The 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.