Michael J. Seidlinger is the author of a number of novels, including The Laughter of Strangers, The Fun We’ve Had and The Face of Any Other. He serves as Electric Literature’s Book Reviews Editor as well as Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in unclassifiable/innovative fiction and poetry. He can be found on Facebook, Twitter (@mjseidlinger), and at michaeljseidlinger.com. Flavorwire recently called this unique writer “a kind of 21st century David Markson. He’s prolific and talented and we should all read together to try to figure him out.” I’ve long liked Electric Lit, Civil Coping Mechanisms, and the press that published his The Face of Any Other—Lazy Fascist Press (highly recommended in general). So I thought I’d ask Seidinger here to talk about his book…or, in this case, excerpt it. – JV
When Jeff graciously offered this space to let me talk about my most recent book, The Face of Any Other, I was ecstatic—so much that I couldn’t come up with any ideas about what that guest post might be. I came up with all kinds of ridiculous ideas, from something “creative” (read – tacky) dealing with the book’s cover to writing some big behind the scenes (that would likely just go on and on and on), but ended up back where I started. With nothing else, I figured I might as well come clean, much like the unnamed main character of the novel: no personas or facsimiles. Just be myself; or, more precisely, let the book be the book. It gets weird, but that seems to happen to every single one of my books. The following excerpt takes place at the beginning of the novel, offering a candid look at the character’s skewed worldview. –Michael J Seidlinger
Hello, my name is Isabelle Blumstein and I’d like to think that I’m open-minded. I love working with people, I love working out. I love that people come to me to improve their bodies. They come to me to improve themselves. They’ll be so nervous, it’s cute, and when I get them to calm down, they tell me that I’m a savior. It’s so flattering.
As the senior personal trainer here, I basically own this gym.
It’s reassuring—to have that cushion, financially, though I guess I do work a lot.
I talk a lot, yeah, but I’m extroverted. I spend most of my day watching people.
I’m watching you.
It’s my job to improve people’s lives.
I’ve started to, well, develop philosophies. They aren’t even mine any more, it’s not personal: I use my people skills to brighten everyone’s day.
It makes me feel good. I get excited. I have a lot of energy, you know?
I feed on their enthusiasm and compliments.
Not like they’re prey, no but I do pray that they keep up that momentum.
I need it to maintain my illusions of progress.
I teach five classes a day and usually have about six to eight training sessions between those five classes. I’m about to have my second class of the day right now.
I’ll never be late, but I like letting my students sweat it out in anticipation. I’ve learned from experience that if I run into the room at the last minute, there’s less chance that they’ll back off and flee from the challenge.
I wait right here, around the corner, the employee side hallway, listening to my students walk into the room.
Every time I hear them curious and afraid about what I’ll make them do, it gets me excited. This is the kind of energy I crave.
I’ll make them work.
I’ll watch the pounds fall right off every single one of my students. I take their commitment seriously; I take their commitment to put in the work as a personal challenge.
I’d never miss a class.
The Bottomed-Out Soul //
When you have the face of any other, nobody can see you blush. Nobody will notice the embarrassment. I wandered into this day on my own terms, expecting to fall asleep in the same condition I did when I woke. I expected to be me—be blank, nothing—but then I saw her. I saw her face. That look, it was one of terror.
I saw the mania hidden behind a shattered face.
I had to do what I needed to do to have a look. I’m sorry.
I’m sorry but you don’t just see a bottomed-out soul like her everyday.
I wanted to just continue down the street.
Instead, it felt necessary to be a bother. Again, I’m sorry.
Sometimes you have to cause pain to inevitably help a person.
I didn’t break any bones. I didn’t cause any physical harm, nothing but a few hours to call my own. I whispered sorry into hear ear right before it happened.
I made sure that the bulk of it washed over her without anything more than a few cuts and bruises. Nothing serious. A wakeup call at best.
She’s got bigger wounds to heal.
Is it presumptuous of me to think I can lend a hand?
Oh, here she comes. Man I’m going to die. Think positive. No, I’m totally going to die. I won’t make it. Going to keel over. This is the kind of stuff I want to hear from the students when I run right in. The class gets started right when I walk through those doors.
This is therapy.
It’s what I repeat in my head, over and over.
This is therapy.
