Paris Syndrome is a collection of interconnected short stories that follows its principal character, Lucy, as she finds herself flitting from one place to the next, forced to confront who she is inside and outside different millieux, alternately surprised by what she is capable of doing and disillusioned by a sense of inherent sameness in her self across all these places.
In all the stories in Paris Syndrome there is a through line of psychological and emotional fluctuation. And this is exactly what makes this collection so lend itself to the “millennial” label. Lucy is a character burdened by an overwhelming emotional sensitivity and yet, at the same time, often witness to her own feelings of passivity and emptiness. At times she strains to manufacture emotion to perform in what she believes is the context that requires it. At others she is almost incapacitated by a hyperawareness of everything within and without her: an all-too-sudden sense of the uncontrollability of her experience in an already precarious, uncontrollable world.
“And this realization of yet again feeling absolutely nothing when there ought to have been something caused a slicing of sharp, reddish-pink heat to rise in my chest. I flexed my fingers and worked hard on remaining calm. Not to shout out, to howl, to start banging my chest or pulling out my hair or scratching my nails deep into the soft, well-moisturized skin of my very kind, very good friend or – even better – to lie down right there on the white dusty path; to curl up and stop altogether.
Luckily, in a matter of seconds . . . this feeling too passed. And I was left with my familiar, easy nothing.”
This “nothing” emotional state is perhaps most emblematic of Sweeney Byrne’s whole collection. There are, in these stories, nothings with different emotional inflections: the “easy nothing” in “Montparnasse” that so disturbs Lucy; the desperate, self-imposed nothing of “Zeno’s Paradox,” one borne out of an instinct to suppress and protect the self from pain; and the lost nothing in “La Rêve” that is acted upon because…why not? All of this is to say, at different points throughout her travels, Lucy is constantly in the throes of the push and pull of her own self, indulging in her emotions so extremely so as to obscure them, or else refusing to engage in them at all.
“. . . she was deafened, overwhelmed by the din of all that unspoken silence . . . all the endless stories, forgotten, wordless stories . . All the lives lost and ruined right here, lives like hers, measly and nothing and everything too”
When we travel, we expect the places we go to to give us something: an answer, a feeling, an insight. What Lucy wants from the cities she travels to is unclear, and that is exactly what defines her experiences in Paris Syndrome. She wants something from these cities, but she doesn’t know what it is. And so she keeps moving, travelling, hoping that, at some point, it will all click for her. There is no feeling more millennial than that. (I would know.)
Thematic discussion aside, the best story in this collection is by far “Zeno’s Paradox.” Heartbreaking and beautifully written, with a perfect title to boot. My other favourites included “And We Continue to Live” and “Montparnasse.”
There were some aspects here that I didn’t love, namely the language used to describe fatness (I felt that a lot of it bordered on, or was, fatphobic), and the way that some of these cities and their natives were described, especially Mexico. I’m not from any of the cities mentioned in this book, so I can’t exactly tell to what extent these descriptions were appropriate, but some of them definitely didn’t feel right to me.
Paris Syndrome is, I think, a collection that is most invested in exploring how a kind of psychological restlessness manifests itself in a geographical restlessness. There aren’t exactly answers to be found in these stories, but there is always an effort to question, unsettle, negotiate.
(Thank you so much to Banshee Lit for sending me a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!)