When the reviews question whether a new novel is or is not actually a novel, then we presumably have something original on our hands. Since it’s now been shortlisted for the Booker, maybe we can conclude that at least someone out there agrees that David Szalay’s fourth offering All That Man Is, is both a novel and an original one at that.
All That Man Is is divided into nine parts, each one showing man (nine men to be precise) at different stages of life. We open with a seventeen year old on an inter-rail trip, and close with a 73 year old grandfather coming to terms with his increasing frailty while spending time in his Italian holiday home. And that leads us to its second theme, which could be described as Generation EasyJet. Three Hungarians nip over to London for some ‘business’; a Dutch PhD and his Polish girlfriend drive through the hinterlands of Europe. A London estate agent conducts phone calls in ‘slick French’. The stories have the globetrotting expanse of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten but without the veneer: an exploration of the reality, rather than the fairy tale, of internationalism.
There are some outrageous characters: Szalay hasn’t shied away from the controversial. Two enormously fat British ladies are described with dispassionate curiousity, while an Icelandic holiday rep perfectly parodies the fine line between too cool for school and ridiculous. Some of the female characters are seen superficially – it is, after all, a book about what men are (and implicitly, what some of them aren’t). On the other hand, the Londoners are spookily familiar, and the mid-lifer encounters existential issues that hit close to home. In the latter half characters from Szalay’s previous novels pop up one by one. I couldn’t decide whether this was gimmicky or not, but it’s certainly a good reason (if you need another one) to catch up on his earlier work.
As we’ve already established, the form is original, but not in a way that shouts it in your face. The prose is precise, unpretentious: you could take All That Man Is at face value, and enjoy the nine stories for what they are. But as you read on and the ideas settle, the sum begins to exceed the parts. There’s a sense of continuity even though the individual segments are ostensibly unconnected; even, if I’m not reading too much into it, a feeling that we’re exploring the games of chance that lead someone to take a particular path through life; the lottery that means someone is born into one situation instead of another.
I’ve devoured all of Szalay’s work so far over the last few months, and each one has left me more impressed than the last. The previous three are more straightforward, linear stories: with All That Man Is something different has been attempted. I think it works.
Any Cop?: If you haven’t read David Szalay before, these finely crafted, bite size narratives seem like a good place to start.