March 2014

Gabino Iglesias

fiction

The Laughter of Strangers by Michael J. Seidlinger

Outstanding narratives about the sweet science usually conjure up adjectives that range from heartfelt and real to violent and gritty. Michael J. Seidlinger's The Laughter of Strangers deserves to be called all these, but it also propels the boxing novel into new territory via a cerebral approach, a playfulness that repeatedly shatters reality, and an innovative structure.

The Laughter of Strangers follows "Sugar" Willem Floures, a champion boxer forced to deal with the effects of age and the inevitable decline of his career. Facing the facts is tough, but it's made much harder by the presence of the media and the judging eyes, questions, and laughter of an ever-present audience. While the loss of physical prowess and popularity and the fear of up-and-coming contenders is more than enough to keep Sugar worried, he's also forced to contend with a plethora of other versions of himself. Some seem to fight against his original self, but what they're all ultimately fighting for is a definite identity in the eyes of Willem Floures and his spectators.

Seidlinger is a master of deception, and that makes this narrative a surprising and slightly surreal reading experience. The Laughter of Strangers begins as a standard story about a professional boxer whose brilliant career is beginning to fade. He has to deal with the media and is forced to look at himself through that punishing lens. However, once that storyline is in place and the reader starts to feel somewhat comfortable, the author destroys everything by opening up the narrative to endless possibilities while simultaneously placing a question mark at the end of everything that was taken as fact up to that point:

I am not the only Willem Floures.

There are 41 of us. A whole league.

I am number 2, which means I'm not number 1. How can you be second best to yourself? Does it make any sense to you because it doesn't to me. The internal monologue isn't mine. I hear voices, all of their would-be voices, discussing dreams, ambitions, and what it means to be "me."

Sometimes I juts want to be a person.

Not this personality.

What follows the revelation of Sugar's multiple personalities is a clever deconstruction and exploration of identity. It is also a critique of both media practices and celebrity culture. While this might sound nothing like a boxing novel, the narrative is firmly anchored in the action preceding, during, and after a fight. Also, Seidlinger's stripped down prose resembles a boxer that possesses both graceful footwork and devastating power: it's rough and fast, but given to bursts of eloquence, humor, and philosophy.

Although its uniqueness makes it an enjoyable read, the element that pushes The Laughter of Strangers to greater heights is the reaffirming, interjecting, accusing, disembodied voice Seidlinger uses in caps throughout the story. Like a flashing sign floating between empty spaces, this voice performs multiple roles, constantly shifting between snippets of Sugar's monologue; an antagonistic otherness; an echo of the readers' possible thoughts; and the collective, disapproving tone of the collective consciousness of Sugar's audience. As the story progresses, this voice questions Sugar more often and becomes increasingly hostile and antagonistic:

"When I throw one of my signature left hooks," I throw a few, letting the last one hit the ropes, "do they look like they hurt?"

"Well, do they?"

YOUR EYES ARE JET BLACK

They are brown, I assure you.

JET BLACK, LIKE THE SADDEST NIGHT

Inner turmoil and suffering from identity issues are old themes in literature, but Seidlinger has adapted them to an era in which enunciating a lie at the perfect moment and in the right venue might lead to going viral. Sugar has to learn to live with or overcome his manifold identity, but has to do so in the public eye, constantly exposed to judgment and ridicule, criticism and, worst of all, laughter: 

I look at myself in the mirror and confuse the reflection for a person I haven't yet met.

My memory lapses... my mind erased...  

With every fight I begin to wonder if the oddity and inconsistency of my words, my voice, my life, my choices, my actions aren't one long ramble.

I begin to wonder if any of this is real.

And then I feel foolish.

An unexpected element of The Laughter of Strangers that merits being mentioned is the way Seidlinger uses the page. Instead of filling the page, the narrative here seems deliberately placed. As a result, blank space takes on a multiplicity of meanings and single sentences seem to be under a spotlight.

The Laughter of Strangers is a brave attempt at decoding identity by looking at it through a media microscope that's stained with insanity. Seidlinger has made a name for himself by writing odd narratives with a smart edge, and this fast-paced and paranoid tale of a shattered psyche in a decaying body is his best outing yet.

The Laughter of Strangers by Michael J. Seidlinger
Lazy Fascist Press
ISBN: 978-1621050971
268 pages