22 October 2005
The Game: Undercover in the Secret Society of Pickup Artists
by Neil Strauss (Canongate)
by Tony Clink (HarperCollins)
It is an epic romance. Neil Strauss, a balding, bespectacled journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, discovers an online community devoted to teaching men how to seduce women. He reads a copy of the legendary online text The Layguide, now published as a book, and is hooked. An illusionist called Mystery charges hundreds of dollars for seminars on the subject, and Strauss, after flirting with other teachers, becomes his faithful acolyte. He shaves his head, gets laser eye surgery, and grows a witty goatee. The two men travel the world and sleep with many women. They set up house with other devotees in a Los Angeles mansion they christen “Project Hollywood”. Eventually the utopia dissolves in scenes of jealous rage and backstabbing, but Strauss has a happy ending, singing of the joys of monogamy with his new girlfriend, a rock guitarist called Lisa. The romance, of course, is between the men.
Women are trophies or tokens in an endless quest for esteem and standing between the adherents of “pickup”, both in real life and on the internet message boards where people post tips and stories. The jargon of the art, as explained in both The Game and The Layguide, is aggressive and militaristic. Going into clubs and deploying your newly found techniques is called “sarging”, supposedly named after someone’s cat but inevitably evoking “sergeant”. The woman you want to seduce is the “target”; her friend might be an “obstacle”; a male friend who accompanies you is your “wing”. These latter terms were taken by Mystery from the film Top Gun, in an apparently unconscious tribute to that film’s fervid atmosphere of homoerotic competition. The places in which seduction is practised are known collectively as “the field”, as though the protagonists were soldiers or spies. If they come home with a woman’s telephone number, a basic token of success, they write a “field report” and post it to the internet for appreciation and commentary. This is a kind of group masturbation, the real goal of psychosexual release coming when the man is once more safely removed from the company of women.
It is also about fear: the customers for sarging workshops and manuals are men who are terrified of women and need to arm themselves with mental visualisations and techniques drawn from neurolinguistic programming to be able to stalk their prey. Strauss himself observes the truth of this, but only in the context of trying to deny that sargers actually hate women. “A side effect of sarging is that it can lower one’s opinion of the opposite sex,” he confesses. And yet, as he has described it, the inverse is true: a low opinion of the opposite sex is a prerequisite for sarging. The very term “pickup” pictures women as inanimate objects lying on the ground (at least the British equivalent, “pulling”, implies two people on the same horizontal plane). The first thing you do to your target is to “neg” her, to deliberately (but as if accidentally) insult her, as Strauss explains, “to lower her self-esteem”. (The Layguide terms this, with more explicit violence, a “neg hit”.) You will then have to negotiate your way round her “bitch shield” (reflexive rudeness to come-ons), and at some point to “isolate” her, as though she were a Guantánamo Bay prisoner ripe for torture. You will also learn how to symbolically kill your male enemy, the Amog, or Alpha Male of the Group. (Interestingly, Tom Cruise – he of the subliminally orgiastic Top Gun locker-room – pops up to be interviewed by Strauss and worshipped as the ultimate alpha male, though Strauss doesn’t dwell on whether Cruise would be a particularly effective role model for the aspiring seducer of women.)
What are you talking about all this time? You are performing “routines” – preprocessed conversational gambits or anecdotes (false or true, it doesn’t matter) that are shared on the internet, designed to make the speaker seem interesting, funny and respected. One student tells Strauss that he loves to learn a new routine because it is like acquiring “a new spell” in Dungeons and Dragons, “that I can’t wait to use”. You arm yourself, then deploy your weapons. It’s a war out there. And your brothers are all you can depend on. The primary rule of the game, one student says, is “Bros before hos”. But of course they don’t hate women.
The “game” appeals to the mindset that supposes everything can be reduced to a technology, a program to follow. “Think of tonight as a video game,” Mystery instructs his students before taking them out sarging. And so it attracts the kind of men who are super-analytical but interpersonally hobbled. As Strauss wryly notes of the eventual population of the dream Los Angeles seduction house: “The point was women; the result was men. Instead of models in bikinis lounging by the Project Hollywood pool all day, we had pimply teenagers, bespectacled businessmen, tubby students, lonely millionaires, struggling actors, frustrated taxi drivers, and computer programmers – lots of computer programmers.” The sell is that, with the special techniques they learn from Mystery and other gurus, the ubergeeky can often give a convincing simulation of being a regular human being, even if, like one sarger in this book, they are in fact near-sociopaths.
And so most of The Game, ostensibly a narrative of daredevil sexuality, is actually shrouded in a depressing odour of stale male sweat. It lifts only during the remarkable period when rock star Courtney Love comes to live in the Hollywood house between detox periods. She is a force of nature, stealing people’s clothes, giving everyone mountains of lemonade and muffins, regally soliciting all manner of favours, exuding a gale-force fuck-you cool. Briefly, the book lights up with a portrait of a woman who is not just described as a number – 8.5, 9, 10 – with tits and ass attached. Notably, not one of the self-described “pick-up artists” in the house attempts to bed her. A real woman, one who sweats and swears and bleeds, baffles their programmed sense of superiority to the weak Pavlovian female. And so they heave a collective sigh of relief when she leaves, able to return in all spiritual purity to the brotherhood of the cock.