Book Review: OK so I read The Game by Neil Strauss

 

The Game by Neil Strauss

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They say “Don’t hate the player, hate The Game.”

But after reading Strauss’ Number One Best Seller, it’s clear the player’s got problems too

 

When I’ve had a tipple too many, I have a habit of buying everything on my Amazon wishlist. Sometimes I catch it in time to cancel at least part of my (usually ginormous) haul the next morning. But because I have Amazon Prime, most of the time I simply wake up, bleary eyed, rasping for water, and only later realise I have emails telling me my order has been dispatched.

As habits go, it’s not the worst one to have.

However, as a result, I’ve read around fourteen novels this year that I didn’t expect to, from a range of genres I don’t usually explore. One of which included The Game, Neil Strauss’ infamous best seller -the part-memoir, part-expose on a cultish community that is both maligned and admired in equal amounts by both men and women.

The danger in reviewing this – if we can call this a review – is due in part to the caveat at the beginning of the book.

“Men will deny it,” writes Strauss. “Women will doubt it. But I present it to you here, naked, vulnerable, and disturbingly real. I beg you for your forgiveness in advance. Don’t hate the player… Hate the game.”

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As a woman, I’m therefore expected to doubt the story (or at least scowl at it). And you know what, I would have loved to hate and shred it (feminist rants are good, y’know.)

But here’s the thing: I didn’t come to this book blind. I didn’t find  The Game in my post box and expect the worst. Not only had I had conversations with various people about Strauss’ writing and the literature surrounding PUA subculture, I had also written about contentious “seducers” in the past, as well as seen and read interviews with Strauss and Jeffries. I was not – and am not – in anyway an expert. But any wryness is thanks to their own testimonies, rather than any assumptions about misogyny, dubious consent, or sexual misadventure (all of which can be found in this v.nsfw book).

Anyway, if I am to be called a skeptic, let it at least be because I came in with a bias constructed by the mPAUs themselves rather than because I’m a blessed with two X chromosomes.

Despite a lot of readers being quick to dismiss The Game (as inane and frivolous, with the PUA routines considered ridiculous and pathetic, and the men themselves as alienated and pitiable – which is all true), Strauss is a phenomenal writer.

If nothing else, the story is compelling, the narrative well-structured, the characterisation pointed, the insights varied and often witty. It is also a game in itself.

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For instance, the ‘lifestyle’ is described in language that can’t seem to decide if scorn or pride wins out. It’s curious. Peppering the story are insights about losing touch with non-PUA friends, forgetting how not to sarge a member of the opposite sex, caring more for the performance than the outcome, becoming part of a subculture of men rather than originally desired women. Because of this you can see why readers have dismissed The Game as a book about desperate, posturing man-children.

After all, “for all the self-improvement books I had read,” Strauss writes, “I still wasn’t above shallow validation-seeking. None of us were. That’s why we were in the game. Sex wasn’t about getting our rocks off; it was about being accepted.”

But glossing over The Makeover: PUA Edition (in which Strauss shaves his balding head, fake tans, hits the gym and discovers peacocking – AKA terrible shirts and furry top hats), and the eccentricities of the characters (all of which have amusing monikers that are so 90s they might as well be MSN handles), there are key points to pick out too.

Whilst Strauss himself said it’s a book about male insecurity, it also frames toxic masculinity. Likewise the desire for validation counterpoises with themes of self-improvement, and the need for social intimacy (not sexual or even romantic) against the characters’ seeming inability to shake off their affectations and monikers to have normal social relationships. It’s not exactly a book of dichotomies, but themes do ricochet along a spectrum.

Looked at this way,  each person who picks up The Game can come away with a different interpretation. A reader looking for condemnation of the PUA lifestyle will find one. A reader seeking evidence of sexism will uncover it. A reader wanting to know whether or not their ex played them will have their expectations confirmed. A reader wanting to believe The Game can make them a better, more efficient, more successful person, will come away with their faith ratified.

The Game itself reads like one giant cube test (hazard of the memoir genre no doubt) – where every nuance and twist is designed to pull out the reader’s own biases and validate them. I suspect this is why it has turned out to be such a contentious read – perhaps even more so today than a decade ago.

Yes, at times it’s hard not pity these wannabe AMOGs. They’re so desperate to get laid and so useless at basic human interaction.

However, the tools they learn – feather boas aside – remain intriguing.

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The Game doesn’t go into all that much detail on the “technology” PUAs use and discuss. Some appear as anecdotes about what did or didn’t work, others veer into the humorous. Many look suspiciously like the lessons girls discover between CosmoGirl and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Strip it back, though. Pull away from the jargon and there are implicit suggestions on how to approach strangers at events, tips on starting conversations when you’re nervous, routines that can help build an audience’s interest in what you’re saying. This aspect is nothing to do with seduction and everything to do with confidence and presentation in new, challenging settings. It’s more Dale Carnegie than Ross Jeffries.

Strauss even touches upon this. At one point, the enigmatic Mystery (who in my head looks like Jared Leto’s Joker) has a mental break whilst high on codeine and rambles about “life goals” – he says that whilst women are a huge part of those life goals, so are “money, social status, and other ambitions […] I want to see use get our shit together and reach self-fulfillment.”

But here comes another question: who is Strauss trying to convince of this ‘nobler’ calling to The Game? His readers? His PUA peers? Himself?

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Strauss acknowledges time and again that he has hopes to be more than the sum of his parts, more than the sum of the community’s parts even. It’s kind of cute until you realise how much he delights in pointing out the many failures and limitations of the students that passed though Project Hollywood.

Entering the story with a good job and leaving seemingly whole, Strauss fills page after page with the dramas and anxieties, frustrations and failures, of those around him. There aren’t many ‘success’ stories in the pages of The Game. In this sense, the book is also one big neg helping him shine just a little bit brighter than everyone else.

Ultimately, I am not saying that this book is for everyone or that the condemnation it receives isn’t deserved.

Beyond the manipulative cube-neg-metagame, there are hugely disturbing parts to Strauss’ narrative, including “caveman” techniques that escalate violence until a woman says yes, and one so-called-guru whose “let the ho say no” not only made me shudder but recoil.

There’s a reason why the behaviours depicted in this book are maligned and why women might come away fearful, skeptical, and horrified. Women are dehumanised repeatedly, instead being treated as otherworldly, terrifying, unreal. They are not given any theory of mind in this memoir. They are barely treated as thinking, feeling beings.

But at the same time it’s not a bad book (in the Wilde sense anyway).

Could taking some of the advice in The Game help a man become a better, more confident person? Possibly. Could it help you or I? Maybe. Should you hate the player or the game? Both. Neither.

It’s an interesting read and I’m glad I gin-ordered it.

Strauss has a follow on book, The Truth. I’ve no particular desire to read it just yet. But I have added it to my Amazon wishlist. Just in case.

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