Neil Strauss: The closer
In the pickup world, MLTRs, or multiple long-term relationships, are part of the game. Men can have their own harem and juggle five to 10 women as long as they follow the golden rule: tell every woman there are others sharing the same status.
The literary world functions in a similar way. Think of us readers as the personal harem of a writer. He or she loves us equally and, theoretically, gives us equal consideration.
This equal consideration ranges from not giving a damn about us to spending more time deciphering the algorithms of the bestseller list than actually writing.
A superficial read of Neil Strauss's latest book, The Game, certainly points to the latter. The Game is, in no particular order, Strauss's personal odyssey in the world of pickup artists, a how-to guide for the "average frustrated chump," and a collection of sexual escapades and celebrity cameos that only Los Angeles can provide.
Style is Strauss's alter ego in the book, and he takes up 400 pages to tell us how he became one of the best in the game. Don't believe him? He has the rolodex to prove it: Caroline, Nadia, Maya, Mika, Hea, Carrie, Hillary, Susana etc. The Rolling Stone writer vividly chronicles his two-year foray in the world of pickup, sketching a sanctuary to which frustrated males of all ages flock to for a step-by-step program that teaches them how to score.
But this article is not really about the book. It's about Strauss persistence to prove he's not just milking sex to sale books. He is a hard working writer, who wants to prove he can do it -- show that behind the women-bashing theme is a novelist trying to find his voice. But to please the harem and score-high on his first single-credit book, Strauss follows in the steps of Style and falls upon tried and tested gimmicks.
If I were to focus on the book, I'd have to employ phrases such as "Strauss toggles awkwardly between this kind of misogyny and limp bids at self-awareness," a phrase courtesy of the New York Times, the writer's former employer. Strauss left the Times to ghost write porn star Jenna Jameson's autobiography, "How to make love like a porn star," one in a series of similar efforts that include bios of rockers Marilyn Manson, Tommy Lee and Dave Navarro. With this resume, Strauss has a world to overcome in making his first single-credit book work.
Strauss has a two-fold mission in "The Game": prove he is the best pickup artist among writers and the best writer among pickup artists. If he slips in either direction, he'll be back in the rock-star-writes-book-with-some-dude pit. So how does he balance Neil Strauss the writer with Style the pickup artist? Well as it turns out, the rule is simple: use gimmicks and always close.
The writer operates like his pickup persona; he masters the rules and sticks to them. Strauss writes in parts (or steps, or books), which are divided into chapters, which in turn employ many story telling devices such as alternating points of view. Strauss writes the way Rambo uses the machine gun -- the artistry fades in comparison to the noise. The covers of his books, and many of their inside pages are black ("The Game" actually looks like the Bible), they are "true stories," and they look cool on the shelf.
Strauss is indeed good with the long-winded title page introductions and the fancy chapter breaks, but his strength, like a true pickup artist, lies with the closing, which I'll dub the "Strauss finisher." Below are a few samples from his magazine stories and book chapters:
- "'These things will stop,' she says, 'but somebody has to show the karma [I have].' Of course, I'm not allowed to leave just yet: We still have the deleted John C. Reilly scenes from Boogie Nights to watch." (From a story on Courtney Love in Rolling Stone).
- "Afterward, Randy kissed my back. It was a strangely affectionate move to make in a movie like this. Then he turned to the camera and said: 'She's kind of like Randy West with pussy and tits.' I had found my calling." (From "How to make love like a porn star").
- "Sarging was for students, not players, of the game. It was time to take this brotherhood to the next level, time to pool our resources and design a lifestyle in which the women came to us. It was time for Project Hollywood." (From "The Game").
My all-time favorite Strauss finisher comes from a Rolling Stone piece on the rock band, The Strokes (apparently it ran in the Guardian as well). After drilling into the reader's brain that singer Julian Casablancas hates Pringles, Strauss closes:
"Outside it is pouring. Casablancas walks into the downpour without an umbrella. Within two steps, he is soaked. I survey the detritus of the night on the table. There is a half-eaten sandwich, several empty beer glasses, an empty cigarette pack and a crumpled piece of paper. I unroll it: it is a receipt for $2.99. The date is today. Only one item has been bought: a can of Pringles."
Writing is painful, it's a craft, it's best done with tools, and it doesn't take a non-fiction guru to explain this. Strauss knows this well, and just like Style he uses tricks: follow short chapters with long ones, dialogue with monologue and journal entries with narrative. No matter what tools he chooses to work the reader with, the goal remains the same: to close.
If you read "The Game" it's hard to swallow that Strauss the writer took a back seat to Style, the wannabe pickup artist -- although the writer himself makes this claim. "There's no social proof to be gained by hanging out with a writer," he protests to a seduction student in the book, seconds after repeating a theme peppered throughout the pages: nobody wants to sleep with a writer. If you stay with the book until the end, you'll see that someone does.
The problem with the book is that no matter how much he tries, Strauss can't convince me that he was more focused on pickup than writing. After all, before the book came out, versions of it appeared in the New York Times and Esquire among others. Some of Strauss's best Rolling Stone stories were also written while he lived in the pickup community.
And, he writes in "The Game" (surprisingly in mid-chapter):
"One of the reasons I became a writer is that, unlike starting a band, directing movies, or acting in a theatrical production, you can do it alone. Your success and failure depend entirely on yourself. I've never trusted collaborations, because most people in this world are not closers."