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Wednesday, 20 December 2017

All That Man Is - David Szalay (2016)








In 2010 Canadian born David Szalay was ranked seventeenth in The Telegraph’s list of Britain’s best novelists under 40 years of age. So what does it mean to be considered one of the best writers on such a list? Does it I mean that you write entertaining stories, that you are a leading ‘voice’ of a particular generation of writers, or that you are a writer who is pushing the boundaries of the novel? I have not read any of Szalay’s other novels, but if All That Man Is is typical of his writing then I’d say he falls under the latter definition. All That Man Is challenges the conception of what a novel is, being ostensibly a collection of short story like sections that are linked thematically. Szalay has presented All That Man Is as a novel, having given none of the sections titles and talking it up as a novel in interviews. He has also spoken of a degree of frustration and pointlessness regarding the novel at this point in history, and his desire to move beyond its ‘typical’ format. I admire both Szalay’s artistic verve and his efforts to expose readers to something new, but is the novel any good?

The answer to that question is yes, it is a fairly successful novel, with some reservations, and presents some serious themes that have relevance. All That Man Is is as much about the state of Europe (sans the refugee crisis though...) as it is about the state of manhood in this hyper-stimulated and fragmented age. All nine stories are set in Europe, beginning with two seventeen year old British students traveling the continent and ending with a retired seventy-something English civil servant in Italy, who is the grandfather of Simon, one of the teenagers in the first story and the only direct character link between the stories. Many of the stories share the weighty existential themes of a crisis of masculinity, coupled with a crisis of purpose. All the main protagonists are disaffected in some way, except for Kristian, a Scandinavian journalist who is at the peak of his powers professionally, yet tellingly he is also hypocritical, ruthless and morally bankrupt; however at least he is seizing the day, unlike the most of the other male protagonists. The underlying theme of the importance of living decisively is introduced early on in the novel when Simon reads a passage in an old Penguin classic called The Ambassadors (which I assume is the Henry James novel from 1903), in which the narrator makes an impassioned plea to live in the moment to avoid living in regret regarding what could have been experienced in life. Simon underlines the section and writes - “Major theme”, yet ultimately, and ironically, he fails to heed Henry James’ advice. Curiously Bernard, from Belgium, who also appears in a different story early in the book, is portrayed as a dead set loser, but ends up seizing more than the day when he is seduced by an obese mother and daughter combo in a tourist trap on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus (cue Bowie’s great 1979 song - Move On). Unlike many of the male protagonists I actually admired his spirit of adventure and enjoyed his story much more than some of the others that featured banal men leading banal lives, which is no doubt the point, but it still makes for some boring reading.

Female readers may be turned off by the portrayal of modern masculinity in All That Man Is, as the novel is a fairly honest but damning expose of men’s darker sides. Despite this there are moments of sympathy to be had. Murray, a down and out Englishman trying to chance his luck in Croatia has a singular lack of personal awareness, a charmless way with women and an emphatic guileless misjudgement of his fellow humans. Murray’s story provides some much needed pathos among the bathos (although there are both in his story). There are some nice shades of grey to be pondered over as well in some of the other stories. Who is the better man? The exploitative ‘boyfriend’ of Emma, the gorgeous Czech prostitute, who takes her to London for appointments that will bring much needed money; or Balazs, the amateur bodyguard who lusts after Emma but protects her with a noble intent despite it costing him his job in the end. Both men are dubious to say the least, yet both also display a degree of vulnerability and morality that belies their stations in life. Such subtle characterizations bring some depth to what might have been a simple exercise in condemning modern (European) man to the literal and existential gutter.

With All That Man Is Szalay does successfully stretch the boundaries of the novel somewhat, which is admirable even if some readers (many of my book club members detested the book) and critics are not enamoured with the novel. In a way it’s indicative that, as a format, the novel can withstand attempts to distort its form and Szalay joins quite a number of contemporary authors producing experimental work of varying degrees. Thematically perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this novel is Szalay’s portrayal of the European Union, rather than the behaviour of the men themselves. Many of the characters in the novel lead fluid lives, moving about Europe freely and decontextualizing themselves from their original nationalities in the process. The last story blends darkness and light, with Simon’s grandfather clutching onto an adolescent existential truth within his grandson’s poem that was sent to him in a letter, giving him a potential way through the last part of his life that is proving to be much more difficult than what came before. He faces the twilight his life having essentially lived a lie, harking back to the advice that lay within the Henry James quote read by Simon at the beginning of the book, advice that also seems to be offered to the reader, advice I will gladly take, whether I’ll act on it or not.

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