A few years ago, I became aware of how to stroke my penis. It was so natural—because it was mine, I didn’t have to guess how it liked to be touched; I just knew. And I knew how to fuck with it. I walked around the beach or around the city, looking at women, rating them from 1 to 10. I cooked elaborate meals, shopped for baroque ingredients (Himalayan salt was for amateurs; Ancient Sea salt was much better). I drank water from Aquasafe, a reverse-osmosis filter system. I knew the difference between anthracite and black especially when it came to the colours of suits I liked to wear, usually Tiger of Sweden or Hugo Boss. I worked out six times a week according to a plan designed by my personal trainer (whose girlfriend I fucked). I drove Infiniti G37 Cabrio, six-speed, manual shift. I was 32, a Caucasian male and an agent to starlets who could sing (some of whom I also fucked). My name was Guy.
I’m not Guy. And I’m not suffering from a dissociative personality disorder. I only lent myself to Guy when I was writing him—outside of Guy I was just me.
As a child, when I would go to church, I had this obsessive thought during mass about running out of my pew and throwing myself at whichever droning-on priest and ripping his robes off. Maybe I was possessed but it was more likely that the murderous boredom of mass paired with my imagination created the crazy thought. I never acted on it, of course, but from that experience, I learned that mind can have a mind of its own—that it can be a scary yet fantastic place, one that I can enter and leave and sometimes—as with my book Guy—bring a story from.
There’s no greater liberty one has as a writer than inhabiting experiences of others’—it is, to me, as close to magic as anything. Especially when it comes to becoming the opposite or improbable of what you, the author, actually are. Especially when it comes to telling the story in first-person: you have to take on the mind, the experiences and how the world reacts to “you” (not you) as the narrator you’re telling the story as. You have to speak like him/her/it, inhabit his/hers/its, have your character do things you normally wouldn’t or couldn’t. Think Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone told from the point-of-view of elephants or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time told from the point-of-view of an autistic boy.
And now, enter Max, by Sarah Cohen-Scali. Max starts his tale as a Nazi fetus: “I don’t know yet what my name will be. Outside, they can’t decide between Max and Heinrich. Max, like Max Sollmann, the director of the Home where I’ll soon be arriving. Or Heinrich, in honour of Heinrich Himmler, who first thought up the idea of my conception and those of my buddies.”
It is April 19, 1936, almost midnight. Max is waiting patiently, in the womb, to be born on April 20th, the same birthday as Adolf Hitler. As his Cohen-Scali said, “I hope that, as I did, you will be able to feel indulgent towards Max’s flaws, and that you will love him, defend him, and adopt this orphan of evil…’” (I sure loved Max for the duration of 432 pages.)
Was I convinced that Max was telling the story despite the impossibility of his actual existence and awareness? Absolutely. And although the voice was not that of a child—this was definitely not Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing whose five-year-old’s narration was shockingly authentic—I suspended my eye-rolling & logic and just went with it. It was a beautiful, harrowing story and Max maintained his cheeky yet naïve way of speaking throughout the book and despite his unbelievable circumstances he seemed very real. He was not Cohen-Scali; I did not think for a moment that he was a 58-year-old Frenchwoman.
Once I finished Max I thought about what a trip it must’ve been for Cohen-Scali to write him—to make a character so awful yet so likeable; to make the reader believe in him. I thought of my own attempt to write a character opposite of me and how great it was to inhabit Guy. He was an asshole, sure—but he was so much fun to imagine. I let him think things I would never think, or I pushed my thoughts into his thoughts or vice versa—he pushed his into mine? It was freeing and dangerous, like riding a rollercoaster into the sky.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, and moved to Canada as a teen. She is the author of the bestselling memoir Drunk Mom. A journalist and fiction writer, she lives in Toronto, Canada.