Nothing Looks Familiar, Shawn Syms, 181 pgs, Arsenal Pulp Press, arsenalpulp.com, $15.95
The eleven stories from Shawn Syms’ debut collection present a downtrodden and diverse cast of characters. An adult-baby fetishist has a man-sized crib delivered to his basement apartment. A fifth-grader’s underwear and a book about flags spark an unlikely friendship. Three teenage outcasts plot revenge against the perfect high school princess who wronged them. Nothing Looks Familiar is full of memorable moments and surprising situations.
Among my favourites: “Four Pills,” a story that opens lightly with the protagonist Adam’s declaration: “I’m gonna have a good time tonight.” Here Syms deftly draws us into a world of caricature and comedic cartoon violence that obscures the final dark irony of Adam’s opening line. And though the book is quite a juicy read, offering plenty of sex, drugs, and danger, it also offers subtlety and nuance, such as in “The Eden Climber,” where septuagenarian Cassandra clings to her sense of propriety in the Brentwood Pines Home for the Aged, despite older sister Ruthie’s unseemly shenanigans.
Syms deploys a clear and straightforward prose style in each of these pieces, and the settings, despite their variety, blur together as part of a single, gritty world. What makes the stories in Nothing Looks Familiar really come alive, though, is Syms’ knack for plot and character twists. Though the writing is often understated and seemingly transparent, all of these pieces eventually reveal murkier depths and strange complexities that are a delight to explore. (Andrew Woodrow-Butcher)