All That Man Is, by David Szalay

>> Saturday, August 20, 2016

TITLE: All That Man Is
AUTHOR: David Szalay

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape

SETTING: Various European contemporary settings
TYPE: Fiction

A magnificent and ambitiously conceived portrait of contemporary life, by a genius of realism

Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving--in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel--to understand what it means to be alive, here and now. Tracing a dramatic arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, the ostensibly separate narratives of All That Man Is aggregate into a picture of a single shared existence, a picture that interrogates the state of modern manhood while bringing to life, unforgettably, the physical and emotional terrain of an increasingly globalized Europe. And so these nine lives form an ingenious and new kind of novel, in which David Szalay expertly plots a dark predicament for the twenty-first-century man.

Dark and disturbing, but also often wickedly and uproariously comic, All That Man Is is notable for the acute psychological penetration Szalay brings to bear on his characters, from the working-class ex-grunt to the pompous college student, the middle-aged loser to the Russian oligarch. Steadily and mercilessly, as this brilliantly conceived book progresses, the protagonist at the center of each chapter is older than the last one, it gets colder out, and All That Man Is gathers exquisite power. Szalay is a writer of supreme gifts--a master of a new kind of realism that vibrates with detail, intelligence, relevance, and devastating pathos.
As I've done for the past few years, I'm aiming to read as many of the books on the Man Booker prize longlist as I possibly can before the winner is announced. This year's list actually has quite a few that sound really intriguing to me, and I almost randomly chose All That Man Is to get started.

There's been some low-level controversy about the inclusion of this book in the longlist, as the rules call for novels, and this is more of a short story collection. The only connection between the stories here is in theme and, I guess, sensibility. Whether that is cohesive enough to move this from "collection of works" to "a work" I don't know and, to be honest, I don't care.

Each of the stories gives us a portrayal of a man at a certain point in his life. These are different men, from different backgrounds and nationalities, and at different stages of their lives (we start with a 17-year-old and the central character gets a few years older in each story, until we finish with one close to the end of his life). We see these men in some sort of crisis, somehow displaced from their regular lives and contemplating the meaning of those lives in some way.

These are more vignettes than full stories. The point seems to be to examine a character, rather than to tell a full story. There are no real resolutions here; the stories kind of fade away, rather than come to a climax. I didn't mind this at all, actually, because the observation is well done. Internal lives (and there's a lot of internal contemplation) feel true and well observed, and I liked the little external details reflecting those internal lives. And the key thing is that we're observing these people and the prose is remarkably value-free. We're not judging, we're observing and understanding.

Now, the problem with this is that a secondary effect of the detailed focus on these men is that the female characters are not rendered to the same standard. They don't feel as layered and nuanced as the male characters, but more like objects, characterised only in terms of what function they serve in the male protagonist's story. One could say this is only a function of what Szalay is trying to do here, but I don't think I'd agree with that. Better characterisation of the female characters would not have interfered with the focus on the central characters.

The tone is a melancholy one. Szalay's is a pessimistic view of what man is. It seems to be that man is lonely and adrift, struggling with feelings of meaninglessness. I'm more of an optimist myself, someone who thinks one can find meaning and joy in mundane things, so for all that I liked the detailed observation of the characters, the book probably resonated less with me than it might with others.

The length of the stories really works. The characters are, by necessity of the theme, self-involved. In small chunks, it's just right for the reader to care and not just want them to get over themselves.

The other element that I liked was the European theme. This is basically "All That (European) Man Is". Although there's always some English link, the stories happen all over Europe. There's a French guy from Lille taking a holiday in Crete and meeting two English women. There's a Danish tabloid journalist meeting a Danish politician in Spain. There's a couple of Hungarians going to London for work. There's a Belgian guy taking a car to Poland and meeting up with his Polish girlfriend in Germany on the way. But this is the mundane side of globalisation. If you think "lots of European locations" you probably get the impression things will be all glitzy and glamorous, but here, they mostly really aren't. We do get luxury hotels in London and a yacht in the Mediterranean, but we also get industrial estates in Lille, bargain-basement mass holiday hotels in Crete, and flimsily-built condos in the French Alps. There are plenty of very regular people here, and their stories are not dramatic. But these days regular, unglamorous, commonplace people also get to travel and treat exotic-sounding European locations as commonplace. You get the point of just how far European integration has gone. Reading this right after the shock of the referendum result, it felt very bittersweet.



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