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Being Normal by Stephen Shieber

2 Feb


What is normal?

I remember pondering this question when, in my younger days, I spent a great deal of time trying to fit in with the norm. I grew up in safe, predictable, white bread suburbia and it turned out that I was anything but normal.

Still, I tried to ignore my nonconformity to the social norms around me and continued to try and fit it, to try and assimilate myself into the society around me which constantly reminded me that I would never fit in, I would never be normal.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized what being normal meant. It meant being myself, regardless of what others thought of me. It meant being myself, despite an unyielding urge to confine myself to social expectations. It meant that, despite those who told me otherwise, I was normal. Something I still struggle with today.

Which is probably why Being Normal, the debut collection of short stories by Stephen Shieber, struck such a powerful, personal chord with me.

Being Normal consists of fourteen different stories that touch on issues all of us have faced at certain points in our life: Love, lust, sex, acceptance, families, friendship, companionship, the need to fit in, the need to belong.

It also touches on the darker issues of life and doesn’t shy away from subjects such as cutting, self harm, homosexuality, abuse, religion. That it doesn’t shy away from any of these issues, but yet confronts them head on is testament to Shieber’s power as a writer.

Though the stories seem simple, that is their power. They are like short pieces of a persons life, as if we are being granted access to private memories and events. At first, this is all they seem like, simple, quirky stories.

But they are more than that.

They are individual works of such beauty, such power, that they will haunt you for days after you have finished reading them. I found myself being reminded of events from my own childhood, from my own past. Events that made me who I am today.

Though the stories are all separate, I felt as if I was looking into a small neighbourhood of people who were trying to find themselves. Though unconnected, I felt as if I were amongst people who knew each other and they were all trying to find themselves in the world.

And I was one of them.

It is hard to believe that this is Shieber’s first collection of stories. He writes with strength and style that is missing from many writers today. He is also responsible for the rejuvenation of the short story. After reading the stories in Being Normal, I want to read more, experience more. He has made the mundane, the normal, amazing.

That is essentially the power of the stories in Being Normal. You don’t read them so much as you experience them. One beautiful word at a time.

Being Normal is one of the best books that I have read in years and one that I know I will revisit again and again.


Gents by Warwick Collins

20 Jun

Meet Ezekiel Murphy.

Needing work, he takes a job working as a toilet attendant at a men’s washroom in the London Underground. Working with two other men, Reynolds and Jason, he figures this will be just one more run of the mill job.

He is mistaken.

One day while cleaning the bathroom, he watches as two men leave a cubicle together. Another time, he watches as someone kneels on the ground while the other man stays standing.

Appalled, he asks Reynolds and Jason what is going on. “It’s the reptiles.” Jason says. Apparently the bathroom in which they work in is a popular spot for “cottaging” or gay sex. Many men cruise the washroom looking to get off.

What shocks Ez the most is that these are seemingly normal men. He observes one gentleman he saw in a cubicle with another meet up with his family. “Took your time,” the wife observes. He wonders if he should say anything; wonders if it’s his place.

The three men are dealt a further blow when they are given an ultimatum: cut down on the amount of gay cursing in the washroom or the London council will shut it down. Suddenly, the three men find themselves in between a rock and a hard place having to confront an enemy they know nothing about.

They decide to take matters into their own hands. They start to observe the “reptiles” and their habits; they start to fight back. But what are they fighting most?

Their own prejudices or the rights of others?

Gents may be a small novel but it packs a mean wallop. Clocking in at only 172 pages, many would under estimate the power of this slim volume. They would be unwise to do so. Gents take an in your face look at many issues that other writers would cheerfully avoid: homosexuality, washroom sex, cruising, races, culture, prejudice and racism.

Gents has so much power because it looks at all these issues and more in such brutal, unashamed honesty. You never feel for an instant that you are reading something that should be shocking or scandalous; though, looked at separately, many of the books subjects do indeed cause scandal.

Collins has also created some of the most likeable, wonderful characters I’ve ever encountered in literature today: Ezekiel, a West Indian immigrant worried about providing for his wife and son. Jason, the Rastafarian who has two wives. Reynolds, their supervisor, who tries to remain distant from their situation but can’t help getting drawn in.

These people breathe. I don’t think I can say it clearer than that; they are people I know, people I talk to every day. They are real and honest and true people. It takes a talented writer to create characters with such finesse; characters that I feel I’ve known for years. It takes not only a writer but a magician to create with such simplicity.

Gents is written in simple, precise words. You won’t find any purple prose here; because of the writing style, the issue is right there, out in the open, waiting for you to acknowledge it. Though the language is simple, the words have power. The book doesn’t take a political or social stance. It sets everything on the table for you to read and makes no judgments.

Though many would argue that this is a book about homosexuality, it isn’t. This is a book about people who are forced to confront something within themselves and make a decision that affects others. It’s not about gay cruising. It’s about the power of the human heart when you are asked to confront something you don’t understand.

Gents is a treat, a joy and a pleasure. I am reading it again for the second time. I was moved, swayed and held by the power of Collins words and Gents is a novel that will haunt me for some time to come.