This month’s tempest in a literary teapot comes courtesy of Lionel Shriver, who stirred up controversy with her keynote address to the Brisbane Writers Festival. Charged with speaking on the subject of “community and belonging,” Shriver instead launched into a full-throated condemnation of identity politics, with a particular focus on appropriation of voice in fiction. Novelists, Shriver argued, should be free to write from any perspective and in the voice of any character they desire; differences in gender, ethnicity, culture, or class should in no way prevent authors from adopting the voices of others.
Shriver pointed to the example of Chris Cleave, a British writer whose 2009 novel Little Bee is told from the perspective of an adolescent Nigerian girl. She might also have pointed to Canadian writer Jowita Bydlowska, who with her debut novel has decided to adopt the perspective of a man. And not just any man: a sexually ravenous, successful, borderline psychopath who harbours attitudes and ideas that many social-justice-oriented soft liberals will find appalling.
On one hand, it is little wonder that Bydlowska chose to tell her story this way: her previous book, the memoir Drunk Mom, was a brutally honest reckoning with her own struggles as an alcoholic new mother. Replete with scenes of the author hiding bottles in her baby’s diaper drawer and breastfeeding while under the influence, that book resulted in Bydlowska being excoriated by certain media commentators who were quick to decry the author’s perceived exhibitionism in attempting to exploit her experience for sympathy and fame. The brickbats she endured over the publication of that book make it unsurprising that she would want to adopt an entirely different persona for her follow-up work.
The psyche she has chosen belongs to a guy named Guy (it’s a bit of a running joke in the novel), who is about as close to a blank slate as humanly possible. (The cover image features a nattily dressed man in Italian shoes, tailored jacket, tie, and vest, but without a head.) Guy is almost a caricature of an archetypal dude: he is highly promiscuous; he rates women’s appearance on a scale from one to 10; he is enamoured with his own physical appearance; and his only constant companion is a dog (named, naturally, Dog). He is American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman minus the homicidal impulses.
He may, in fact, be a bit too much like the central character in Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious novel – or he may just appear that way, thanks to the style Bydlowska has chosen to adopt for her own book. She channels Ellis’s flat affect, declarative sentences, prodigious name-dropping, and fixation on superficialities of clothing, clubs, and pop-cultural ephemera a little too assiduously; at times, it begins to sound less like an homage and more like a retread: “After a while we move to the living room, where Dolores giggles over the nudes in the Helmut Newton coffee-table book. She opens the Eric Kroll book Fetish Girls and slams it shut, giggles some more. She drinks her wine. She drinks gin and tonic. I open more wine. I drink more wine.”
Fortunately, Bydlowska comes into her own in the novel’s second half, which breaks free of the Ellis template and heads down a road that is much more current and provocative. Up to about the halfway mark, it’s business as usual: Guy works as an agent for an Amy Winehouse–wannabe pop singer called $isi (the dollar sign makes for unfortunate visual clutter on the page); when the young singer is diagnosed with cancer, Guy comes up with a cynical marketing campaign to exploit her illness for money and notoriety. And all the while, he beds a string of women who mean nothing to him, discarding them as easily as he would an empty bottle of booze.
But the narrative takes an unexpected turn, venturing down a path fraught with cultural landmines; without giving too much away, the tables get turned on the womanizing cad, whose downfall coincides with a potentially epiphanic moment of self-recognition. It’s a tricky series of narrative reversals to pull off, and Bydlowska isn’t entirely successful, if only because she has structured her novel in such a way that she is forced to race through the final stages without paying them the deliberative attention they deserve. She seems absolutely confident in portraying Guy’s deviant psychology in the novel’s early stages, but somewhat less so when, late in the game, he proves to be a more complex character than we have been led to believe.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to fault the audacity in Bydlowska’s attempt. She takes a bold chance in pushing the story into uncomfortable territory, even if she ultimately hedges her bets. If the novel’s ambiguous final pages represent an ineffective attempt to be all things to everyone, that does not negate the potent act of literary provocation that got us there