Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

"All That Man Is" by David Szalay (Vintage, 2016)

In each of these 9 stories (average length about 50 pages) males in a european setting experiences a pivotal moment in life, though they might not realise at the time. In the first story, student-to-be Simon wonders "What am I doing here" (p.6). Later, another character "experienced a sort of dark afternoon of the soul. Some hours of terrible negativity. A sense, essentially, that he had wasted his entire life" (p.305). Even one of the women, Waleria, feels that her life has become completely messed up (p.176) - though by a man.

The stories are ordered according to the age of the protagonist - an InterRailer, a bodyguard, journalist, lecturer, etc. Some of younger ones are failing to find their place in the world. Others, fearing a steady, predictable middle-age decline, consider taking new risks. They fear humiliation, and worse, pity. The lecturer and estate agent seem rather controlling personalities. The others drift, falling back with each crisis having drunk too much.

Cars and journeys figure in many of the stories. The men's aims aren't complex, nor are their schemes. They want more money, women, and fame. In story 8 the man had it all - a super-yacht worth 250 million euros (called Europa, with a mini-sub) and a private plane. We meet him after a failed court-case and his partner abandoning him. He's contemplating suicide having once planned to "write a monumental multi-volume account of his own life and times" (p.365). In story 9, the 73 year-old character's buying lager in Lidl's having just flown by Ryanair. He thinks about death - "he finds it hard to understand - properly understand - that he will die as well" (p.390). He's the grandfather of the InterRailing Simon of the first story. He realises that he enjoys losing himself in the act of perception. We learn that his wife had affairs because he was a closet gay, and that he's knighted. He thinks it's important "to feel part of something larger, something ... something permanent" (p.435). But also "There is a sense, he is sure, in which he is tricking himself into these feelings, about everything embodying something endless and eternal. Fear and sadness are obliging him to come up with something. Something to soften the nightmarish fact of ageing and dying" (p.436).

He is articulate, and is beginning to engage in complex interactions with others. He's the exception. Much of the time we learn of characters not by what they think but by what they notice or ignore. A bodyguard will see different things to what a reporter sees even if they walk down the same street. The millionaire's rather caricatured, but the other characters aren't depicted by infodumping or providing a back-story. We live their life for the length of the story. After the story about newspaper reporters, I thought that the author was a reporter. After the estate agent story, I thought he was an estate agent. Is he young or old? Hard to say from the stories.

Here are some extracts -

  • "Spring showers strafe the peeling hoardings, the overpasses spilling the sound of unseen traffic" (p.7)
  • "He is short, blonde, with a moustache - Asterix, basically" (p.51)
  • "He sits there for a few seconds, enjoying a feeling of inviolable solitude. Solitude, freedom. They seem like nearly the same thing as he sits there. Then he starts the engine, which sounds loud in the silence of the square" (p.153)
  • "He was sad in an abstracted way, for a day or two, when she ended it with that letter in her schoolgirl's handwriting, that letter which so pathetically overestimated his own emotional engagement in the situation. And he understood that he had also overestimated her emotional engagement in it. As he had been intent on enacting his own long-standing fantasy, so she had been enacting a fantasy of her own, in no way less selfish. Except that she was nineteen or twenty, and still entitled to selfishness - not having learned yet, perhaps, how easily and lastingly people are hurt - and he was more than ten years older and ought to have understood that by now.
    Only when he saw her, soon after, in the arms of someone her own age - some kid - did he experience anything like a moment's actual pain, something Nabokovian and poisonous, seeing them there in the spring sunlight of the quad
    " (p.158)
  • "It is so obviously not what she is thinking about, so obviously not the aspect of the image that is absorbing her, that to say it makes him sound much less sensitive than he actually is, much less perceptive. He knows that, and knows that it's the price he pays for steering things away from what he does not want to talk about, or for trying to steer them away" (p.431)

Other reviews

  • Edward Docx (This is a book about men who are existentially marooned and its subject matter is reasonably and abidingly male: fair enough. But all the same, Szalay’s women are experienced too often in a sexual or objectified context)
  • William Skidelsky (Far from celebrating’s man’s infinite variety, the book reveals his endless repetitiveness. The characters we encounter, no matter how ostensibly different, are all caught up in the same narrow set of concerns, chief among which are love and money (or variations thereof). They’re all fundamentally lonely, and have a tendency to drift, in mild befuddlement, through life.)
  • Duncan White (Plot, grand ideas and even sustained character development come second to the evocation of the most transitory moments of lived experience. ... like Flaubert, he is a scrupulously self-effacing narrator.)
  • Garth Greenwell
  • Dwight Garner
  • James Wood (These stories are not without plot, but they don’t have much in the way of conventional fictional shaping; each seizes on a moment of crisis in a man’s life and quickly dramatizes it. The entire book is narrated in an urgent, poking present tense, and the pithed characters, of different ages, are presented without complex histories ... Szalay practices a kind of startup mimesis: in canny, broad strokes, full of intelligently managed detail, each story funds its new fictional enterprise ... His stories begin, like movies, in the middle of things, with slick setups and brisk establishing shots. ... The artless repetitions, the indented lines, the earnest question marks, the lack of subterfuge or extraneous commentary, the ingenuous vitality—all this makes use, I suspect, of the atmosphere of contemporary songwriting. ... although Szalay’s gender apartheid has the virtue of training an intense focus on a certain kind of male appetite, that emphasis can also render his fictional universe monochromatic. Put aside the absence of female leads; it would be a welcome gift if the male ones just achieved joined-up thoughts. Their limitations set limits on the complexity of the book. Only in the last story do we encounter a kind of subtlety that—so beguiling is Szalay’s directness—we had not quite realized we lacked.)
  • Christopher Tayler (He writes clean, unshowy sentences that move easily between the diction of casual speech and a more distanced tone. And he’s able to hold a reader even when there isn’t much going on, relying on assured storytelling rather than busy plotting. )
  • Max Liu (With scant narrative overlap between chapters, this book could have been a collection of stories, and Szalay relies too heavily on its themes to give it the unity of a novel. He’s a skilful writer but readers will be divided between those who admire his formal bravery and others who find the book’s loose ends frustrating.)
  • Matthew Adams (this uneven and sometimes diverting book ... Elsewhere, we find further examples of men whose emotional life is threatened or stultified by various forms of vanity and fear (pride, self-denial, avarice, an excessive capacity for self-interest, self-preservation, self-pity) ... Szalay’s handling of this material is sensitive, generous and often accomplished. ... More often, however, Szalay’s prose is careless, inert, repetitive, melodramatic, irritatingly portentous)
  • James McNair (for every character here is fully realised and wholly believable ... Profound, sometimes moving and often blackly comic, All That Man Is delights even as it unsettles.)
  • Matthew Oglesby (In perhaps my favorite story, the second ... I wondered, as I read the book, given Szalay’s clear versatility and range, are his female characters so flat? ... Part of the problem, I think, is when Szalay tries too heavy-handedly to tie everything back to the novel’s eponymous theme.)
  • Goodreads


  1. Dear Tim

    I must say that 250 euros seems rather reasonable for a super-yacht. Even I could just about afford one!

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish