‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay (2016) – 358 pages
Somewhere I read that the men in ‘All That Man Is’ are a total washout. That’s sad, because I identified real strongly with these guys. Everything that David Szalay writes rings true from my own experience of guys up to and including “He tries a wank, but he is too drunk.”
‘All That Man Is’ is a rather pompous title for a decidedly un-pompous novel. Let’s start with a quote:
“We all think we’re special — we’re all the fucking same.”
Many would not call this book a novel. There are nine separate stories about men scattered throughout Europe from Croatia to Geneva, from France to Cypress, from London to Cordoba, Spain, and so on. There is a lot of travelling whether by car, train, or airplane, and a frequent venue is a hotel room. The stories are arranged from youngest to oldest by the age of the main protagonist, the youngest being seventeen and the oldest being in his seventies. The stories do have a common theme which appears to be masculinity today, so I am willing to go along with calling ‘All That Man Is’ a novel. Here we get many distinct angles on manhood at different times in life.
Despite having all the stories told from a male perspective, each story contains at least one woman who is central to the story. In fact some of the women have the best lines. In one story a young woman is reading the tarot cards for her boyfriend at a Belgian hotel stop on their drive to her home in Poland:
She said, “I think these cards are suggesting that you should maybe stop thinking about your…thing all the time.”
He laughed, “My Thing!”
She put her finger on it.
“What it means,” she said, looking him in the eye, “is that your skirt-chasing days are over.”
In this story the man is in his mid-twenties, and this is a fair statement.
Some of the early stories are quite raunchy. However as the men age in these stories, their obsessions turn from sex first to their families, then to their own mortality.
“It still seems incredible to him that he is actually going to die. That this is just going to stop. This. Him.”
Szalay writes from inside each of his main male characters’ heads, and we get a full account of how they see the world. Some of the men are very successful and some are failures. One was very successful early on only to see all his fortune collapse like a house of cards. Each story here is entirely convincing to me in its understanding of and insight into the male psyche.
‘All That Man Is’ a well-written, original, and entirely perceptive novel about being a man in the various stages of adult life.