David Szalay has found an inventive way to portray the hearts and minds of men in this novel which follows nine distinct characters at certain points in their lives. From young aesthete/wallflower Simon who travels around Europe to savvy journalist Kristian on the brink of publishing a sensational piece about a high profile affair to elderly Tony who resides in Italy mulling over unexpressed desires with his adult daughter, the parts of this novel progress through stages in different men’s lives alighting upon commonalities and variations of experience. It felt to me like each part or short story could have been easily expanded into a novel in itself, but paired together they make a fascinating composite portrait which questions ideas about masculinity and life’s meaning. Towards the end especially, “All That Man Is” feels something like a Beckett play where the men’s common yearnings and regrets have accumulated together to sound like one voice crying out for all human experience.
Through several of the men’s stories there is a marked disconnect between how these characters confidently portray themselves publicly and the feelings of self-doubt they harbour privately. Szalay skilfully moves his narrative between these two spheres of experience to show dramatic points where the self-assured mask a man might wear crumbles. This sometimes happens in instances where an arrogant man is undone by desire like in the story of young slacker Bernard who finds himself seduced by both a mother and her daughter while on holiday in Cyprus. Or when social outcast Murray finds himself emotionally moved by a psychic who he nonetheless realizes must be a con-artist. Through this it is shown how men are compelled to maintain confident fronts both because of societal pressure to appear strong, but also out of an oftentimes unjustified personal pride.
As the novel progresses and the male protagonist of each new story become older there is an accumulating sense of the flow of time: how these men’s lives are caught up in details and misadventures which distract from their ideals and larger goals. Many of the younger men don’t give too much thought to this caught in their own admittedly false sense of their immortality: “this too shall pass. We don’t actually believe that, though, do we? We are unable to believe that our own world will pass.” The stories in the middle of the book are concerned mostly with professionals who are embroiled in the busyness of their professional ambitions and work life: “Life has become so dense, these last years. There is so much happening. Thing after thing. So little space. In the thick of life now. Too near to see it.” Their unquenchable drive for power, money and status leave them little time for reflection or valuing things which should matter more like caring for their family or maintaining a sense of integrity. This takes on a poignancy with the later stories where the men often feel they’ve not achieved what they really wanted and have little drive to continue. This is most touchingly realized in the story of wealthy iron baron Aleksandr who is living through the collapse of his mighty empire and seeks a little feeling of home with an employee.
This book raised a lot of questions for me and gave me many conflicted feelings. I love how it exposes and satirizes how petty, selfish and short-sighted men can be which makes the reader question the idea of masculinity. But, at the same time, I kept thinking about the title and wondering ‘is this really all man is?’ There is little of the subtly about men which is so finely articulated in Andrew McMillan’s superb book of poetry “Physical”. Of course, the nine men in this novel certainly don’t represent all of mankind, nor do I think Szalay intends them to. Although there are some positive and humorous qualities about some of the men portrayed - with Balazs and Tony in particular demonstrating a sensitive side - they are overall quite nasty. Men can also be caring, compassionate and giving, but I think Szalay was more interested in exposing specific types of men and the inner lives they hide. It also shows how certain men perceive women and how women must navigate this male gaze. He does this in an accomplished way and its impressive how instantly I felt immersed in each part even though it was about an entirely new character in a different situation disconnected from all those before it (except for the final part).
“All That Man Is” is ultimately a fascinating and thought-provoking novel that leaves a lasting impressing.