All That Man Is by David Szalay

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Sex, money, and selfishness seem to define masculinity for Canadian-British author David Szalay, whose fourth work of fiction, All That Man Is, was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. The book, neither a novel nor a short story collection in any traditional sense, is made up of nine parts, each featuring a different, progressively older male protagonist. In the novel’s first story, a landlady attempts to seduce a pair of seventeen-year-old students backpacking through Europe; in another, a Hungarian bodyguard hopelessly lusts after his employer’s girlfriend, a prostitute catering to rich men in luxurious London hotels. In perhaps my favorite story, the second, published originally as a novella in The Paris Review, a louche college dropout—a Frenchman named Bernard—vacationing alone in Cyprus listlessly befriends a pair of “fascinatingly huge” women—an obese mother and daughter—who awaken in him a strange and surprising desire.

If the first stories are testaments to the squirmy vitality of youth, the later stories become decidedly more grim and existentially despairing. What to do with one’s life, the ruthless passage of time, what it all means, the engrossing necessities of love and money—these become the pressing concerns in the adult half of the book. In the novel’s fourth story, Karel, a Belgian academic, embarks on a romantic road trip with his Polish girlfriend, Waleria, only to have it ruined by news of an unwanted pregnancy. In another, James, a married English real-estate agent, checks in on a chalet development in the French Alps and enjoys a flirty, boozy dinner with Paulette, his younger colleague, before deciding not to pursue her. One story takes place on a massive luxury yacht, where a depressed Russian oligarch, having lost all of his money, spends his days wondering whether to jump overboard and drown himself.

One of the more impressive things about the book is Szalay’s range of portraiture and ventriloquy. He is just as adept at portraying a loafing youth on holiday in Cyprus, as he is a wheezing, alcoholic Scotsman, or a tender, muscle-bound bodyguard. Equally impressive is Szalay’s ability to convincingly describe specific fictional milieus, be it French real estate, escort services in London, or the offices of a cutthroat Danish tabloid. So why then, I wondered, as I read the book, given Szalay’s clear versatility and range, are his female characters so flat?

The clichés and stereotypes are so abundant as to seem almost absurd. There is the aforementioned prostitute and predatory landlady; a sexually rapacious mother and daughter; a hysterical girlfriend who obstinately—and one-dimensionally—wants to keep the baby; a mistress, forsaken flirtation, and numerous objects of desire (Gwyneth Paltrow’s “tits” in Shakespeare in Love; another man’s girlfriend who “all the men… at the gym want to fuck”); a bloodless ex-wife suing for millions. Some of this can be attributed to psychological realism. A book that focuses so intently on the male perspective—and writes about those men from the inside rather than the outside, in a voice free of authorial commentary—is bound to depict some of the more sordid aspects of masculinity. “I think there is a genuine difference in the way that men and women experience time and aging,” Szalay has said. “And I wanted to write about the male experience.” Fair enough. But given the outsized role women play in these stories, it begins to seem odd, if not downright problematic, that Szalay’s female characters should so consistently be characterized as something far less than their richly drawn male counterparts.

Part of the problem, I think, is when Szalay tries too heavy-handedly to tie everything back to the novel’s eponymous theme. Take for instance the fourth story, about Karel, the academic on the road trip with his pregnant lover, Waleria. They have worked out a strings-free arrangement in which every couple of weeks they meet, travel, and have sex in picturesque hotels. The arrangement suits Karel just fine: in the typically piggish fashion of Szalay’s male protagonists, he is “unable to imagine anything more perfect” and wants this “set-up they have” to continue. Szalay makes clear that Karel does not wish to be tied down by familial responsibility. Of a particularly burdened colleague, Karel reflects:

Yes, Macintyre has several kids. No wonder he seemed so threadbare and fed up. So tetchy. Some little house somewhere in outer London, full of stuff. Full of noise. He and his wife at each other’s throats. Too worn out to fuck. Who wants it?

So when Waleria informs Karel that she is pregnant, he responds angrily—“That’s shit!”—and spends the rest of the story trying to convince her to have an abortion. “If she decides she dislikes him,” Karel thinks, “she may decide that she does not want this pregnancy.” It is a scathing portrait of manhood in transition—at once selfish, insecure, and unwilling to accept responsibility.

The trouble is, the characters never feel entirely real. They feel, instead, like points on a map, emblematic. This is particularly true of Waleria, who is not so much flesh-and-blood as obstacle with a purpose. And then there are the few painfully contrived scenes, among them a tarot card reading in which Szalay unabashedly spells out his theme. Waleria looks into Karel’s past: “‘Well, look at this.’ She was pointing to the Ace of Wands. ‘It’s obviously, you know… it’s a phallic symbol.’” His present: “‘The Tower. Some kind of expected crisis. Everything turned upside down.’” And then his future: “‘I think these cards are suggesting that you should maybe stop thinking about your… thing all the time…’” “It’s time to grow up,” Szalay writes.

