Book review: All That Man Is by David Szalay - a look at the sorry state of the modern man
David Szalay’s latest work comprises nine short stories about nine different men, each of them scrutinising his existence. “All those people you know in a lifetime. What happens to them all?”, wonders Tony, a retired civil servant who is having an isolated crisis of confidence at his second home near Bologna, Italy after a heart operation. One of the book’s few virtuous men, Tony “thinks about death quite a lot now”, and finds it unspeakably painful to imagine the day he will see his daughter Cordelia for the last time.
Each of Szalay’s protagonists is away from home when he zooms in on their lives. His book, it’s clear, is a comment on – or perhaps a satire of – 21st century manhood. Consequently, the stories have extra significance when weighed and understood as a whole.
The men in question come from different cultures, classes, lifestyles and age groups, and the author shows how, detached from their usual sphere of influence and responsibilities, they become introspective and more thoughtful about their station in life. Epiphanies and/or deep-set fears are flushed out – often after some bout of shameless behaviour or attempted one-upmanship.
That Szalay was previously voted one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists figures, for every character here is fully realised and wholly believable. They include Kristian, a Copenhagen-based hack who prides himself on dropping his girls off at school each morning, yet thinks nothing of detonating lives in print; Bérnard, a rudder-less young Frenchman whose amorous expectations are downscaled during a tacky package holiday in Cyprus; and Murray, a deluded middle-aged Scotsman whose attempt to be someone in a small Croatian town goes desperately, pitiably awry.
There is great writing at the emotional core of Szalay’s book – and some lovely, often funny stuff in the margins, too.
“Yes, this might be it – the thing that he has been looking for, the thing that makes him, in the world of Germanic philology, a household name,” thinks Karel – a conceited academic prone to professional jealousies – to himself while driving.
This is funny because there are of course no household names in the rarified world of Germanic philology and because we are more than ready to mock Karel, a selfish and devious man who tries to bully the much younger woman he is involved with into aborting their baby.
Elsewhere, the 60-something, old-school Russian millionaire Aleksandr isn’t much more likeable. He has been cast into a near suicidal depression by the (relatively) ruinous costs of his second divorce. And when his wife Ksenia announces she’s taking their kids to St Barts for two weeks, Szalay nails the tectonic shifts of a wealthy man’s unravelling brilliantly: “They went to the airport, she and the twins, and her PA, and her personal trainer, and the two English nannies, and all the earpiece-wearing security men – from the window he watched the four-vehicle motorcade move away.”
Amid this cast of hugely dysfunctional males, the reader looks for decent types in unlikely places. Though he’s clearly no choirboy, Balázs, a fitness trainer turned minder for a Hungarian prostitute named Emma, initially seems to have something approaching a moral compass
When Balázs, Emma and Emma’s boyfriend Gábor travel from Budapest to London so that Emma can work in the upmarket hotels on Park Lane, Szalay’s depiction of their drab daytimes in a sparsely furnished London two-storey seems entirely plausible. Balázs grapples with his Harry Potter novel while Emma sleeps off the nightshifts, but he is, of course, no knight in shining armour. Though there are mitigating circumstances, he soon breaks someone’s nose in a fit of rage.
All things considered, the book’s title seems deliberately provocative; out for a few extra column-inches. For if this motley crew – mostly despicable alpha males or wannabes striving for status – really do represent all that man is (and I’d argue that they certainly do not) 21st century manhood is in a sorry state.
What appears to be a device or a conceit on Szalay’s part doesn’t detract from his latest book’s worth as a piece of literature, however. Profound, sometimes moving and often blackly comic, All That Man Is delights even as it unsettles. It’s another bravura performance from Szalay.
James McNair is a regular contributor to The Review.
Updated: April 4, 2016 04:00 AM