Once we get warmed up, get the legs and arms moving, the mind clears. Keep the body moving. I turn up the music and let them start with a jog.
Therapy. Keep it motivational.
They know what to do. Follow me, every step.
No one dares slow down.
Once we get started, I’ll be able to ignore the feeling.
The question(s) I never ask myself: What feeling? Why do you feel this way? Why are you so anxious? What is the source of this anxiety?
Once we get that sweat going, it’s time for the best part. It’s time for that part of the workout where everyone decides whether or not they’re all in or not. You don’t come back from this; once you start with the compound movements, I start placing demands.
I set the benchmark that each student needs to meet.
At this moment, I feel perfect, serene. I feel nothing.
Every thirty seconds, I shout out something declarative. I say something that others can take to heart.
I enjoy exploring new places.
Too busy keeping up to respond.
Too busy to be anything but critical of each and every student.
Too busy to entertain such thoughts.
Keep up with the beat. That’s it keep it up. I don’t see anyone slacking and I want to keep it that way. If you cramp up, fight through it. Think, I want you to think: The cramp will pass. That pain will pass. We can keep going.
I need to believe my own philosophies.
I enjoy trying new things.
Say it. Feel it. Believe it. Become that person you want to become.
You can be the ideal you. No reason to hide behind any sort of mask; you can look your best. I will make sure you are in the best shape of your life.
I’ll say every single thing with enthusiasm. I’ll look my best, my most confident, even when I know that what I’m running from will be right there when I stop. I have to keep going. It’s right there.
I won’t admit that I’m sick. I won’t admit that I’m dying.
I like learning new things.
I’ll watch as the class takes on a life of its own, my body working without any vital cues or commands from my brain. I watch and see everyone in my class essentially bothered by the same threat of mortality. They are here to heal, to mend something about themselves.
I’ll do what I do to hide from the fact that just because it goes into remission, it doesn’t mean the cancer won’t return.
I pride myself on being different.
I say and do these things for the same reason I remain so manic and hyper:
If I let myself enjoy this moment, I might collapse.
I’m afraid that I don’t have a lot of time left.
Next thing I know I’m waking up in a hospital bed, with no way to escape the sound of the monitor.
One of those beeps will last longer than the others.
I’m dying. Oh god, I’m dying…
It’ll hold on, flatlining, the moment I lose my grip.
The moment I let go.
False Expectations //
When you have the face of any other, you are confronted with the understanding that death is present throughout our entire lives. It remains near, the inevitable book-end to the open book of a person’s life story. It waits, more patiently with some, while others it takes a liking to their pulse. You can hear it.
Every beat is one less to be dealt.
Beep. I imagine Isabelle in the hospital after it happened.
A life completely changed via one single experience.
You can’t hide the cracks carved into the skin of your face, the cracks dug in deep, no matter what the doctors do to bring you back from death’s grip.
In the context of the class, her students are as much there to learn as she is there to use them as a means to cope with her demons.
But Isabelle, dear Isabelle, you can’t keep living like this.
You can’t work yourself to exhaustion.
You can’t feed on what isn’t there.
That’s how you’ll end up back in the hospital. It won’t be due to something unforeseen; everyone will have saw it coming. Everyone but you.
You’ll run yourself back into the ground.
When you have the face of any other, you get sick to your stomach seeing how some people choose to live. So much of what they’ve been dealt had to do with the various decisions and distances, the ones chosen and the measures carved, to deal. When you have the face of any other, you quickly understand that “dealing” with the cards dealt isn’t anything more than another excuse.
How do you really feel? Sometimes, a person must fill in and decide for those that remain indecisive.
Subliminal Messages //
I wait around, unable to really leave until I let Isabelle know that she is not alone in carrying these anxieties. I am here right after my departure. I adjust my tie, run a hand through my hair. I look fine but how does she look?
Some cuts, a bruise on her forearm.
What the hell happened?!
Confusion is natural. An hour ago many of her students had been in class. They assume that she had been there too. A few either remained at the gym or returned for another run. Whatever the reason, they are here, and they help conjure up the impossibility of her case. If she had really collided with a biker, how could she have taught class today?
Isabelle has no recollection of both class and collision.
She has the cuts and bruises to prove that the impossible indeed occurred but that doesn’t change the fact that her face is red. She feels taken aback, not quite shock and not quite fear. She’s frozen in place.