And that is, after all, the meaning of the story. But to offer it so bluntly and directly at the expense of deepening or complicating our understanding of the characters and their relationship seems needlessly didactic. Part of this has to do with Szalay’s approach. The stories are not intended to stand on their own; they are instead meant to be considered as a whole—as “points on an arc rather than arcs themselves,” Szalay has said—whereby each episode can be seen as part of a larger portrait of modern manhood. The trouble is, because this is a book that focuses solely on the male experience, this sort of piecemeal approach does not extend to Szalay’s female characters, leaving them feeling like means to an end, window dressing.

Something similar happens in the story about James, the middle-aged, married real-estate agent on business in the French Alps. The story begins with its main theme:

Floating over the world, the hard earth fathoms down through shrouds of mist and vapour, the thought hits him like a missile. Wham. This is it. This is all there is. There is nothing else… It’s not a joke. Life is not a joke.

Following this realization, the story swerves in a different direction. Paulette, a pretty young assistant, picks James up at the airport and drives him to the Alpine village where he is doing business. The next day, over lunch, the two share a few minor confidences. They discuss love, fate, Paulette’s brief spell in art school, happiness: “‘And you?’ he asks. ‘Are you? Happy.’ ‘No,’ she says, without hesitation. ‘I mean, my life isn’t where I want it to be.’” Later, they have dinner and stay up late, drinking and exchanging flirty banter. We know where this is headed. And though it might be cliché—the older married man shaking off the rust and dust and tapping into his dormant vitality via a fling with a younger woman—there is at least the possibility that Paulette might prove to be a more complex and full-bodied character than her thinly drawn and dramatically convenient predecessors. But it doesn’t take long for Szalay to dismiss the whole idea of an affair—and with it, Paulette. Following dinner, James and Paulette return to his hotel, but instead of taking her up to his room, James chivalrously (for a married man and Szalay protagonist) says good night. We don’t hear from Paulette again. In the very next moment, we hear, instead, about Szalay’s theme. Back in his room, James inspects himself in the mirror. “His face has a dead-eyed flaccidity. A flushed indifference,” Szalay writes, before returning to his refrain: “It’s not a joke. Life is not a fucking joke.”

Unlike his former selves—his younger incarnations, as depicted by protagonists in earlier stories—it is not sex that James wants; it is money and opportunity, and with it a means of redeeming his fading youth and altering the course of fate, that seemingly innocuous conversation topic from earlier in the story. Sensing an opportunity for a future development, James plans to strike out on his own by pitching a business deal to an influential landowner and developer, whose “extended family is all over the local administration like ivy.” The morning after turning down his opportunity with Paulette, James, hungover, sits on the bed in his hotel room and reflects:

I am not young… When did that happen? He has started lately, the last year or two, to have the depressing feeling that he is able to see all the way to the end of his life—that he already knows everything that is going to happen, that it is all now entirely predictable… And how many opportunities, after this one, will there be to escape that? Not many. Maybe none.

In some respects, All That Man Is reminds me of the late, great James Salter—author of A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years, and All That Is, his similarly titled final novel—not only in its concerns (desire, luxury, despair), but in the brisk rhythm of the sentences and interludes of desultory sex. Szalay is a talented stylist. Written in a spare, bracing present tense reminiscent of J. M. Coetzee, whose own cool, controlled prose style restrains the volatile emotions that underpin it, Szalay is able to describe even the most mundane situations with limpid elegance. The stories are filled with striking images and resonant detail. Szalay is a first-class noticer, a master of what the critic James Wood calls “thisness”—that is, the detail that seems absolutely true, that with its precision and seeming banality fastens a scene to the page and makes it breathe.

He is also admirably fearless when it comes to exploring the darker corners of human nature. Outside of the work of Ottessa Moshfegh, whose terrifically misanthropic novel, Eileen, was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I cannot think of a young writer less interested in the polite gestures of literary fiction. As with Moshfegh, the allure here is not the material itself; it is, instead, the way in which Szalay is able to transform his seemingly unpromising premises into tenderly drawn explorations of the twenty-first century male psyche—brimming as it is with confused emotion and suppressed anxiety. It is a shame, then, that Szalay is not more interested in making his female characters more convincing. So concerned is he with chasing his theme, he neglects to treat them as human beings. And while, of course, fiction is not reality, a little more complexity and nuance would have been nice. Because otherwise, this is among the best books I have read all year.

Matthew Oglesby is from Tallahassee. He loves reading, running, and least of all, writing. He currently lives and works as an editor in Washington, DC. More from this author →