‘Nothing Looks Familiar’ by Shawn Syms

Book Reviews

Nothing Looks Familiar coverReviewed by Will J. Fawley

Shawn Syms’s debut short story collection Nothing Looks Familiar introduces us to a diverse range of characters, situations, and settings. The characters’ ages range from nine to seventy-one, they live in settings that stretch across Canada and the world, and they struggle with issues as broad-ranging as sexuality, drug and sexual abuse, and more.

The diversity in these stories captures a slice of the population, making you wonder about the people you pass on the street and the lives hidden behind a quick first impression. These stories urge us to ask ourselves: are we all as alike as we’d like to think? Maybe nothing looks familiar from another point of view.

While Syms’s stories pull us through the daily struggles of his characters, there are intense issues lingering at the edge of the text, reminding us they’re there without being harped upon: disability, race, autism, pedophilia, to add to the previous list.

Many of the characters in these stories struggle with their sexuality, whether that means confronting their homosexuality; struggling against their habitual sex abuse, as is the case in “Snap,” a story about a man who runs a support group for sex offenders; or an outlandish fetish like that of Les from “Man, Woman, and Child,” who likes to dress up as a baby and sit in an adult-size crib.

“Get Brenda Foxworthy” takes a subtler approach. It follows a gay protagonist at a moment in his life; sexuality is not the issue. The focus of the story is instead on the bond three kids share over their hatred for a classmate. The protagonist’s struggle with his sexuality is merely part of his backstory, which is a refreshing perspective. Instead of championing an issue, Syms portrays his characters in a way that makes us understand that what we share with the person on the street is not our life and experience, but the fact that we all have our unique struggle lurking somewhere inside us.

The stories in this collection are about identity and discovery of the truths we hide from the world, and often from ourselves as well. Though these secret lives are often sexual, or are often discovered through sexuality in some way, this isn’t always the case. Syms’s collection is not so one-dimensional. Sometimes a character’s secret desires are dreams for the future, as they are for Wanda the meatcutter in “On the Line,” who dreams of moving out of town and away from her troubles. And sometimes it is in the form of pure fantasy, as it is for the protagonist of “Taking Creative License.” This is one of the shortest and strangest stories in the collection, in which a young painter, Jenna, has a crush on a gay musician and fantasizes about being a man in order to be with him, and even goes so far as to create a Twitter account for this alter ego, so she can interact with the object of her affection.

The range of settings and characters of Syms’s stories can be disorienting, especially when the most intense issues and exotic locales are only mentioned in passing. But maybe that’s the point — perspective. Everyone has their own point of view that others can never truly understand.

Despite their vastly different perspectives, there are a few things all of the stories in the collection have in common: themes of perspective and identity, and a build-up to a confrontation with the protagonist’s identity.

Many of these stories build to a breaking point, a sort of punchline to the characters’ lives, sometimes literally like in “Man, Woman, and Child.” But in most cases, this culminating moment is the beginning of a life-altering event, usually revolving around sex or sexuality, and deception, whether in deceiving others or themselves. We never quite see how the characters deal with these intense moments, just the tip of the iceberg that hints at a change in themselves. Each story ends right when the character finally has to face their true identity, the life behind the one they show the world.

The exception to this rule is the ending of “Taking Creative License.” This story has a neat conclusion which is refreshing in a collection of messy lives in which any resolution to the characters’ real problems is well beyond the story.

The tight conclusion is nice, comfortable, but a majority of the stories in this collection don’t wrap things up so easily. Instead, they leave the reader with a challenging ending, which can be frustrating, but maybe that’s the point. You often only see the parts of a life a person wants you to see. The normal parts. That is to say, the parts that aren’t drug-addicted, cheating on their spouses, or otherwise straying from societal norms.

While Syms’s treatment of the downtrodden and the misunderstood are classic tropes in literature, he approaches them from a fresh 21st century perspective. The opening of “Taking Creative License” is a perfect example:

Jenna is tweeting when she’s supposed to be painting. Ennui is the religion of my generation. The singer from her favourite band updates his own Twitter feed as she refreshes her browser. She’s in a small white room that smells like oil paints.

This effortless blend of Hemingway and today’s finest Twitter authors is characteristic of Syms’s mastery of modern language. The clear, sparse prose invites the reader into lives they would never otherwise experience and pulls them along, making for a fast read that effortlessly sweeps the reader into these vastly different lives — perspectives from which characters become “other” to themselves and nothing looks familiar, even their own lives.

Above all, Syms’ debut collection reminds us that we are all human, we all have secret urges and desires, and though the world may look different to each of us regardless of our age, sexual preference, or level of ability, we still have our secret dreams and desires which we try desperately to either hide or fulfill.

Arsenal Pulp | 182 pages |  $15.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1551525709


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Will J. Fawley

Will holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His short fiction recently appeared in Sassafras Literary Magazine and his poetry has appeared in Literati Magazine. Will worked on his first novel with Duncan Thornton during the 2013 Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program.