The students do their best to make sense of the situation, offering excuses like, I guess it just needed some disinfectant and a bandage; they probably ran her through the system, and, it probably hasn’t sunk in yet, that’s all.
But there are no explanations and I wait near the bench press, sitting with my elbows on my knees, watching as, one by one, they leave the gym.
Isabelle is, to be expected, the last at the gym, closing up every night.
I need her to understand something.
In every step, I am here to help.
She cleans each station, making sure the gym is ready for tomorrow’s round of activity. When she reaches the free weights, I stand up and take to her left side.
When you have the face of any other, there are certain peculiarities that come with the territory. They can’t see or hear me but they can sense me. If I touch her, she will feel that touch; if I whisper into her ear while touching her skin, she will hear me.
She won’t hear my voice, but the thought, it will pass her ear drum and burrow into her brain. I’m here for no other reason than to heal the shattered nerves, the broken face, the wounded and worried personality.
Isabelle Blumstein doesn’t need to continue along this path. She can find her way back to previous ideals, lifestyle choices.
I tell her something while holding her cheek.
She shivers, continuing unaddressed. It’s nothing, a cold gust, prickle of the skin.
I’m here, but to the world I’m more a ghostly chill than a person with good intentions.
Isabelle checks the private weight rooms, flicking on each light switch to examine the condition and arrangement of the equipment.
She leaves each door locked and continues to make her rounds.
I tell her something, hand on her shoulder.
A look over her shoulder and nothing more.
Isabelle gathers all the dirty towels, checks to make sure all the lockers are properly shut, checks to make sure no items left behind, pushes the bins into the back employees-only area, essentially fulfilling another employee’s duties.
After she’s checked the facilities, she returns to her office. I slip into the room before she shuts the door on me, watching as she collapses in the office chair, eyes without focus.
There’s nothing but her and the four walls.
I can see the exhaustion across her shattered face, applying more stress and pressure to already permanent and troublesome fissures.
Eyes shut and in seconds she’s dozing.
I tell her something.
I tell her what she needs to hear.
I lean down and hug her. I tell her everything I see.
And then I leave. It might have been something imagined, part of a dream, but Isabelle will remember parts of the telling. It’ll maybe show itself in the morning or a week from now in the form of a slight acknowledging of how tired she feels, her body screaming for a break. Maybe some of what I said will hit her all at once. I never really know how it’ll sink in; I only know that it always does. In some way, it does.
There’s no greater purpose to this other than the purpose itself. This is it, my motive. Nothing else. Without one, I’ll wander for an hour, a day at best, before getting bored.
And this is where it’s worth repeating what I said about boredom.
I’m here because this act gives me purpose. Here for no other reason to deliver subliminal messages to a person in need.
It helps me feel real.
Something About Needing to Be Something //
When you have the face of any other, you see the cracks peeling apart their face, showing bone, bleeding with the hidden anguish of hushed nerves. You feel each and every nerve tensing, and you feel for them—for everyone—when they buckle, unable to bear the burden of each daunting episode. Life has a way—the common dictum. But they forget the other half, the part that reads, and life has a way with you.
I see everything as it falls in place—a person’s basic needs:
The need for food, shelter, health, safety, ambition: these are imperative. But there’s also the need for self-interests, self-respect, self-discipline, self-awareness, self-actualization, self-disclosure, self-control, self-sufficiency, self-compassion, and self-preservation.
Those needs cluttered by a series of wants, desires, and harms dealing with success, worth, and validation. And everything in between:
A person is born into this world, and a person is required to learn.
A person is educated about this world and therefore grounded in the principles, tragedies of the past, and everything in between. The weight of the world handed over in the form of a standardized test. A person graduates and required to come of age.
A person needs employment.
A person needs a place in society. A person needs to support the institution of marriage. A person warms up to the concept of parenthood. A person will age and eventually retire from what used to provide meaning to their days. A person leaves the world the same as when s/he entered: faceless.
Then you add in social pressures and demands and suddenly, it’s less about all of the above and more about what’s missing, everything in between.
It’s confusion and existential curiosity. It’s life having its fucking way with you.
So I see it happen and I wince, really I do. I just want to help. That’s it.
When you spend all your time and energy making sure the people around you are happy, no one will question whether or not you feel the same way.
No one is there to question your motivations.