The “Beat Generation” are fondly (or infamously) remembered as the writers who exploded the myth of a prim and proper America in the 1950s, shocking middlebrow types with their tales of drug addiction, queer sex and disaffected wanderings. In the decades since, many a young writer has looked for “edgy” cachet by dabbling in tales from society’s margins. With his debut short-story collection, Nothing Looks Familiar, one might be tempted to lump Shawn Syms in with them, but one would be very wrong.
Syms might also be writing about drug addicts, rapists, prostitutes and criminals, but while Kerouac looked at them through the lens of his own self-absorption and Burroughs looked at them like a cold, clinical entomologist, Syms looks at them with a clear eye and a warm heart. Whether tragic or funny or terrifying, most of the characters in his stories are deeply fucked up, because that’s what life does to all of us, yet even at their lowest, they never lack dignity. Syms’s stories here are fascinating in their delicate construction and calm pacing while their messy characters struggle within — they’re like beautiful little glass boxes full of spunk and piss and shit and farts and revelation.
“Charla didn’t really see gays or bisexuals as especially different from straight men. She figured that they all had the capacity to be goofy or decent.”
That capacity is what fascinates here. These are stories about agency and the choices we make. Whether young or old, rich or poor, straight or gay, everyone here is trying to take charge of their own destiny. Some succeed, some fail, some manage both at once, and the book continually surprises. “Snap” seethes with tension, while “Four Pills” ambles to a creepy twist; “Man, Woman and Child” is giddily perverse, while “The Exchange” is quietly triumphant. And while the reader might struggle to place some moral judgment on a character like Beth in “East on 132,” Syms never does, never takes the easy path.
It’s hard to say whether you’ll love the world Syms creates in Nothing Looks Familiar because you’re already living in it, but as he hopscotches across both Canada and the human psyche, you’ll love the journey.
Nothing Looks Familiar, by Shawn Syms
$15.95, Arsenal Pulp Press
Available at Glad Day Bookshop or your favourite independent bookstore
Launch party at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
Tues, Sept 9, 7pm
with special guests Vivek Shraya, Alec Butler and Marcy Rogers