All That Man Is, by David Szalay

Another Man Booker shortlist read. I may not get the whole longlist read, but I should be able to read the other half of the shortlist before the winner is announced. I need to start finishing books further ahead of the library deadline so that I can review them properly with quotes and everything! This is an improper review, then.

  1. All That Man Is by David Szalay is a collection of stories with tight, deliberate thematic links. Each of these stories is about a man on some kind of journey; they age over the course of the book from a teen to a 70-something retiree (the teen’s grandfather, the only character link I spotted). They range from working class to (bankrupt) billionaire. While all the stories have ties to Britain, the protagonists and settings span Europe–which made me think I really need to read more European fiction. Anyway, a novel may be tricky to define but I think this is not one–which technically makes it ineligible for the Man Booker, but I don’t care because I thought it was good.
  2. I was surprised that I liked this book so much. A collection of stories about rather sad and shitty white men who treat women mostly as objects–of desire, to be sold. Objects of affection/adoration, too, in some cases, but not people to be understood. As the stories accrued this aspect increasingly got on my nerves, but I still liked the book overall.
  3. The first story reminded me of Joyce’s “Araby,” which is maybe what made me well-disposed to the book. Simon and his friend are travelling around Europe before taking their … A-levels? university entrance exams? I’m not quite sure but they both occasionally try to make sense of some dog-eared literary classic in between drinking and smoking a lot and trying to hook up with girls (in the friend’s case–Simon is moonily in love with a girl from school who doesn’t know he’s alive, which is what made me think of “Araby”). Like Joyce’s story this one seemed to me to be about a yearning after something higher and better, a romantic ideal, which is always thwarted. Or maybe Simon is just a pompous poser. I liked the way Szalay captured the multiple registers on which we can be operating at one time, so Simon can be carrying on a conversation about where to go drink that night and whether they will meet that cute girl and her friend again but also hearing in memory the voice of the soprano at the Mozart concert in a church. And it’s up to us to decide whether he’s an artistic soul being dragged down to the mundane by his sex-obsessed friend or a pompous poser.Or a bit of both. (I suspect I identified some with him on this front).
  4. All of these men are on a journey of some kind, but one that is emphatically not a quest, or that fails to become a quest. Any noble impulses they have are thwarted or stillborn. They all have moments of what might be called transcendence but they get sucked back in to anxiety about money and work and keeping up appearances and getting laid and the sad-sackness of their lives. They cannot seem to make any real connection  with other people, even when they want to.
  5. What made these stories engaging, which the previous point probably does not sound like they are, was Szalay’s writing, his careful observations and his renderings of the characters’ complexity. They are not exactly likeable–some quite the reverse–but they are understandable. I found it fascinating to get inside the heads of men like these, I guess, with a writer who does not pretend they are better or more important or more interesting than they are.
  6. The thematic unity of the stories ultimately got wearing. We were always going to the same inconclusive place in the end. Szalay’s collection of effects is a good one but he used them repeatedly, until they began to seem morel like a bag of tricks.

If I thought these stories represented “all that man is” I’d be super depressed. But my personal experience of men has suggested that they do not.Too many men, too much of the time, maybe. That billionaire whose empire is imploding around him seemed pretty timely….

Some other reviews I agree with: Rosario’s and William Skidelsky in the Guardian


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2 Responses to All That Man Is, by David Szalay

  1. Sunita says:

    Great review. Two others that came just as you were posting or a bit after: Dwight Garner’s in the NYT and James Wood’s in the New Yorker. Wood’s spent too much time on the Knausgaard comparison for my tastes, but it was still interesting. The print copy I bought earlier this week is somewhere in transit and I’m looking forward to it.

    I know what you mean about finding the characters worthwhile because they help us understand people they represent. I feel that way about Richard Ford’s characters: I never thought I’d care about the travails of an affluent, white, middle-aged man from Connecticut, but his Frank Bascombe books are among my favorites because of how he gets us inside the head and heart of Frank.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      There is a good one by Garth Greenwell in the NYT Book Review today, too. I find Woods’ style a bit overwhelming but I agreed with the parts of his review I read.

      I think the reading experience was similar to Ford for me too, or James Salter. It’s odd, because in general I’d say that our culture is saturated with male POVs and the last thing I want is more. But my own reading is NOT saturated with them, really, and many of the pop culture ones are not so honest in looking at the darker sides of this kind of masculinity, the way it ultimately fails and constrains men. So I still find this kind of reading experience meaningful, though I wouldn’t want a steady diet of it.

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