All That Man Is

All That Man IsThe stories in this collection by David Szalay trace the life history of man by looking at nine men at different stages of life. There’s a university student named Simon, traveling through Europe with a friend. There’s Bérnard, who has finished school, can’t hold a job, and is vacationing alone in Italy. Kristian, a father and a journalist, is getting the scoop of a lifetime by exposing a politician’s affair with a married woman. Aleksander, an older man who appears to have everything, is on the cusp of giving it all up. And finally, Tony, 73 years old, is longing to hold on to whatever life he has left.

A few common threads link these stories together. Almost all of the men are travelers, often as a matter of routine, but sometimes just on this one occasion. They’re all isolated, even when in company. They’re either surrounded by those who don’t understand them, or they choose to keep to themselves. There’s a sadness to all of these stories, but it’s mixed with flashes of humor, for example, in Bérnard’s ridiculous getaway.

One of the things that interested me in this book about manhood is the depiction of women. Nearly every woman is treated as a sex object, if not by the main character, then by someone close to him. For example, in the story about Simon, a woman comes onto him pretty aggressively, and he’s uninterested, but Simon’s friend is and doesn’t get Simon’s disinterest. And Simon doesn’t seem interested in her as a person.

That’s not to say that women lack agency in the book. The two central women in Bérnard story are quite assertive. But the women function primarily in relation to men, and that relationship is usually defined by sex. I don’t think, however, that this is necessarily a weakness. Perhaps it’s meant to raise the question, Is that all man is? The men who take interest in other things are those who seem the happiest and to have the greatest stake in life. It’s interesting that the only women who feel like something other than objects of desire are those in the final story, about a man who has loved life so much that he doesn’t want to leave it. He’s also perceived by some of the other characters as queer, something he does not himself appear willing to admit.

The vision of manhood in these stories is unpleasant, and not just for women. These men are not happy. Simon has the potential for happiness and appears to be headed toward a life of being something more. And Tony had happiness. Interestingly, Simon is Tony’s grandson, in the only actual links I found between the stories.

These are well-crafted stories, and I enjoyed reading them, although I did at times get weary of these men’s cluelessness. I tend to prefer a little more experimentation and oddness in my short stories, more so than I do in novels, and these are extremely straightforward. They offer more as a collection than they do singly. In fact, I think they are intended to be read as a novel, rather than as discrete stories. But because the only links between the chapters are stylistic and thematic, All That Man Is feels more like a story collection.

If this year’s Booker field were stronger, this might not make my personal shortlist, but with four books left for me to read, this is in my top three. I’m hoping for better things ahead.

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5 Responses to All That Man Is

  1. I’m disappointed on your behalf in this slate of Booker books! So far I haven’t been particularly into reading any of them, although you have made a good case for several of them. I’m sad! I usually like the Booker Prize books, or at least I usually am interested to read them.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m sad, too! The Booker list usually includes some books that don’t quite work for me, but this year has been pretty bad. The North Water is the only one I’ve totally enjoyed. The other strong contenders are books I admired more than loved.

  2. jenp27 says:

    I did not like this book. Nice review. I hope it’s okay but I am linking to your review so our readers can see other opinions about it.

    Unlike you, I’ve found the list to be very strong this year. I’m sorry you don’t feel that way and I’ve heard others say the same thing.

    • Teresa says:

      Please, free feel to link! Ordinarily this book isn’t exactly my kind of thing, but I found it much more engaging that others on the longlist, and it took on some ideas worth thinking about. I am glad, though, that someone is enjoying this list. I think everyone on my shadow jury is discouraged by it–although we all have different favorites.

      • jenp27 says:

        Yeah, that’s too bad. Generally I like about half the list each year but this year I’ve liked about 3/4. I will say though than none of the books have stood out to me as much as brief history or A little life from last year

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