Nothing Looks Familiar

By Shawn Syms
Arsenal Pulp Press, November 30, 2013, $15.95

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“I won’t go out with another man on the killing floor,” says Wanda, the narrator of ‘On the Line,’ in the opening line of Shawn Sym’s debut collection Nothing Looks Familiar. “I can’t stand the smell of them, or their attitudes.”

Wanda’s potential suitors work with her in a meat-packing plant, and carry the smell of dead flesh on their skin. Her preoccupation with their bodies’ scent is understandable. It is also emblematic of the author’s thematic concerns.

Released last fall by Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press, the 11 stories in Nothing Looks Familiar vibrate with a raw physicality. Acts of sex (queer, straight or otherwise) and violence fill the pages, but Syms isn’t writing to shock or titillate. Syms is interested in what it means to live in the body, today.

In ‘On the Line’, Wanda is one of a few women, most of them immigrants to Canada, who work at a southern Alberta slaughterhouse. A hard drinker who enjoys rough sex and doesn’t “put up with bullshit,” she makes a life-altering decision after a one-night stand with a married co-worker.

Syms portrays the divergent sexual politics of Wanda and her co-workers with a refreshing honesty that fills the fictional working-class community with life. The story was first published in Prism International and was a finalist for the Journey Prize.

Syms, a Toronto-based journalist and queer activist who has written for The Rumpus, Xtra! and THIS Magazine, is also interested in how new media has affected our social and sexual selves. In 2013 Syms edited Friend.Follow.Text, an anthology of short fiction about characters living online featuring Zoe Whittall, Alex Leslie and other authors.

‘Taking Creative License’ is the better of two stories in Nothing Looks Familiar which deal with this world of social media. Jenna, a Toronto-based artist, creates a gay-male Twitter identity to flirt with Luke, the singer of her favourite band. In one of the book’s many sex scenes, she masturbates in her studio while imagining herself as his bear of a high-school football coach and then the two of them as glee-club nerds, “stroking one another’s faces, clad in pyjamas, with twin erections tented toward one another.”

Syms’ experience as a journalist is visible in the taut prose-style he adopts in his fiction. His sentences are precise, controlled; as the narrator of ‘Family Circus’ explains, “I could say a bunch of other stuff, but fuck it.”

Readers hoping for lush paragraphs of gasp-inducing poetry may be disappointed. Rather, it’s the situations his characters find themselves in and the choices they make that deliver an emotional punch. 

In the kinetic ‘Four Pills,’ Adam, an insecure and out-of-work homophobe who occasionally gets blowjobs from gay men in an east-end Toronto park, develops an uneasy, lopsided friendship with a small-time drug dealer. Syms keeps close to Adam as the pair careen through an intoxicated day of random, thoughtless violence, forcing the reader into the uncomfortable position of empathizing with a convincingly drawn, unsympathetic character.

Syms avoids sentimentality. His characters — from meth-using, cheque-forging mothers to human rights lawyers with diaper fetishes, are complicated; they make decisions on their own terms.

Occasionally those decisions seem unnatural, forced by the mechanics of the plot. The climax of ‘Snap,’ where a social worker is confronted by an armed man from his sex-offender therapy group — who also happens to know his wife — lacks credibility. And the three characters navigating online hookups, HIV and pregnancy in ‘Three Tuesdays from Now,’ are short-changed by the author’s decision to prematurely end the narrative.

However, Syms wisely gives the sardonic narrator of ‘The Eden Climber’ ample time on the page. Forced to deal with life in a Vancouver area assisted-care facility, Cassandra bemoans her ‘captors’ and her ‘simpleton’ sister, who has developed a tender relationship with a much younger member of the staff.

This is Syms at his finest: clear, fully realized characters struggling to live in the physical world. The reader can feel the ageless pull of sexual desire, while simultaneously being uneasy with the power dynamics at play. Syms’ interest in the body isn’t restricted to its sexual yearnings. He wants the reader to feel the ache of Cassandra’s age-weakened muscles, taste the heavy ‘wheat paste’ mush of institutional food, smell the stench of passed gas and shit.

Syms closes his collection with the understated drama of ‘East on 132.’ Beth, her husband Gus, and their eight-year old son Todd are heading to a vacation on the east coast. They stop at a small campground in Quebec crowded with people waiting for the arrival of a hot-air balloon launched four days earlier in San Francisco. The couple have a pleasurable, “quiet intimacy,” but Beth has other desires. Syms writes, “She didn’t know how to tell him that he didn’t have to be so gentle.”

In Nothing Looks Familiar, the author approaches his flawed characters with admirable compassion. It is to his credit, and to the reader’s benefit, that Syms refuses to handle them with too tender a touch.


Yutaka Dirks is a tenant organizer and writer. His fiction and essays have appeared in literary journals and activist publications including the White Wall Review, Rhubarb Magazine and Beautiful Trouble: A toolbox for revolution. He has a serious love for stories of all stripes.