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
The Man Booker judges have just announced their 2016 shortlist. Reading the announcement is a good sign for me that I should give up on this prediction lark. I’m clearly useless at it. About as useless as I am deciding what is a prize winning novel. I thought North Water could make it (got that wrong) and was rooting for The Many (also wrong). But they went for His Bloody Project which I didn’t think they would given the genre -the publishing house of Contraband must be dancing all through the streets of Scotland at this. They are a minuscule company -I’m not sure how accurate this is but I heard at one point they have one employee! The judges also selected a book that I would hesitate to call a novel – All That a Man Is. Mercifully they spared us Hystopia though it’s a surprise given the judges said they chose writers that “take[s] risks with language and form”.
Out went the twice-previous winner J.M. Coetzee with The Schooldays of Jesus (I’m reading this at the moment and agree with the judges). Out also is The Many by Wyl Menmuir that I reviewed yesterday. Maybe the judges were not comfortable with a novel that generated so many unanswered questions? Out also is the Pullitzer prize winner Elizabeth Strout – I’m not too surprised at that. It was a really good read but not particularly innovative in its form.
The shortlist is:
- Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld): described as a satire of post-racial America. My thoughts: Not read this even as a sample. Early reviews which indicated it was ‘funnyish’ in a heavy- handed, obvious way, were an indication this wouldn’t appeal to me.
- Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton): described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters My thoughts: I read the first chapter but there was nothing in it that captured my interest. Rather surprised to see it on the shortlist – it must have developed in a more interesting way than the first chapter indicated.
- Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband): Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869. My thoughts: This is next on my list to read.
- Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape): set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter. My thoughts: The first chapter had me hooked by its depiction of a plain daughter who has no life outside looking after her alcoholic father and her work at a correctional institution. On my list to read.
- David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape): My thoughts: Some of the character portrayals of nine different men at different stages of their lives worked better than others. But I still don’t understand what the overarching idea was and I’m surprised to see it on the shortlist.
- Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books): My thoughts: although I read only the first chapter it was enough to indicate that this story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution is one I want to read. Now my challenge is to get hold of a copy at reasonable cost.
It’s a good list in terms of mix of styles and themes and interesting in that it contains only one biggish name in the form of Deborah Levy (previously shortlisted for Swimming Home) Moshfegh at 35 years old is the youngest author.
The novels that didn’t make it from the longlist:
- Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK): 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. My thoughts: I didn’t like the sound of this so didn’t read it
- J.M. Coetzee (South African) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker): this is an allegorical novel which is a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. My thoughts: I’m 75% of the way through this and still baffled by the point of it
- A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape): a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours.My thoughts: I’ve read only the first two chapters and wasnt wowed.
- Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking): a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. My thoughts: Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here
- Wyl Menmuir (UK) –The Many (Salt): the novel tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish fishing village. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. My thoughts: Although perplexing because the significance of some episodes and characters is unclear, this is a totally engrossing read.
- Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water (Scribner UK): a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic. My thoughts: a brilliant novel, harsh and brutal at times but with superb imagery and a high class page-turner
- David Means (US) – Hystopia (Faber & Faber): the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and returning soldiers have their traumas wiped. My thoughts: I read only the prologue and was already baffled by the idea of using multiple editor notes to try and explain the premise of the novel. Why not just tell the story?
Is it possible to enjoy a book and appreciate the skill that went into creation and yet finish it not being entirely convinced I understood everything that was contained within its pages? That was my experience with The Many by Wyl Menmuir, long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. It’s a slim novel but one that contains such a multiplicity of symbols and ideas that makes a second reading a necessity.
For a novel that has Gothic overtones, the beginning is appropriately an omen in the form of smoke seen rising from an abandoned clifftop dwelling. The house which overlooks the harbour of a small, unnamed fishing village in Cornwall has been empty for 10 years following the death of its owner, Perran, a man who it appears still casts a powerful influence over the village. Now the house has been bought by an outsider (an ’emmet’ in local parlance) and the villagers doubt he will last long. They’re not exactly welcoming to the stranger, perhaps seeing him as yet another city dweller buying homes along the coast as weekend cottages to the detriment of locals who can’t afford those prices.
The newcomer is Timothy Buchanan, a Londoner, who bought the derelict property sight unseen and now plans to make it habitable so his wife can join him. It’s a bizarre choice because the house is clearly in a very bad way, with stained curtains, peeling paint, no heating and the smell of dampness. Timothy doesn’t seem to have the means to pay workmen to get the house in order but he doesn’t have the skill or inclination to the do the work himself either. It’s not even as though this is an idyllic spot – an early morning swim on his first day in residence finds him fighting for breath at the unexpected icy temperature and the force of the waves. The following day he learns there is something even more sinister in the water. “If the tide doesn’t get you, the chems will. You want to stay healthy past forty, alive past fifty, you’ll remember to stay well out of the water, ” advises Ethan, one of the local fishermen.
