‘Guy’ by Jowita Bydlowska

Book Reviews

Guy coverReviewed by Noah Cain

Guy, Jowita Bydlowska’s first novel, is worth celebrating. It is an illuminating page-turner, a deep-dive into the unsentimental world of sex, addiction, privilege and fame that its wonderfully hateable narrator inhabits.

This narrator is Guy, a self-absorbed and narcissistic talent agent who assigns every woman he sees a rating out of ten. And while Guy’s girlfriend, Gloria, is a Ten (he needs arm candy for award shows, business meetings, etc.), his true sexual appetite is for Threes and Fours, girls to whom he is “God’s gift.”

The novel begins with Guy (early-thirties, handsome) prowling the area around his beach house for an 18- to 21-year old Three. He’s got the whole thing down to a science. Once he finds his target he uses his dog to break the ice, then compliments her, then ignores her, then invites her for dinner. You get the picture. She ends up in love with him, and he feels no remorse when, after a few weeks of adventurous sex, he sends her on her way with a fake number. It’s all for the greater good, according to Guy. He gets some guilt-free sex and they both are relieved of their insignificance. Things get interesting when Guy’s past romps don’t stay in the past. It all eventually leads to a wholly satisfying twist that feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable.

When Bydlowska invented Guy, she created a prototype of privilege, entitlement and selfishness. He’s white, male and straight, his father got him his first job in the talent industry and his dead grandmother’s money bought him his beach house/plain-girl-sex-pad.

Guy does not use his unearned social power for good. Professionally, he represents $isi, an impressionable, young and promising musician hoping to become a pop icon. Guy consistently exploits and manipulates $isi, seeing even a major life crisis (I won’t ruin the reveal) as an opportunity to strengthen her brand. Scenes where Guy and other powerful white men discuss how best to capitalize on this crisis are particularly striking and unsettling, especially against the novel’s many references to Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears that, on the surface, are included to set the novel in its historical present.

With Guy, Bydlowska becomes an important voice in the current cultural discussion around privilege in Canada. The novel comes three years after Drunk Mom (2013), a memoir chronicling Bydlowska’s first year of motherhood as a relapsing alcoholic. While alcohol is at the centre of Drunk Mom, sex is at the centre of Guy. Guy imagines sexual encounters with almost every women in the novel and he actually has sex with a good number of them. The success of Guy, then, hinges on Bydlowska’s ability to write sex well.

Sex scenes can be a great challenge for writers. Some shy away from them, ending scenes just as the sex is beginning, while others take on the challenge and wind up in the running for the Literary Review‘s Bad Sex in Fiction award.

Bydlowska takes the challenge head-on and, besides the odd misstep (“I cup the mound of it and slip my thumb between the folds”), the sex writing in Guy is exceptional. Like Miranda July in The First Bad Man, Bydlowska consistently writes erotic and engrossing sex scenes that are more than just fun to read. That is, they are not just there for decoration. They are intrinsically expressive of Guy’s development, and thus the novel’s. When Guy is having sex, his humanity, which he strives so hard to hide, is put on display, like in this description of his first sexual encounter as a 13-year-old: “It was eternally comforting. I was falling into her softness. Too fast, too recklessly.”

Once Bydlowska checks excellent sex writing off her to-do list, she has another very difficult task in front of her: humanizing the utterly despicable Guy.

She pulls this off too.

She does it by making Guy a story of addiction, a theme she’s already handled in Drunk Mom. Guy himself names his insatiable need for sex as an addiction: “I suppose it was exactly like addiction: excitement, remorse. Confusion. Compulsion.” But while Guy can see that there’s something wrong with him, he can’t see the craters his addiction leaves in the lives of the people around him. Like a lot of addicts, he lives in denial. Guy’s cluelessness about himself is matched only by his confidence in his own self-awareness. Watching Guy flounder in his denial and lack of self-awareness made me feel sorry for him.

Also working to humanize Guy are passages describing his reclusive, depressive lows. These evocative sections exude the irrational, isolating and self-destructive nature of depression. I wanted to cheer on Guy’s suffering, but the prose wouldn’t allow it: “I buy black curtains on the Internet and same-day courier them to my address. I hang them up. I close the curtains. I disappear.”

I don’t only have roses for Bydlowska, however. Guy gets off to a slow start and drags at times (especially the beginning of Part II) because the first-person, present-tense narrative voice does not lend itself well to exposition. Bydlowska is at her best when she lets Guy react to stimuli. It is fascinating to be with him as he takes in the world, because his mind works in such unfamiliar, unreliable ways. While these sections of exposition do add depth and fit within the work thematically, they lack the vigor and pace that make the rest of the novel so engrossing.

Guy is not just a wonderful first novel, it is a wonderful novel. It will turn you on, disturb you, make you think and keep you reading past your bedtime.

Jowita Bydlowska, please keep them coming.

Wolsak and Wynn | 262 pages | $20.00 | paper | ISBN: 978-1928088233

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Noah Cain

Noah Cain lives in Winnipeg and teaches English at Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School. His literary work has been published in carte-blanche, Nashwaak Review and The Artery.