Review: Nothing Looks Familiar, by Shawn Syms

NLF-Cover>>Published: September 2014

>>Finally got around to it: February 2015

He heard footsteps and recognized a pair of unwelcome voices. One of them was high and sounded like a whiny girl.

“Ya think he’s gonna do it?” said Eddie.

Roddy heard the sound of flies unzipping, followed by noisy streams of urine. He quietly shifted his feet so his shoes wouldn’t be visible in the gap under the stall door.

“He better.” Mike’s reply was low and gruff. He added, “If I don’t bring them home tonight, my dad’s gonna give me a lot more than a fat lip.”

Roddy held his breath.

“We’ll scare him. Then he’ll do whatever we say. If he was here right now, I’d flush his head down the toilet.” One of the boys let out an ugly hyena laugh.

“Why bother? We’ll just tell him that’s what we’re going to do. That should be enough. Besides, he could just hold his breath while the toilet flushed. Getting your head flushed really isn’t that scary.”

Neither boy washed his hands. Roddy listened to the slow squeak of the door closing.


As opined by the narrator in “Family Circus,” “If you live here, you’re either a struggling student, a whacked-out head case, a deadbeat on welfare, or some kind of crook.” Such is the case for most of the residents of Shawn Syms’s debut short fiction collection Nothing Looks Familiar. In the eleven stories contained within, Syms takes readers on a bit of a cross-country tour of seedy environments and equally seedy minds, some whittled down by their surroundings, while others seek to explore what change is available to them, either discovered organically or taken by force.

The first three tales in the collection are a tonal opening salvo. In “On the Line,” a young woman named Wanda is working at a meat processing plant in Alberta. In her spare time she drinks to forget and sleeps around to the same end. The plant where she works is full of abusive, brutal men and employers who care more about not slowing down the line than they do one’s health and well-being. It’s a place of death by a thousand cuts, where if one doesn’t escape early enough, they will wake up one day to find thirty years have passed. “Four Pills” introduces us to Adam, who recently lost his warehouse job, lives off welfare, and enjoys smoking crack while out with his even more deplorable friend Shaggy. And “Family Circus” is told from the point of view of a meth-addicted, cheque-washing mother in Winnipeg desperate to get her children to a safer existence.

A few of the stories offer strange twists on established themes, such as in “Man, Woman, and Child,” in which the wife in a deteriorating marriage finds purpose in giving herself over to a child—not an actual child, mind you, but an adult baby named Les. In “Get Brenda Foxworthy,” what begins as a seemingly sinister plot by a group of idiot high schoolers to take murderous revenge on a mutually despised classmate a la the Larry Clark film Bully is quickly revealed as an immature and poorly planned attempt at juvenile humiliation.

While a couple of the stories were revealed as having unique or unexpected twists to their narratives (the ending of “Four Pills” is especially dark), only “The Exchange” stood out to me as being especially sympathetic to its protagonist. The story perfectly captures the terror inherent to the grade-schooler protagonist’s problem—knowing how wrong it is to ask young Bettina for her underwear, but also being fully aware that if he does not follow through with the mission, the bully Mike will beat the ever-loving crap out of him. The strongest aspect of this story, however, is not the interaction between the children, but in the subtle way Syms hints at Mike’s father’s violent, paedophilic nature. It’s disturbing and well executed.

That “The Exchange” is the only story in the collection to jump out at me as being even remotely sympathetic points to the underlying problem I had with this entire collection: that in how these characters are written, one gets the sense that the author himself was unable to find things about them to care about, or to want to draw to the surface in order to elicit compassion from the reader.

So many character decisions and actions throughout seem perfunctory to the detriment of the stories being told: Jake’s wife leaving him at the end of “Snap”; Shaggy’s decision to drug and rape Adam in “Four Pills”; the mother in “East on 132” choosing to cheat on her husband with a biker met at a rest-stop resort. None of these decisions felt grounded in what little we’d learned about the characters in question. More to the point, they, and other similar decisions throughout, felt arbitrary, existing for the purpose of moving a narrative in a specific planned direction, but not because they were true to the characters or what had been previously established.

I was disappointed in many ways by the stories contained in Nothing Looks Familiar. Syms’s characters are like skins stretched over air, wearing the marks of their histories without being crafted by them. The writing is similarly problematic—the gritty details are present, but what’s absent is any sense of personality or emotional grounding. Overall, I found this to be a mediocre collection—interesting ideas all dressed up with nowhere to go.

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