The relationship between Ethan and Timothy develops over time though its not one that is easily fathomed. Ethan is still grieving for Perran, and suffering over what he could have done to prevent his death. Though he steadfastly refuses to answer Timothy’s pushy questions about what happened to the Perran, he thaws enough to invite the visitor onto his boat for a fishing trip and to break the cordon. The ‘chems’ are every present though in the form of heavy pollution by “biological agents and contaminants” that has impacted the fishing grounds and the villagers’ livelihoods. Instead of healthy specimens the nets catch malformed creatures:
The dogfish look burned, as though with acid, their eye sockets elongated and deep, showing through to the bone at the ends and there are white lesions down the side of each body. Their rough black skin is dull and flaked away in patches, the fins thin and ragged where there should be muscle …
A later expedition brings in fish that are:
… colourless and long, and their scales …. are translucent… Beneath the skin, the outlines of organs are visible, shadows in the pale flesh…. in some of them bunches of roe shine through the distended skin of their underbellies.
This is a community that is trapped, isolated and it seems on the verge of disaster. Large container ships loom on the horizon, forming a cordon beyond which the fishermen are ordered by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture not to sail. Nor can they sell their catches on the open market. Instead men in suits carrying large wads of cash are there to great them and take the stock every time the fleet arrives back in the harbour. Overseeing their transaction is a woman in a grey coat.
The woman in grey is just one of the unsettling and unexplained elements of this book. She never utters a word, she simply stands on the cliff like some spectral figure. Timothy initially thinks of her like a lighthouse beam that periodically illuminates the sea on a dark night. Later he comes to wonder if she is some kind of guardian angel watching over the village. The mystery woman becomes even more mysterious towards the end of the book when Timothy discovers her on her knees as if in prayer, tracing patterns on a road with her fingertips.
But by then Menmuir has built such a web of hallucinatory experiences that it’s not clear whether there really is a woman in grey or she is a figment of Timothy’s imagination, fuelled by a fever that bests him? Is it the aftermath of a traumatic event in his past or a traumatic event that might happen in the future? Does Ethan really see cracks appear suddenly in the protective harbour wall and run down the beach, early warning signs of a disaster to come that will wipe out not only the houses, but the villagers across whose faces and bodies he sees scars appear?
Questions abound within this novel. Reading it feels like being constantly on the edge of things, being allowed to peek in but denied access to the core of its meaning. One thing I was certain of, this is not a novel that has a happily resolved ending. Throughout the atmosphere is of impending doom not simply for this one village but for all communities dependent on natural resources for their living. Is Mynmuir giving us a taste of the future or of the present? Yet another of the unresolved questions buzzing around my head long after I got to the final page.
Author: The Many by Wyn Mynmuir
Published: 2016 by
My copy: I tried to buy this shortly after it was announced as a long listed title for the ManBooker prize 2016 but such was the low level of copies printed, that the publishers ran out of stock and need an emergency second print run. It was worth the wait however….
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
It’s Bloody. Raw. Violent. Bleak.
The North Water by Ian McGuire long listed for the Man Booker 2016, is a gripping novel that oozes darkness on every page. Exactly what’s needed from a thriller. Add to that a fantastic sense of 1840’s andy a sublime rendition of the Arctic landscape and you have the best historical thriller I’ve read for years by a long way.
Is The North Water a Booker winner though? Is it even a shortlist candidate? I’m thinking a definite no to the first question and only a maybe to the second. Why? Because as exceptionally well written as this novel is, it’s not a very literary piece of prose and doesn’t push the boundaries of its genre in a way I expect a Booker winner to do. Within its own genre it’s a magnificent accomplishment. Maybe thats what the judges are looking for – excellence and readability in one hit. But when I stack it up against previous winners I don’t see it in contention.
But….. those comments shouldn’t be taken as a reason to push this book to one side. For if you love plot driven novels, especially ones which are as meticulously constructed as this one and as persuasively authentic in terms of period detail, this is definitely a book to add to the wishlist.
Be warned, some the language may be considered ‘ripe’ but recognise this is a book with a seafaring cast of characters used to hardship and calling a spade a spade. There are also some passages that are not for the squeamish since McGuire pulls no punches about the brutal and bloody business of whaling in the 1840s nor of the harshness of character such work engenders. But this isn’t gratuitous blood and guts stuff, this is a novel realistic about a business in which only the most nimble, selfish and ruthless whalers will survive.
The most ruthless of them is Henry Drax. He’s a harpooner on the whaling ship The Volunteer which is about to set off from England on a six month voyage to Greenland. Within the first few pages we get the measure of this character. He’s killed a man who crossed him in a bar, and beaten unconscious and raped a young black street urchin without hesitation or consciousness. Death to Drax is a pleasure a matter of pride when executed to perfection.
Drax goes swiftly through the motions; one action following the next, passionless and precise, machine like, but not mechanical. He grasps onto the world like a dog biting into a bone – nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and surly appetites. What the nigger boy used to be has now disappeared. He is gone completely and something else, something wholly different, has appeared instead.
