All That Man Is
by David Szalay (2016)
Jonathan Cape (2016)
448 pp

It’s not a joke.

Life is not a fucking joke.

David Szalay’s All That Man Is is full of cluelessly randy lads, manchild rogues, and deathly careerists failing to understand (or care about) anyone else. As with Levy’s Hot Milk, the men here are a total washout. Szalay seems coldy amused / appalled but somewhat sympathetic about their grim plight and the inadequacies each blankly self-involved protagonist exhibits. The main triumph of the book, other than its chilly humour and mercilessly exposing men-skewering, is how Szalay renders the matter of empathy. Basically, he ignores it, trusting your sympathies will surely lean towards those blighted by their diminishment at the hands of such wretches. These characters repeatedly fail to escape their very narrow mindsets. Szalay makes the men in each of the stories not likeable as much as fascinatingly, often excruciatingly, hopeless, and puts all his money on your being horribly intrigued by them. Your level of immersion in All That Man Is will probably depend on how much wincing enjoyment you take from their struggles, and the heedless mess they make of everything.

All That Many Is

These nine (loosely linked) pieces hop around Europe to follow, amongst others, a young inter-railer narrowly avoiding the advances of a much older woman as his friend capitalises; a loafing French youth’s inert failures with a young woman and subsequent X-rated Carry On-esque attachment to an obese English mother and daughter; a misunderstood muscleman obsessing about the sex worker he is tasked with protecting; a tabloid sleazehound hypocritically and excitably ruining a high-profile acquaintance; and, to cap things off suitably, a man coming to terms with mortality.

All of the men in question are pretty similar: cynical, parochial, status-obsessed, prone to measuring things in terms of monetary value, more concerned with excitement than love, moored by a hazy sense of gender co-ordinates and thoughtlessly-ascribed apothegms and platitudes. The world passes them by and they watch it go, eventually becoming restless enough to do something interesting. Women are mysterious, but only in the same way everything else is, and are often reduced to names (“Sun Hat”). They also (women) tend to be of interest only for the potential gratification (emotional, sexual) they may afford. The men are, to a large extent, the same thread of ruinous manliness running through all men, manifestations of a priapic lack of self-perception. Or, as Szalay himself puts it: “The nine central characters of the book form, as it were, a sort of single composite protagonist.” They are constantly bemused by the acts of people who want to stifle their games, the games that comprise the solid centre of their lives, as opposed to their real lives, which are things that happen between the fun stuff.

And yet, most of these sad blokes don’t really feel like they can intervene in any meaningful way to change their lives or themselves. They teeter on the brink of bad behaviour, watch themselves watching themselves, and pull back in a self-congratulatory manner. Or simply succumb and behave badly, either oblivious to the damage done or (largely, never entirely) self-convinced of said behaviour’s legitimacy or appropriateness (or conversation-piece usefulness). They don’t feel part of their own or anyone else’s lives, not really, and are almost immiscible sentient objects. This numb lack of involvement perhaps explains their often cruel conduct.

It just happened, is how it sometimes feels, that he has this life. Deputy editor of the top-selling tabloid in Scandinavia, laying down terms to senior ministers. It was always just one step after another. He discovered, when he was eighteen years old, that he loved working on a newspaper – a local paper, that he had delivered as a kid, took him on for work experience after he left school. That was the first step. They liked that he was keen, energetic, willing to do anything. And he had the instinctive understanding of what it was all about. Not until the last few years has he looked further than just the next step. When they made him deputy editor. Yeah, that was when he first looked down and saw how high he was, how he was nearer the top now, much nearer, than the place where he’d started – that flat. Fourth floor. Lift out of order. Hear every sound the neighbours make. His father still lives there, on his own. He drove that lorry all over Europe, his father, from Portugal to Poland he drove it. That was what he did with his life. Now he hardly ever leaves Sundbyoster. Hardly ever leaves the fucking estate. When was Kristian last there? More than a year ago. In spring, smell of pollen on the estate. And in the flat, cigarette smoke. TV on. Sports newspapers. Sit at the tiny table at the kitchen, talk about FC Copenhagen, what a shit season they’re having. Window open. Smell of pollen. Sound of the Oresundmotorvejen, leaking into the estate.

Shouts of kids.

There’s this feeling he sometimes has that he’s a long way from home. That nobody’s there for him if it all goes wrong.

I found the book entirely successful as an engaging and glibly funny “men are probably best neutered” manifesto. It’s gripping in spite of its sameyness: the pan-European stories nicely segue from one to the next, it all hangs together (not, though, as anything like a novel) and it’s as fast a 440 page Booker read as you could hope for. But such a swift and easy completion points clearly to All That Man Is’s weaknesses. Szalay has a wonderful, glancing prose style. He doesn’t skim matters so much as keep his evocations of time and place to an absolute minimum. His Europe is a pretty homogenous tract of impervious sights and the same-old supermarkets and airports; the quirky aspects of each are given no more than passing appreciation. He wants to get back to the interior landscape most men occupy, and his surgically precise dissection of everything they could do with divesting themselves of, if only they weren’t so hardwired to be universally helpless.

But that wonderfully flowing prose style is too compulsive and surface-slick to stick in the mind, with the aim here never higher than gently satirical. And so All That Man Is leaves as little trace as most of the encounters it tidily recounts ever could on the men distantly involved in them. A cracking and impressive read, but may leave you with no more than a few stray tawdry fragments rather than an abiding and overarching impression, other than the hardly revelatory “men are often the architects of their own demise.” And I can’t help thinking that, perhaps counter-intuitively, women may well accrue plenty of queasy enjoyment from this — it certainly offers much re: confirming their worst fears about the opposite sex. Expect to see it on the shortlist.

He felt mortal, this morning, waking with a headache from the wine and aquavit, his lanky frame patched with sorenesses. A sort of weak milky light slipped through the curtains. Hardly enough to see his watch by.

Time is slipping away.

He is not young now.

I am  not young now, he had thought, sitting there in the hotel with his hands in his lap, staring at the floor. 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. That was what he meant when he talked to Paulette about fate.

And how many opportunities, after this one, will there be to escape that?

Not many.

Maybe none.

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