All That Man Is by David Szalay: #ManBooker 2016 shortlisted

DavidSzalayNine men. Separated by time, place and attitude but all at a critical turning point in their lives. Decisions they make now – or in some cases fail to make – will have long lasting consequences. Such is the premise of All That Man Is by David Szalay where each of the nine sections of the book focuses on a different individual and a different stage of their lives.

It begins with 17-year-old Simon who is on holiday, criss-crossing Europe with his friend and ticking off places of culture before beginning his university course. Being rather earnest he has no idea how to interact with girls and no clue that the married woman who offers them a room is also offering to initiate him into the mysteries of sex.  Off he goes to bed (alone) with his copy of Henry James’ The Ambassadors leaving his friend to take advantage of the opportunity.

Simon’s 73-year-old great grandfather is the final character in the book. He’s a retired government mandarin holed up in his holiday home in Italy to aid his recovery from an operation. Alone he contemplates  “the nightmarish fact of ageing and dying.” and that the “only purpose in life now, it seems, is to stave off physical decay and death for as long as possible”  Not surprisingly he feels depressed at the diminishment of his abilities and a recognition that he and his wife are as strangers with separate lives.

In between these two portraits we encounter a Danish tabloid journalist faced with an ethical dilemma when he learns of a story that could mean the end of his friend’s political ambitions. There’s also a lonely Russian oligarch who contemplates suicide when his fortune disappears because of an ill-judged court case; a bodyguard who falls for the woman he is meant to protect on her nightly visits to hotels to entertain rich men; a lazy Belgian whose holiday in Cyrprus is enlivened by a convivial daughter and mother and a mediaeval academic dismayed when his Cypriot girlfriend reveals she is pregnant, While the stories all relate to England in some way, none of them are actually in the place of their birth when we meet them. All appear to be in transit of some kind.

The emotional pull of these stories is varied with according to the detail with with Szalay portrays the  internal lives of his men. The character of the Russian billionaire Aleksandr is particularly well done – this is a man who went from an existence as a modest figure in the Soviet machine to the world’s number one iron-ore magnate. Now he can’t even afford to pay for dinner for his financial advisor and when asked what hobbies he will pursue now the bubble of his business empire has burst, all he can recall is that his Who’s Who entry lists his interests as ‘wealth’ and ‘power’. For all this man’s wealth and influence in the past we can’t help feeling just a tad sorry for him when, in search of company, he resorts to muscling in on his bodyguard’s microwaved rogan josh.

Over and over we witness these men questioning the purpose of their lives and what happens to them next. The answer often seems to be a bleak one. Billionaire Aleksandr is miserable because he thinks he has lost the meaning of life, James, a property developer hoping to make his next deal the big one, feels he can already see all the way to the end of his life; ‘he already knows everything that is going to happen, that it is all now entirely predictable.” For the medievalist the ideal scenario would be that everything just stays the same; one in which he continues to present and publish his research on the finer points of spoken dialect in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and enjoys weekends with his girlfriend in some of Europe’s finest cities. Ideally he would prefer to be in a distant time, immersing himself in the world of Chaucer’s contemporaries and maybe even a cloistered life. What he doesn’t bargain on is finding that his girlfriend is pregnant and reluctant to fall in line with his preference for an abortion. The tense relationship between this two played out over the course of a few days in quiet country hostelries and cathedral naves is finely tuned and multilayered.

For all the glittering highspots however, this is a book that never really came together for me. The stories felt disparate and there was no overarching cohesive theme. At the end of it I still wasnt clear what point  Szalay was trying to make and what view of the world he wanted to convey other than life is miserable. I think we could have got to that conclusion without having to read 400 pages.

Minus a strong theme that glues these stories into an insightful view of the state of man in the 21st century,  they remained just that – stories. Not a novel. Perhaps the key lies in the fact that a number of them were had been published in Granta magazine – at some point  Szalay must have decided to wrap these into a book. The Man Booker prize judges may have been convinced that the result constituted ‘a novel’ otherwise they wouldn’t have shortlisted it for the 2016 award but I’m not.


Author: All That Man Is by David Szalay

Published: 2016 by Jonathan Cape

Length:448 pages

My copy: I received an electronic copy of this from the publishers via Net Galley in return for an honest review

Other reviews: A number of bloggers have reviewed this in the run up to the announcement of the Booker Prize. Check out the following. If I missed anyone do let me know

The Readers’ Room

Mookes and Gripes


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 16, 2016, in Book Reviews, Man Booker Prize and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. thehungryreader

    Loved your review. So concise and right there. Something perhaps I missed while reviewing it.

  2. I think I might read this anyway as the individual stories themselves seem very interesting and well-done.

  3. Ugh, I hate that when authors publish a lot of short stories and then try to spin it into a book. Roxane Gay did the same thing with her collection of essays in Bad Feminist. It didn’t really go together (there were pieces about Scrabble, and pieces about gang rape). There needs to be some heavy revision, or the author needs to admit that this is a collection of previously published work–ain’t no shame in it, but don’t use chicanery to name the book something it’s really not. As I was reading your review, I kept wondering how all the stories went together, so I’m glad you noted that it did not.

  4. What a shame this collection didn’t really pull it off for you – I am more drawn to stories that have some sort of connection with each other and this sounds as though it tries to address this but as you say, not so much so that it amounts to a novel. Thanks for a great review, as always.

  5. I prefer stories that connect with an overall theme…a “cohesive” one, as you point out. One could view these simply as stories, but I like a feeling of something more, some bigger message. Thanks for sharing.

  6. The premise for this sounds good to me – I tend to like interconnected short stories. Are there connections between them at all, or are the connections just thematic?

  7. I’ve heard people say that this is more a short story collection than a novel and the fact that you didn’t feel any cohesion would bear that out.

  8. This sounds like a really great book to dip in and out of with the short stories! I’m looking forward to reading it. Your review was excellent!

  9. Nope, not interested in this. I have read a few of these short stories cobbled into a novel and I don’t like them.

    • I was wary of it before I read it just because of that factor Lisa but since I could get a free version I thought I would give it the benefit of the doubt. Should have stuck to my instinct!

  10. Surprisingly, this makes me more interested in reading this! I think it’s the details of the characters that you’ve chosen to focus on – I feel sorry for poor lonely Aleksandr already.

  11. Well this confirms that I’m still interested in reading this one. I’ve acquired quite a few Man Bookers this year one ebook and physical copies. Will try to read them all but doubtful I’ll finish before the winner is announced. I take it this one wasn’t anything special for you. What else will you be reading from the list?

    • Ive read the Schooldays of Jesus (not wowed) and am currently reading the Madeleine Thein Do Not Say We Have Nothing which I am thoroughly enjoying. Like you I am not likely to read much more before the prize is announced

      • I think people expected a lot more from the list. It’s a bit of a motley crew this year.

        • some of the books challenge the genres that have been ascribed to them which I find interesting. His Bloody Project is categorised as a crime novel for example but the author says its a novel with a crime in the middle, not a crime novel. Szalay says his book is a novel but many readers/critics have said its a collection of stories.

        • Yes I’ve been hearing the same things. It seems to me that the Man Booker picks certain books on purpose just so that people can complain about them. Complaining can still be considered mentioning them or plugging them, as well as the Man Booker. I’m almost back to not liking that prize.

We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: