All That Man Is by David Szalay
Composed of nine discrete sections, each running around forty pages in length, David Szalay’s All That Man Is (shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize) is a series of character snapshots about aging and maturation that often depict the ugly moments met over the course of one’s life. Not quite a novel, each chapter focuses on a new protagonist about seven years older than the one previous. Beginning with seventeen-year-old Simon traveling Europe with his friend and ending with the elderly Tony in Argenta, winding down his lonely life, these stories are beautifully distinct and yet they blur painfully together into a depressing, unrequited arc on the “sadness of [one’s] own life, his own things, his own pathetic pleasures.”
While Szalay never quite achieves the cohesion needed to make this an excellent Booker-contender, All That Man Is boasts remarkably efficient prose. Each vignette possesses enough substance that another writer would have stretched them each into a novel, but Szalay maintains his focus. Though rich in characterization, All That Man Is is not about these men but their situations: each protagonist is caught in one particularly formative (and particularly negative) phase in their life and Szalay develops their story, albeit briefly, with devastating clarity.
Together, these moments are intended to render a sweeping characterization of men. It’s important to note that the use of “men” isn’t supposed to lean towards the more general “mankind”: there is a prevalent masculinity to each character that is difficult to ignore. Simon, Ferdinand, and Bernard each want to sleep with women; Karel has to deal with the news of his lover’s pregnancy; Aleksandr is going through a bad divorce. The machismo of All That Man Is begs a reading of the role of women in the book, and it’s not good; we see sexually manipulative older women take advantage of certain protagonists, and later, an escort infatuates Balazs, who is hired to protect her from some potentially dangerous Johns. All this amounts to quite a scummy interpretation of humanity. At all phases of life, decisions are made with the basest of interests at the forefront. Szalay’s man is selfish, interested in only sex and legacy.
Small attempts are made to link each section and make All That Man Is feel more like a novel than a series of independent stories. A recurring tarot deck tries to suggest a predisposition to the self-destructive selfishness that’s seen throughout the book; it’s a potent vision that allows the stories an easy layer of fatedness:
“Ace of Wands,” she said. “Past. Take another.”
“The Tower.” She made a face of mock alarm. “Fuck. Present. Last one,” she instructed him. And said, when he had taken it and turned it over, “The Emperor. Future.”
“What’s that mean?” the woman is asked. “It’s time to grow up. That’s the headline.” Once Szalay reveals this theme, one can cleanly divide the nine sections of the novel, three to each card: a phallic phase, a destructive phase, and then one of agedness and empire, built upon one’s past indiscretions.
While All That Man Is showcases the talents of a fine author, it feels at times like the product of a great short story writer who found a way to repeatedly do what he’s good at. Szalay’s characters are richly drawn and sorely missed after each section’s close, and there’s something powerful and humanizing about meeting someone new, at a new phase of their lives, and finding them eerily, sadly familiar. But is that all there is? These stories are excellent, moving works, but together are unable to achieve anything more than the sum of their compelling parts.