It was both fascinating and disturbing to read Jowita Bydlowska's debut novel, Guy, during the same week news broke of Donald Trump's 2005 comments describing how he likes to treat (or rather, sexually assault) women. As the recorded revelation sparked a widespread discussion about what men really say about women behind closed doors, and while Trump defenders misguidedly tried to justify his vile remarks as nothing more than "locker room talk," I was spending time inside the head of Bydlowska's eponymous and misogynist lead character.
With Guy, Bydlowska has created a timely study into this very kind of toxic and predatory masculinity. She takes readers on a journey into the mind of a man who views women only as conquests – to be picked apart, graded, used, and disposed of. Her protagonist is an attractive, successful and powerful talent agent, impeccably dressed with a bulging bank account and a taste for the finer things in life. Skilled in the art of manipulation, Guy believes himself to be above and beyond the sad basement dwellers of pickup artistry, that he is able to have any woman he desires bow to his whim with little effort and a whole lot of lies.
The women Guy encounters are assigned a number out of 10, and then are treated (and mistreated) accordingly. In fact, Guy describes the way women look in great detail, until they become more like museum objects in display cases than living, breathing, feeling human beings. He has a particular fondness for seducing and then demoralizing the women the world has already chosen to ignore, a detail that makes him particularly disdainful. His preferred prey? The insecure, the emotionally deprived and the conventionally unattractive.
Bydlowska has already proven her skill when it comes to taking on dark and difficult subject matter. In 2013, she published, to some controversy, her memoir Drunk Mom, recounting the alcoholic relapse she struggled with after the birth of her son. Her candour, directness and obvious talent as a writer were celebrated widely, as was her ability to take on and cleanly – even coldly – deliver such trying content. Drunk Mom was so stylistically affecting precisely because it refused embellishment, exposing the trials and tragedies of addiction for what they truly are. Though Guy is certainly a very different project, it's one entirely suited for Bydlowska's unique approach to the page.
The author's signature pared-back prose is perfect for getting inside the mind of her fictional narcissist. Guy's lack of empathy and sensitivity is delivered without excuse or adornment, his matter-of-fact sexism laid bare and therefore made all the more distasteful. Readers feel horror as Guy feels almost nothing – no remorse, no sadness and certainly not love. He's abusive via his lack of care or respect, and yet he's also painfully familiar.
It's hard not to compare Guy's misogyny, and total preoccupation with status and appearance, to Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 novel American Psycho. Guy's obsession with health, fitness and diet echoes the egomania of that other novel's protagonist, Patrick Bateman; yet, Guy lacks the straightforward sadism, gratuitous violence and torture that garnered American Psycho so much opposition. Interestingly, Guy is perhaps more distressing without its predecessor's extreme sexualized gore. By making her protagonist more man than shocking murderous monster, Bydlowska has exposed the persistent yet hidden everyday sexism so many live in fear of.
Even with all of the revulsion Guy provokes in us throughout the novel, we do feel a sort of culminating, disquieting pity for him as the story progresses. (It is either this pity, or a morbid fascination with how off-putting he is that somehow propels us to the end.) Despite how active he is in the world of womanizing, his conquests never seem to bring him any sort of happiness or satisfaction. Even the sex scenes, of which there are plenty, lack any sort of connection, titillation or even basic enjoyment. He is consistently impermeable, merely moving through a world that others feel fully alive in. Even in the book's troubling twist conclusion, Guy again displays an emptiness and characteristic lack of feeling in response. With all the havoc and pain he inflicts on others via his disregard, he gains and is nothing.
There is no good outcome in Guy's fictional world. There is no moral lesson, no great truth revealed, and though there is ultimately retribution, it's more disturbing than rewarding. Bydlowska has simply lifted the veil on sexism and the continual damage it does, making her readers uncomfortable by forcing them to look long and hard at its ugly face. The effect is certainly unsettling, but maybe not all that revelatory for those who understand the disdain some men privately have for women. In the wake of these particular Trump revelations, many have been quick to assert that not all men think and talk "that way," but the upsetting familiarity of Guy is a reminder that even a few who do can cause real, enduring damage.
What is truly terrifying about Guy is not the enemy pretending to be a friend to women that Bydlowska has created, but the fact that you've likely met him in your own life many times before. Guy is the all-too-common charming abuser unchecked, able to get exactly what he wants because he moves through the world entirely undetected.