“Nothing Looks Familiar” by Shawn Syms— Eleven Stories about Change and Identity

nothing looks familiar

Syms, Shawn. “Nothing Looks Familiar”,Arsenal Pulp, 2015.

Eleven Stories about Change and Identity

Amos Lassen

“Nothing Looks Familiar” is Shawn Syms’ debut story collection in which he brings us characters from a wide section of society and from places of danger or unhappiness into the great unknown. Each character deals with the same seemingly unanswerable question: “if you fight to change your circumstances, could it be possible to reconfigure your very identity?” Eleven strong, tender short stories follow every day lives and this include the sending out of shockwaves of the unexpected.

The focus is on those downtrodden and marginalized. Men and women alike struggle to cope, to survive, and to transform their surroundings and each of them is determined to come out the other side changed. The stories take us into a slaughterhouse and a home for the aged; we meet sex-offenders and meth addicts and a grown man who dresses like a baby and sleeps in an adult-sized crib. While many of us have not had experiences like the ones here, we see that these are still part of the world that we live in.

Sex plays an important and prominent role in Syms’s stories. His characters often act out sexually. We read of a woman who leaves her husband and son to have sex with a biker dude in a campground bathroom. There is an infirm and incapacitated senior citizen who is “taken care of” by a young orderly. Another woman in a hopeless marriage plays mommy to a neighbor who lives his life as a baby. It seems that the characters are trying to gain control by using their bodies since their bodies are all they are able to control. The stories look at the harshness into which some people are born or just find themselves in this causing feelings of alienation and otherness. While this bothers some of them greatly, others are not so aware of it. Two themes are explored throughout the stories are homophobia and racism.

These are stories filled with heart and without cynicism. They are portraits of our contemporary world and by reading them we should learn a bit about facing ourselves.

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