Shawn Syms is one of my four favorite writers currently working from Canada, the others being ‘Nathan Burgoine. Christopher DiRaddo, and Peter Dube, so I have been looking forward to reading this collection of his work since it was released in Canada months ago. I can say it was definitely worth the wait. But before we dive into the review, I need to say the cover is brilliant. Seldom do I see art that comments on the interior in such a provocative, pithy manner. The title, too, illustrates the theme of these stories.
Throughout a dozen pieces, Syms explores the concept as well as the boundaries of normalcy, tackling the subject from the very first story, “On The Line,” a tale of a single woman working on the line in a meat packing plant. Wanda isn’t a particularly likeable character, but by the end, we learn she has dreams and goals and makes a promise to herself to move away and do something she wants to do. But when she leaves work on what she thinks is her last day, she tries to find her car in the plant parking lot, but can’t because “nothing looks familiar.”
From the drug-addled adolescents and roofied male-on-male rape of “Four Pills” to the blurring of boundaries at a church basement meeting room full of sex abusers in “Snap” to the Ozzie and Harriet Manson family of meth-heads in “Family Circus,” Syms is bent on creating characters that slide from gritty fantasy to grittier reality and back again. This is particularly true of the narrator of “Family Circus,” for as anti-suburban as making and dealing meth, altering checks with acetate, and OD’ing in the bathroom is, a veneer of responsibility is overlaid on the scene: I keep Cindy in the crib in the back bedroom when we wash the cheques, so the fumes don’t get to her… the narrator says …I manage to keep things tidy and focus on working the mail, and the money we get from that lets me feed the kids. Rent, meth, beer, food–in that order. And then clothes and toys for the kids. Oh, and formula for Cindy. I know it wouldn’t be safe for her to take my breast milk. I’m not stupid.
You say you’re looking for some blurred gender roles? Look no further than “Man, Woman, and Child,” a story about a young couple and their basement renter, a guy who is an adult baby, replete with forty-six baby outfits in his closet and a man-sized crib. What’s wonderful about these characters is that all three characters share gender role behaviors of the others. The adult baby is both child and man, the man in the couple has some decidedly feminine attributes, and the woman possesses a distinctly male side who appreciates a challenges and craves sexual variety.
Fascinating and engaging without being showy or self-conscious, Shawn Syms’s “Nothing Looks Familiar” is as rewarding as it is unique–a fine example of one of the finest gay writers in Canada. Highly recommended
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler