we engage in a circular trade
Love notes from Siel is a weekly newsletter from Siel, who used to live in Los Angeles but is currently traveling around. If you love the notes, subscribe for free.
Dear friend —
There’s a documentary about Japanese sex workers I think about often, though strictly speaking, the men featured aren’t sex workers, there’s no actual sex, not even nudity, not even suggestive dancing of the Magic Mike variety. These guys are hosts, they simply chat and flirt with women who come into their club, they entertain the girls with their attention so long as the girls keep buying drinks, the cost of which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars in a single night.
The girls who visit the club all appear to be in love with one man, the charismatic guy who owns the place, though how these young women have so much disposable income to drop on a crush remains a mystery until about halfway through the film, when it’s revealed that the girls themselves are sex workers, actual sex workers, they offer handjobs and blowjobs and vaginal and anal and slappings and whippings in red light districts. All day anonymous men pay to touch the girls’ bodies, then all night the girls pay that money back to a man who won’t be touching them, who instead will feign interest in their thoughts, ideas, feelings.
It’s a devastating twist, each woman is exploited twice, first for her body, then for her loneliness, capitalism pins a price not just on sex but affection and tenderness too, even the exchange of words gets reduced down to a financial transaction. But it’s a touching twist too, it speaks to the incredible resilience of human hope and desire and fantasy, our dogged search for connection even in the coldest and bleakest of relationships.
Because aren’t we all these men, and these women too, each of us faking it here to have it faked to us there, sometimes convincingly, other times less so, but nevertheless we engage in a circular trade, doing it over and over again despite a growing awareness of the pointlessness of it, after all soon we will all surely be dead, and yet we can’t but let our current longings drive us on, fierce, relentless, and futile.
The documentary is called The Great Happiness Space. I recommend it. I also recommend these devastating novels —
Post-Traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson (Little, Brown, 2022)
This novel made me wish I had a really great therapist, because basically that’s who saves Vivian, the smart, strong, traumatized, and paranoid protagonist of Post-Traumatic. Vivian is an ivy-league educated lawyer who advocates for troubled people remanded to psychiatric hospitals — whose fragile mental states and messy personal lives are really a lot to take on top of Vivan’s own fragile mental state and messy personal life.
Along with her intense job Vivan has some intense food and body image issues, abandonment issues, boy issues, and family issues of the castigating mother and creepy cousin and homeless-ish brother variety. Plus there are all the race and gender issues put on her as a Black Latinx woman in America. Plus Vivian keeps getting really high on skunk weed, which would be fine except she gets super paranoid when she’s high! Plus, Vivian wants to be a writer (don’t we all)! But she keeps not writing!
For a book about un-dealt-with trauma, this novel is super funny — in the this is so fucked up and wrong you can’t but laugh kind of way. There’s sharp stoner humor, dark punch-you-in-the-guts humor, outrageous karaoke humor, rejection so hard you can’t believe it happened humor. There’s so much incisive self-reflection and self-awareness — yet so much deflection and denial too. Read this book if you like to laugh while you cry, to sing while you lie, to dissect race-gender-queer theory while getting high. This book will make you feel smarter — but even more than that, it’ll make you just feel.
Thanks to Melvin for recommending this book.
Either/Or by Elif Batuman (Penguin, 2022)
Here’s a brilliant idea for never running out of things to write about: Make each novel cover roughly one year of your life, but take more than one year to write each novel. The older you get, the behinder you’ll be on telling the story of your autofictional life — but the material you can draw from will grow and grow! I don’t know if this is why Elif had her first two novels — The Idiot and Either/Or — draw from the first two years of her life back when she was an undergrad at Harvard, but if she plans to cover her junior and senior years to make a quartet, I’d love to read the next two.
The Idiot covers the protagonist Selin’s life as a new undergrad, during which she develops an obsessive crush on a guy who already has a girlfriend. Now in Either/Or, Selin is trying to get over said crush, mostly by hooking up with other guys who range from callous to might-be-secretly-married to probably mentally ill. From emailing a rando to ask if he’ll help her get rid of her virginity to agreeing to traipse through bleak cheap hostels on behalf of Let’s Go Guides, Selin has a lot of unexpected adventures. Read it if you like wry, funny, and smart books that take you everywhere from the ivory towers of the ivy leagues to the probably-best-skipped sites in the far reaches of Turkey.
Bunny by Mona Awad (Penguin, 2020)
This is a very unusual novel on several fronts. One, it’s about smart, creative women in an esteemed MFA program, except said women act and talk like teenaged airheads. Two, it’s literary fiction, but with serious witchy horror vibes of the animals metamorphosing into zombies variety. Three, it’s super cutesy with bunnies and cupcakes yet also super gory with spurting blood and mutilated limbs and literal exploding heads.
Our heroine Samantha is a goth-ish outsider who gets accepted into Warren’s writing program. She is the odd girl out in her five-woman cohort of fiction writers; at workshops she sits alone while the other four coo sweet compliments about each other’s work. Eventually, Samantha’s invited into the clique — to discover the group’s out-of-workshop activities are a lot more twisted than she’d imagined. But she goes along with it because she’s lonely — and also kind of drugged up on rich girl tranquilizers? This novel really goes to strange places and ends up being so unlike anything else I’ve read that I loved it despite my general dislike of horror. Read it if you like miniature food, imaginary friends, over the top twee dialogue and men-like creatures getting hacked up by axe-wielding feminist writers.
Once a month, I share book recommendations. Shape it by recommending a read!
Three links you might love — identity edition:
Your face twin is out there. “Because the doppelgängers’ appearances are more attributable to shared genes than shared life experiences, that means that, to some extent, their similarities are just the luck of the draw, spurred on by population growth. There are, after all, only so many ways to build a face.”
Two Michael Jackson impersonators live very different lives. “One man financed 13 surgeries, while the other draws on his sideburns.”
Trafficked into cyberscamming. “Step one in the fraud process for Fan and others was to create an attractive online persona. In his case, he was expected to pose as a woman when wooing targets online.”