ALL THAT MAN IS, a novel by David Szalay, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

by David Szalay
Graywolf Press, 362 pages

reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

In an interview with NPR, David Szalay pointed out that the title of his novel, All that Man Is, can be read two different ways: “either as a sort of slightly disparaging, sort of all that man is, and this is it. Or it can be read as a sort of almost celebratory—everything, all the kind of great variety of experience that life contains.” Szalay seems to see his work as falling somewhere in between, not entirely “disparaging” nor precisely “celebratory,” since it is a study of men dealing with situations of personal crisis. While many reviewers have described All that Man Is as bleak and depressing, Szalay confesses that he might have a “lower expectation of life than the average.”

Whether the story is bleak or not, Szalay’s masterful writing has won All that Man Is significant international recognition, including being a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, Britain’s 2016 Gordon Burn Prize, and it was listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2016. Szalay is Canadian-born and currently lives in Budapest, but lived most of his life in Britain. British reviewers have compared him to fellow English writers Tessa Hadley and Edward St. Aubyn, while American reviewers have compared his thematic concerns to David Foster Wallace and his writing style to John Updike.

All that Man Is is not a traditional novel. It is nine separate stories with few substantive connections between the stories; the characters’ lives do not connect to make any narrative wholes, although the themes do work together to build a metanarrative.

Simon is a university student traveling on holiday with his friend Ferdinand. “What am I doing here?” wonders Simon several times, not just referring to where he is that precise moment but what any of his traveling activities mean. A fan of Eliot and The Wasteland, Simon ruminates on the illusion of free choice. Bernard, a young lazy Frenchman, is fired by his uncle and decides to go on a solitary beach holiday. In his decrepit hotel he befriends and has sex with a mother and daughter who are vacationing. Balázs, a Hungarian, has been hired as a bodyguard for Gábor and Gábor’s wife, Emma. Enamored with Emma, it takes Balázs a while to realize that she is a high-priced escort, and that “protecting” Emma is to be complicit in selling her. Karel, a self-absorbed university professor, is in the midst of a holiday weekend with his girlfriend, who tells him that she is pregnant. “That’s shit,” is Karel’s first response to the news, and decides he must convince her to have an abortion, even if it means being manipulative. Kristian is a Dutch news editor, about to break a huge story of an affair by an upper-level government official. At the height of his career and in love with the power that information gives him, Kristian is also at the height of hypocrisy: he had an affair of his own and has concealed it from his family. James is a sophistic salesmen of swanky real estate in the French Alps, who is trying to turn some condominium sales to his advantage while leading on his young assistant, Paulette. Murray, a washed up businessman living in Croatia, is unwilling to accept the financial and relational wreck of his life. Aleksandr is a Russian iron tycoon considering suicide in the wake of both losing much of his fortune and his wife’s announcement that she is leaving him. Tony, a retired septuagenarian and repressed homosexual, is facing the reality of aging, as he suffers from a car accident and well-meaning caretakers.

Roughly speaking, the age of the main character increases throughout the stories, with each man’s external crisis and corresponding internal identity crisis reflecting their unique stages. Altogether, the stories could be seen as telling The Story of a Man as he goes from university student to retired 70s, ricocheting from moments of decency to infatuation to narcissism. And yet, the fundamental need for meaning never changes, from university to retirement.

David Szalay

As a woman reading a novel about the male experience, I did not find All that Man Is entirely bleak, and I do not think that I have a lower expectation of life than average. But I also did not think it had the “great variety” that the title suggests. Szalay does not shy away from description of men indulging carnal appetites, contemplating suicide, sacrificing integrity or family for positions of power, success, or prestige, or simply suffering from painful existential confusion. Interestingly, these men are not paragons of moral virtue, but they are convinced that something like “moral virtue” exists, somewhere, and they’re desirous of reaching it, even if the reaching is confused and ultimately doomed to failure. There is something tender to Szalay’s insight and description of male frailty in the face of what he calls “the predicament that we all find ourselves in,” which is facing mortality: these men have realized, to varying degrees, that sooner or later they will die. While their responses might sometimes make us cringe or roll our eyes, they are also entirely believable: these are men that I’ve known, men that I’m related to, and students that I’ve taught. It’s not all of them, hence my resistance to the notion of the “great variety” of male experience in this story, but it is certainly a worthy depiction of many of them, and the internal conflicts they describe as they wrestle against reality with very flawed characters and sometimes destructive desires.

