Nine 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
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
There was no way I could read all 13 of the long listed titles for this year’s Man Booker Prize in the short time available until the shortlisting is announced on September 13. But I did want to get a flavour of the contenders so read a few of them and then a sample of the rest.
Here are my reactions….
Paul Beatty – The Sellout: described as a satire of post-racial America. I couldn’t get hold of a copy of this or a sample. But having read the review by Mookes and Gripes I’m glad because I doubt I would have appreciated it and probably not been able to finish it.
J.M. Coetzee – The Schooldays of Jesus: Coetzee is a two-times Booker winner so it’s no surprise to find he is being strongly tipped for the shortlist. This novel is a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. It’s set in a nameless country where everyone speaks Spanish and where refugees arrive on boats, are given new names and identities, and are “washed clean” of all their old memories and associations. The plot is rather thin – this is more a novel about ideas than a story. I’ve only just started reading it so it’s hard to give a verdict other than I find the narrative style irritating at times particularly so in the middle of dialogue where we get this clumsy construction of ‘He, Simon …’ repeatedly.
A.L. Kennedy – Serious Sweet : a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours. I read the first two chapters as a sample of this novel. By the end of the first chapter I decided I wasn’t interested enough to read on – it focuses on Jon Sigurdsson, a civil servant who seems to be going through an emotionally disturbed period. He’s in his garden early morning and is trying to free a bird trapped in some netting. The metaphor for his own situation is clumsy and over-blown. The second chapter where we meet Meg Williams, a bankrupt accountant is far more interesting. Will I read it? Probably not.
Deborah Levy – Hot Milk: another novel I sampled. It’s described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters but the first chapter seemed rather banal to me. The narrator Sofia is in a rented beach house in Spain where she is accompanying her mother who is seeking a cure for a mysterious illness that confines her to a wheelchair. Sofia is clearly dominated by her mother so escapes to the beach where she encounters Juan, the beach guard and has a boring conversation with him about jelly fish. Will I read any more of this one – absolutely not. Will it make the shortlist? It doesn’t deserve to but stranger things have happened with the Booker.
Graeme Macrae Burnet – His Bloody Project: Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869. This is an odd choice for the judges, maybe not quite as highbrow literary as many of the choices in the past. The chapters I’ve dipped into have been fast paced and chock full of atmosphere. I have an electronic copy that I snaffled up as a bargain the day after the long-listing so yes, this is one I plan to read. Sometime. I don’t see it making the final list however.
Ian McGuire – The North Water: a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic. This was the second of the Booker list I read and what a scorcher it proved to be. A page turner but one that has more literary merit than most page turning novels. It might make the shortlist – a short while ago it was a favourite with the bookies. But if it makes it to the ultimate prize then I promise to go and read Moby Dick as a penance.
David Means – Hystopia: the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and there is a government initiative to wipe the trauma from the memories of returning soldiers.I read a sample of this and was thoroughly confused. It has multiple editor notes as the preface which supposedly explains the story but I ended up more confused and felt it was just trying to be too darn clever for its own good. Many blogger reviews I’ve seen since then all indicate that the confusion doesn’t go away the further you read. I don’t mind being challenged by a book – its the easy novels that frustrate me – but when someone is just trying to show off their ability and they forget they have a reader, I get annoyed. So no I will not be reading this one. I suspect it will make the shortlist though just because the Booker judges do like novels that try to be be inventive.
Wyl Menmuir –The Many: this a short novel that punches above the weight of its page count. It tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish village whose future is threatened by pollution of their fishing grounds. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. It took me a while to get hold of a copy because the novel is published by Salt who had only printed 1,000 copies and were overwhelmed by demand when The Many got long listed. But oh boy was this worth the wait. It’s atmospheric in a chilling sense because we don’t get to know why the fishing waters are polluted and there is some mystery about the previous occupant of the house. Will it make the shortlist – it deserves a place I think.
Ottessa Moshfegh– Eileen: set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter. The sample I read did intrigue me – it is a first person narration by Eileen who is living a pretty miserable life with her alcoholic father in a squalid home. Her only escapes are the trips she takes in her battered down car to the liquor store and her work at at a correctional facility for boys. I’ve seen mixed reactions to this novel but it might be one that I’m interested to read more about. Whether it makes the shortlist I have no idea, not having read enough of it to judge.
Virginia Reeves – Work Like Any Other: Set in rural Alabama in the 1920s, it tells the story of a pioneering electricity engineer sent to prison for manslaughter after a young man stumbles on one of his illegal power lines. I don’t know what it is about the synopsis for this book but it didn’t encourage me to even get a sample…….
Elizabeth Strout – My Name Is Lucy Barton: a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here. Will it make it to the next round? Maybe.
David Szalay – All That Man Is: This is an odd novel. Actually I’m not even sure that I can call it a novel though that’s the description used by the publishers. It felt to me a collection of stories about nine different men, all at various stages of their lives. There is only one really clear connection between them – and that’s between the young man in story number one and the old man in the final story who turns out to be his grandfather. Some of these pieces have appeared either in full or partially in either Granta or the Paris Review which makes me think that rather than conceived holistically from the start, the author is trying to make connections between each character in retrospect. Not one I expect to see on the shortlist even if Szalay has been named previously as a Granta Best Young British Novelist.
Madeleine Thien – Do Not Say We Have Nothing: relates the story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution. Another case where I had to rely upon a sample since it’s not available through the library system or NetGalley and I refuse to shed out a lot of money on hard cover fiction even though I am a sucker for novels that pull back the curtain on Chinese culture. The first chapter introduces us to the narrator Li-ling lives with her mother in Vancouver. Her father disappeared some years earlier, and subsequently committed suicide. His wife keeps all his papers in boxes under the kitchen table which she pores over to try and make sense of what happened to him. The arrival into the Vancouver apartment of a teenage relative forced to flee China following the suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprising, enables Li-ling to assemble the story of her father and his profound but troubled relationship with his wife’s family. What I’ve read was enough to whet my appetite to this is going onto the wishlist for when I can find a reasonably priced copy. Will it get shortlisted – maybe….
Other bloggers have been far more diligent than I have in reading the longlist so do go and check out their reviews.