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A decade after ‘The Game,’ the original pick-up artist comes clean
‘I am not the hero in this story … I am the villain.’
“I am not the hero in this story … I am the villain.” Thus proclaims Neil Strauss on the back cover of The Truth. If you were to judge him by people’s reactions to The Game, the The Truth’s notorious predecessor, you’d probably take him at face value. Mention The Game in polite company at your own peril: The very phrase “triggers” not just feminists and “good men,” but free-lovers, free-thinkers, readers and writers too—people who have experienced, at least vicariously, that side of life.
Like it or not, The Game is one of the most, uh, seminal, books of the 21st century. It doesn’t matter that its specific tactics are bad enough they stop working three-quarters of the way through the book, that the cast of characters is a clusterfuck of dysfunction, or that the “insight” at the end that these characters “had low self-esteem” is laughably obvious: People read The Game, talked about it, and thought about relationships and gender norms differently after they had done so.
That Strauss is the villain of The Game and The Truth is fortunately untrue. Even if he were, villainy would be preferable to heroism: In the era of nice-guy intellectuals, white-male narcissists, and webcomics whose depth is stick figures shouting out the literal definition of depression, we need someone to not make nice. For what is all this escapism but the manifestation and denial of low self-esteem, in a less hurtful and more boring way?
The Game was a raging success because it contrasted with these boring books, voicing discontentment with pre-existing forms: our parents’ dating paradigms, our awkward personal styles. As an exploration of social norms and a work of gonzo journalism, The Game endures. As autobiography, it’s merely OK—because, though the book is about Strauss’s transformation, it offers little insight into himself. We know why Mystery, Tyler Durden, and the grotesques did what they did. But what about the author, the one and only “Style”?
The best writing creates and evokes a dense web of relationships—between character and character, narrator and author, author and reader—existing on multiple levels. But none of this complexity amounts to much if the author has no understanding of himself. The Truth sets out to provide that understanding, which is the deeper context lacking in The Game. Maybe if Strauss can understand himself, he can better understand others.
Regrettably, only one of these things ends up being true.
The Truth picks up where The Game picks up: in rehab. The patient? Neil Strauss, wracked with guilt over cheating on his girlfriend, Ingrid. Strauss brings his self-loathing to light in a way that’s way more genuine than, say, the humblebrags of Jordan Belfort’s autobiography: I believe him when he wishes he’d “have some fucking self-esteem,” mirroring his assessment of Mystery. The Truth is no veiled celebration of douchebaggery.
The Truth picks up where The Game picks up: in rehab.
But the flesh is weak, and rehab is not devoid of temptation. Strauss later attends a group-therapy session:
The thought occurs before I can stop it: These groups are a great place to meet women. Carrie is sitting here divulging the exact strategy by which she can be seduced. There’s nothing a man with low self-esteem loves more than a beautiful woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful.
This is good writing. There is no way to self-censor these thoughts, and there would be no point in doing so, anyway. Their obverse comes some pages later, when Ingrid calls:
Then she hangs up and I collapse crying on the floor. Just sobbing out loud. Tears drip out of my eyes and my stomach heaves. I fucking blew it. I blew it. I blew it.
Again, this isn’t the tawdry bathos of A Million Little Pieces; this is real life. Ambivalence surpasses heroism or villainy, and the value of Strauss’s writing, in the tradition of Philip Roth and Erica Jong, is giving voice to the secret thoughts on sex and love we all have.
The Truth picks up where The Game picks up: in rehab.
You wouldn’t want to talk about where they come from, of course—having a copy of The Game on your bookshelf is unwise, in light of potential “polite company”—but Strauss has done well at getting attention through putting it all out there. In the decade between The Game and The Truth, he has written four books. In The Game, though, he laments his literary sterility: Marriage and happiness sometimes quell creativity, but getting laid five times a day always does. Strauss and his hangers-on of both sexes achieve misery through doing nothing.
Yet nothing is exactly what Strauss—and everyone else—is doing in The Truth. Nobody, it seems, has anything to do but lament their emptiness. “She just lies around the house all day and does nothing,” says a fellow sex addict about his wife. This description could be of Strauss and his girlfriends in The Truth, or the dysfunctional celebrities he skillfully profiles in The Game. But wasn’t he over it? What happened to his girlfriend at the end of The Game—Lisa, the cool musician, immune to his cheap mind tricks? And what’s the deal with Ingrid? We know nothing about her except her good looks, her selfless lovingness, and later, her childhood trauma.
One of my favorite things about the The Game was its delightful parade of celebrity appearances; in The Truth, Strauss replaces them all with one Rick Rubin, the famous music producer. Rubin is the only happy person in the book, and outside of Strauss, the only perceptive character. This doesn’t mean Strauss gives Rubin much nuance, though. Kanye has called him “The god Rick Rubin”—and this is exactly how Strauss portrays him! As god or Greek chorus, Rubin always says the right thing. It is 2015, and American letters have reached the point where the best lines in the one of the biggest books are delivered by a man whose medium is making beats.
At worst, much of The Truth makes for good storytelling, or at least material. It shines in moments like the one where a woman invites to rehab “the monster who molested her,” or when Strauss relates a physical description all at once: “[A] tall woman with a pear-shaped body walks in. She has brown hair, unwashed and pulled back in a tight bun. She’s wearing a loose-fitting flowered top over brown slacks and flat shoes.” This is less The Wolf of Wall Street than it is American Psycho; all at once, we understand the narrator’s depravity, and his half-hearted desire to leave his sad life behind,
Nobody, it seems, has anything to do but lament their emptiness.
The Truth is also effective at conveying the sense that all these dark, seductive undercurrents are out there—the depressing aftermath of The Game. For a time, it is even effective at spurring self-identification: You read books like this to understand yourself, and to understand yourself is to know that men and women often do these terrible things to one another, which is more empathy than their most strident critics can muster.
Moreover, The Truth’s prose is addictive, even elegant. This is a book by the self-styled Style, after all. I’d put the quality of writing above Roose, Bissinger, and Gladwell, below Bethany McLean and David Halberstam, and on par with Michael Lewis and Tucker Max. Like The Game, The Truth is easy to pick up and hard to put down. It has its attractive jargon—“euphoric recall,” “strange ass,” “metamour”—and it has no shortage of good one-liners:
Whenever someone I’m dating starts treating me worse than they treat a stranger, that’s always the beginning of the end for me.
As a journalist, I’ve met a lot of so-called experts. Most are just people with a little experience and a lot of confidence who’ve given themselves a title with which they can fool the suggestible and dim-witted.
I’ve done some desperate things in my life to get laid, but I’ve never faked a spiritual belief.
Fans of the late Christopher Hitchens will see in the last one an echo of “The only time I’ve ever prayed to god was for an erection.” As a stylist and critic, Strauss is miles behind Hitchens, but The Truth is a learned book, and its literary references are also done right. For example, we learn that “Odysseus cheats rampantly on his voyage home from the Trojan War, even shacking up with a nymph for seven years, knowing full well that his wife, Penelope, is waiting for him.” If only my freshman-year lit instructor had been so understanding.
The Truth’s prose is addictive, even elegant. This is a book by the self-styled Style, after all.
Strauss also gives us a lot of psychology—pop and otherwise, Ulysses (again!), Terry Pratchett, The Sound of Music, Eyes Wide Shut, The Iliad, the parable of the Prodigal Son. Together, The Game and The Truth remind me most of the Marquis de Sade, or Casanova and his bored ladies, or Dangerous Liaisons and its peerless mastermind, Mme. Merteuil. The Truth also features almost as many “journal entries” as The Game, in the tradition of the 18th century’s epistolary novels. Like pick-up artist (PUA) forums, these novels are all about people trying to get laid, which Strauss must have known. By trying to chart a new course, the pick-up artists merely recreated the bored aristocracies of Jane Austen, Sade, Hollywood, and Dan Bilzerian: man and woman at their deepest and shallowest, at their most civilized and savage.
The Truth, like The Wolf of Wall Street, really could have used an editor. It is in the long middle sections that The Truth sags badly and Strauss most embodies his enemies’ criticisms. He uses relationships to turn off his critical faculties; this makes him blind when looking inside, and suspending judgment is a kind of death, especially for a creative person. Like his paramours, Strauss acquires the internal logic of unhappiness or incuriosity. When, at the end of a section, he says, “Well, I’ve definitely learned a lot from it,” it reads like an unconscious parody of South Park. Worse yet are the exchanges straight out of Jersey Shore:
“I don’t care about her,” she responds. “I only care about you.”
Her words floor me. “But that’s not why we’re in San Francisco. We discussed exploring polyamory here, and that means more than just the two of us are involved.”
To his credit, Strauss eventually recognizes this and glosses over 10 months in 12 pages, falling in love with Sage. This relationship seems promising because … she actually does something! She leaves the house and works! And so does Strauss. Finally, something is happening! Except then she goes crazy. Why? Strauss has his writing career and harems in the wings, but “what does she really have? Just me.” Not again.
The Truth is more centered than The Game, but it is also more self-centered. It is not the big event The Game was; Strauss has lost some touch with the zeitgeist. There is no mention of dating apps, no discussion of hookup or casual-dating culture—which dominates the romantic lives of Strauss’s target audience, and is the logical resolution to all The Truth’s issues with polyamory, orgies, and monogamy. Nor do The Truth’s depths extend to the American social problems that are the deepest cause of its people’s traumas and miseries.
The Truth, like The Wolf of Wall Street, really could have used an editor.
This myopia is the cost of seeing Strauss wrangle with himself, which, during the section entitled “Anhedonia,” he finally does. This part of The Truth is harrowing, penetrating, and terrifying, and I wish it had been longer and the rest shorter. “One of the unfortunate axioms of human behavior is that what others shame people for the most is usually what they’re doing in secret themselves,” observes Strauss. Clearly, the generalization comes from self-inspiration, and not the other way around.
Most good books written these days rely heavily on these themes. For example, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle chronicles the author’s adult relationships in the shadow of domineering parents in the same self-lacerating way; but his is a more sustained, more seductive performance. Writing what deserves to be written can only come from self-understanding—but are these guys unreliable narrators, or unreliable authors?
A truly great contemporary book would synthesize the social insight and gonzo journalism of The Game and the historicism and introspection of The Truth, but I am not sure Strauss is up to it. The Game is adolescence and The Truth is childhood—which explains the behavior of its subjects, and the difficulty I have in blaming them.
In the end, childhood wins out. Strauss is the hero—of a faerie-tale ending as fake as Lolita’s “moral apotheosis”!
To me, the moral of Strauss’s two autobiographies isn’t that we have to change ourselves to change our relationships with others, or change our relationships with others to change ourselves. The moral is that there is no moral.
Something close to that comes up as throwaway line in the middle of a sex party: “People are allowed to change their minds.” I changed mine about Strauss so often during The Truth that I can only hope his current partner will do the same, for the sake of a better ending—and another Neil Strauss book on similar themes.
Illustration by Max Fleishman