, and invitations to parties at the Playboy Mansion. “I started a protein company with an entrepreneur I met in the group,” goes one testimonial, “and I now perform classical music in major concert halls all over the country.”
Forget steeling your courage to approach women: What takes unstoppable confidence is writing a book condemning a previous period of your life as empty and deluded, then selling the keys to such a life to the rubes still scrabbling after it. Strauss has been charging a presumably substantial sum for self-improvement guidance even while writing a book in which he confesses, “I’ve made a mess of everything and may never experience true happiness, love and family.” Sure, another quick Google search suggests that Strauss has worked out some of his problems, but not before a moment of truth on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu where he has to keep ducking off into the bushes to apply Neosporin to a penis rubbed raw by “overuse.” Nevertheless, Strauss has succeeded. An editor friend recently told me that one of his authors, a well-known entrepreneur, is “obsessed” with Strauss and his programs. Not the pickup stuff. “No, no. The rest of it.”
I can’t say I’m much impressed by Strauss’ ability to get himself into “swing parties, harems, communes, and moresomes,” but his knack for openly embodying two contradictory cultural narratives at the same time is frankly awe-inspiring. Even your Tim Ferrisses or your Tony Robbinses can’t pull that off; instead, they present themselves as supermen, winners in every contest, capable of feats that seem impossible to the rest of us mortals, from walking on hot coals to getting rich by working only four hours per week. Strauss, by contrast, charms us with confessions of his screwed-up childhood and the many idiotic beliefs and mistakes that have plagued him, then upsells us on the notion that we can be masters of the universe—and he can teach us how. That’s game even smoother than that of the No. 1 PUA of 2003. Color me seduced.
The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships by Neil Strauss. Dey Street Books.