As I read Neil Strauss’ The Game, I found it impossible not to think of a dear old friend—let’s call her Ingrid—who’s the sort of woman who gets approached by guys constantly. Watching grown men flounder and humiliate themselves at bars, restaurants, museums and bookstores becomes agonizing after a while; typically, they sidle over one after another, take deep breaths and say something like “You should smile more!” or “Your dress would look great on the floor by my bed,” while she gives them a withering stare. Accompanying her to a nightclub calls for deep wells of patience: You can’t dance near her without being harassed and molested, and the evening often devolves into a bad Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell types closing in on either side. Since Ingrid usually pretends they aren’t even there, it falls to me to tell the poor saps to give up and move on.
Things might have been different for picky Ingrid if she’d been approached by Neil Strauss. At the suggestion of a clever nonfiction book editor, Mr. Strauss infiltrated the subculture of über-dorks who spend their free time at pickup-artist seminars or online in chat rooms trying to break the seduction and entrapment of women down to a formula that anyone—no matter how awkward, uncool or bizarre-looking—can follow. By trading secrets and war stories, they learn to insult women subtly to undermine their self-esteem, to distract jealous boyfriends while they collect girls’ phone numbers, and to ignite threesomes through sophisticated come-ons such as “Hey, let’s all massage each other!” After several months of this perverse form of finishing school, Mr. Strauss became one of the very slickest pickup artists—or so he says—and ended up bedding what sounds like hundreds of women. How could Ingrid have resisted?
A former music critic for The New York Times who now contributes to Rolling Stone, Mr. Strauss seems to understand intuitively a certain type of narcissistic male. His writing is often hilarious and vivid (a scene in which he races through a bar with the Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, competing with her for women, is particularly entertaining). But reading about the creepy self-help scene he “penetrates” also requires heroic suspension of disbelief: Some of the claims he puts forth sound too absurd to be taken seriously.
He tells us about the “most worshipped pickup artist in the community,” an aspiring magician named “Mystery” whose “nights out seducing models and strippers in his hometown Toronto were chronicled in intimate detail online” (and also in a New York Times Sunday Styles article that Mr. Strauss wrote last year). Mr. Strauss and a handful of other schlubs paid $500 each for a “Basic Training” workshop with Mystery; the training consisted of four nights of accosting women in Los Angeles nightclubs, with lectures beforehand and critiques afterward.
Guided by a fellow who seemed to take pride in looking like a clown on acid (on one occasion, Mystery wore “a top hat, flight goggles, six-inch platform boots, black latex pants, and a black T-shirt with a scrolling red digital sign that said ‘Mystery’ on it”), the trainees began preying on strippers, porn stars and any other large-breasted women (the prey is inevitably described as “scantily clad”). The men were instructed to approach women standing in groups, to ignore the one they found most attractive, and then to subtly demean her with “negs”—backhanded compliments such as “I like your hair, is it real?” or “you have eye crusties”—in order to undermine her confidence, all the while dazzling her friends with tricks and psychic readings. And the women were such morons that they’d fall for it: The attractive woman who’d been ignored and “negged” would follow her seducer like a zombie into a dark corner, exchange saliva and hand over her phone number.
Mr. Strauss soaked up these teachings and then went on to study with several competing seduction-cult leaders. He traveled around the world and became a pickup legend himself, complete with groupies and imitators and even a proposition from Courtney Love.
Tagging along with Mr. Strauss is amusing. Not for long, though. Most of the men in the pickup “community” are unattractive, charmless and in various states of unemployment—the sort of guys who probably still play Dungeons and Dragons in their free time. Yet that doesn’t seem to stop them from every night bringing home another Penthouse Pet of the Year. Mr. Strauss moved into a mansion in the Hollywood Hills with a whole posse of pickup artists, each of them more irritating than the next, and they started squabbling, scrapping like sorority sisters over a bottle of nail polish. It was at this point that morality crept in and Mr. Strauss came to the stunning discovery that it was all very … shallow.
The world described in The Game is both fascinating and horrifying. It’s a rubberneck experience, like passing a wreck on the highway. (Mr. Strauss produced a similar effect as co-writer of Jenna Jameson’s recent best-selling memoir, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.) You drive on, feeling guilty and embarrassed at having overheard the fantastical ramblings of a porn-addled fratboy: “I carried her naked and dripping to my bedroom, put on a condom, and slowly entered her,” he writes, referring to one of his roommates’ sisters. Another victim, Johanna, is a “petite, mischievous stripper with big saucer eyes.” As for Tammy, “I pressed her against the shower door, smashing her breasts against the glass, and took her from behind.” One chapter is nothing more than a list of 18 women he hooked up with, and practically includes their bra sizes.
But then he sees the light, finds true love and settles down.
You’re probably expecting that the author also unveils an insightful analysis of the phenomenon he’s been studying; you’re expecting an answer, for example, to the obvious question: Why do these pickup artists seem to share such a deep hostility and resentment toward women? No such luck. Mr. Strauss prefers to sprinkle his book with the pop wisdom he’s absorbed like cheap cologne during his nights out. A typical tidbit: “[J]ust as most men are attracted in a Pavlovian manner to anything that is thin, has blonde hair, and possesses large breasts, women tend to respond to status and social proof.” This one very nearly scratches the surface: “PUAs [pickup artists] do not hate women; they fear them.”
But what I really want to know is, what are the women of Los Angeles on?
Sheelah Kolhatkar is a reporter at The Observer.