One complaint some readers will have is the lack of complex female characters. To dwell on this, however, would miss the point of Szalay’s project. There is the obvious fact that strong female characters would alter the narrative landscape and the plot, and would easily steal the show from many of these men. But ultimately, I think it would miss out on one of the privileges of reading the book as a woman: to see that, even though these male characters express human appetites and desires in some less admirable male ways (for example, Karel refers to “chasing skirt” and Bernard debates a friend about Gwyneth Paltrow’s breasts) the expression of appetites is their effort to create a system of meaning. To get bogged down in the gender divisions that circumscribe the lived experience of these characters is to miss this, the connection between these male experiences and human experiences, and the book’s major theme of time, aging, and the futility of the appetites that motivate people. Karel, the university professor of the fourth story, for all his narcissism, has this powerful reflection on why he loves to study the medieval world:

Wonderful to imagine it, though. The whole appeal of medieval studies—the languages, the literature, the history, the art and architecture—to immerse oneself in that world. That other world. Safely other. Other in almost every way, except that it was here. Look at those fields on either side of the motorway. Those low hills. It was here. They were here, as we are here now. And this too shall pass. We don’t actually believe that, though, do we? We are unable to believe that our own world will pass. So it will go on for ever? No. It will turn into something else. Slowly—too slowly to be perceived by the people living in it. Which is already happening, is always happening. We just can’t see it. Like sounds changes, spoken language.

It struck me several times while reading this book about men that I was reading about how they were there, in some other world. But reading Szalay is to be immersed in there, and to realize that it’s here. These men are not “safely other.” In a strange way, Karel’s passages about medieval studies could be about the way that fiction brings together readers and experiences that might otherwise never connect.

One of the few connections between stories is that Simon, the young university student of the first story, reappears in the final story as Tony’s grandson. These are two of my favorite characters, and their connection is important not because they are biologically related but because they are the youngest and oldest men. In separate spaces they are simultaneously beginning and ending their adult lives, but they are asking the same existential questions. Tony, in one of the lovelier moments of introspection in the novel, contemplates an inscription on an abbey porch that says, “Let us love what is eternal and not what is transient,” and asks himself:

What is eternal, in his world? Wherever he looks, from the loosening skin of his weak, old man’s hands—which somehow don’t seem to be his, since he does not think of himself as an old man—to the sun shedding white light on the flat landscape all around, wherever he looks, he sees only…that which is transient.

The truth, Tony decides, is that the only eternal thing is the passage of time. Time has no end, although it dictates the end—and beginning—of everything else. Nearing the end of his life, Tony chooses to see his own participation in time as participation in an eternity that connects him with everything else that is time-bound. Aging then, and wrestling with time, is the eternity that—though it emphasizes the impermanence of each individual life—also connects Szalay’s men in a shared human narrative. Whether it is really an “eternal” narrative or not, is still debatable.

But Tony—and arguably, Simon—are the only characters that achieve this kind of revelation and change of perspective. Most of the stories are extended vignettes, and their sense of disconnection from each other mirrors the characters’ disconnection from other people. Szalay, who lives in Budapest and has lived in other parts of Europe, is intentional about representing his characters as geographically “decontextualized.” All of the men are Europeans who cross borders between countries at some point in their stories, whether it is for vacation or work, and Szalay has commented that the kind of movement possible in open-borders Europe can be liberating and also isolating in its freedom—the man who can move about at will, has no home. Every kind of human community—family, town, country, an ethnic community, a shared language—is tested by geographic distance.

The geographically decontextualized aspect of Szalay’s characters is important, and touches on my hesitancy to accept the novel as “all” that man is. These characters are all that man is when he is disconnected and decontextualized. In genres of self-awakening, like the bildungsroman, a character discovers context in some way: it might be fatherhood, or religious awakening, or the esprit de corps of the military, or any other number of connections, but immersion in some kind of community is the vehicle for wholeness. Szalay has not exactly inverted that norm, since his characters do not usually discover “wholeness,” but he has challenged it. If Tony is correct, and the only thing that is eternal is time, then attempts at other kinds of connection are only transient, and are as malleable as geographic borders are for Szalay’s characters.

Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University, and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.



You may also enjoy:

MIKHAIL AND MARGARITA, a novel by Julie Lekstrom Himes, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader 

THE MADELEINE PROJECT, a work of creative nonfiction by Clara Beaudoux, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

NOTES OF A CROCODILE, a novel by Qiu Miaojin, reviewed by Ryan K. Strader




Comments are closed.