The opening scene is a portent of the ills that will befall The Volunteer once the voyage is underway. Further omens follow: the captain is the only survivor of a previous whale boat disaster (the only crew member among 18 to survive) which makes his new crew rather jittery and they are not even aware of a secret discussion he olds with the boat’s owner. Then there is a new surgeon Patrick Sumner, nursing a wound from his days with the army in India. He claims he wants a period of calm (a whaling mission seems a bit of odd way to get recuperation) before claiming an inherited piece of land in Ireland. But he has rather too much of an affection for laudanam and his own dark role in a tragedy which caused his dismissal from the regiment under a cloud.
Sumner is the only character who really evolves and develops through the novel. The other characters exist mainly to propel the book forward and to set up some tension so we are not clear who are the good guys and who is not to be trusted. Sumner finds he is no match for wilds of Alaska and its animal inhabitants. There time on the ice fields sees them hunt bears and slaughter seals and whales but ultimately their natural skills and inner resources prove inadequate when faced with the unrelenting, indifferent force of nature. Only Sumner learns to adapt but even then the change is his persona is not permanent.
All of this is a story told in a language that is far from subtle but superbly evocative. McGuire has a talent for creating descriptions that are visceral, sensory and direct.
Many of the memorable images relate to the crew’s battle with the animals that inhabit the ice field but they also relate to the landscape itself.
Here are a few examples:
A sea captain shoots a crew member , splattering “an aureole of purplish brain matter” on the wall.
When the sailors kill a polar bear:
… a great purple gout of blood comes steaming to the surface and spreads like India ink across her ragged white coat. The air is filled with a foetid blast of butchery and excrement.
Later in the book when Sumner pursues a cub bear for miles across the ice field he is spooked by a cry behind him:
… a sudden uprising bellow, a vast symphonic how, pained, primeval, yet human nonetheless; a cry beyond words and language it seems to him, choral, chronic, like the conjoined voices of the damned.
Returning one evening to a missionary’s lonely hut, Sumner sees the borealis
… unwinding across the night sky in peristaltic bands of green and purple, like the loosely coiled innards of a far-fetched mythic beast.
Within a few pages Sumner will get rather close to the innards of the missionary when he has to operate on an abscessed stomach releasing a cataract of “foul and flocculent pus”. Yuk…
This is a novel best not read when you’ve just eaten or are about to eat ….
But don’t let that put you off. You can always do the equivalent of my tactic faced with a gory bit on TV or in a film and hide behind a cushion…
Author: The North Water by Ian McGuire
Published: 2016 by Simon and Schuster
Length: 326 pages
My copy: borrowed from the library so I could at least read some of the Man Booker 2016 long listed titles
Other reviewers thoughts: Not all bloggers have rated this book as highly as I did. For other persectives take a look at alternative reviews see The Readers’ Room via this link and Bellezza’s thoughts here
Around this time of the year I’m dusting down my crystal and trying to predict what will be announced as the longlist for the Booker Prize. But with only a few days to go (the list will be announced on Wednesday, 27th July) I’m struggling. Mainly the issue is that I’ve been so focused on reading what I already own from previous years that I haven’t devoted much time to contemporary works.
Of the very few I have read, My Name is Lucy Barton is Elizabeth Strout could be a contender now that American authors are eligible. Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place is surely going to be on the list? I suspect Gail Jones A Guide to Berlin won’t make it ( the fact that I couldn’t finish it says a lot though I know others rated it more highly than I did).
Fortunately other bloggers who have their fingers on the pulse more than I do, have come up with their own predictions. Take a look at the lists from:
- A Life in Books which also highlights the Elizabeth Strout. Her list has a number of books that are on my wishlist but just haven’t got around to – yet…. http://alifeinbooks.co.uk/2016/07/my-2016-man-booker-wish-list/
- The Readers’ Room This blog is going to be running a shadow Booker event so the judges have made individual predictions. Interesting to see Annie Proux and Louise Erdich on the list – both highly acclaimed authors but because of the eligibility rules in the past were never considered for the Booker. Will this be the year they crack the barrier? https://thereadersroom.org/2016/07/18/2016-man-booker-longlist-predictions/
I’m surprised not to see Dave Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier on any list. This is a kind state of the nation novel set in contemporary Alaska which has had good reviews so far. I think its not yet out in UK but should make it before the publication cut off date of September 30. Also from the American stable comes Ann Patchett’s The Commonwealth which is a tale of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives. It’s due out in the UK on September 8. I haven’t seen any reviews for it yet but if it’s anything like the standard of Bel Canto which I read recently, it will give many other authors a run for their money.
If you feel any of your favourite authors are likely to be overlooked and yet they deserve attention, you can always put their names forward for the highly popular alternative Booker prize event hosted by the Guardian. Nominations are now open at https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jul/18/not-the-booker-prize-2016-vote-for-your-favourite-book-of-the-year