David Szalay’s All That Man Is isn’t so much a novel* as a suite of nine novelettes. What connects these novelettes isn’t a character – although there is a genetic connection between the protagonists of stories one and nine – or a setting – though traveling through Europe is a consistent feature of each story – or a plot – though Szalay’s does explore different stages of life – but gender. As the title suggests this is a story about nine men starting with 17-year-old Simon and his feelings of unrequited love and ending with 73-year-old Tony whose thoughts are almost exclusively about mortality.
This is a book that explores masculinity at different points of time. How the younger man thinks mostly of his cock, how the thirty-something think mostly of his career, how the fifty-something realises this is it, that everyday from this point on will be the same, and how the octogenarian lives with mortality and a failing body. It’s a fascinating idea for a book, sadly though there are no new observations here. No moments of profundity as these men travel through Europe and deal with their current circumstance. I left this book thinking – yes… and? For the most part the men who occupy Szalay’s narrative ponder about the same sort of subjects and themes that swamp most literary fiction – when I’m young I want to fuck, when I’m middle age I feel I’ve wasted my life, when I’m old I fear death. The stories in the second half of the novel, depicting older men who are either approaching or leaving a mid life crisis, conclude in much the same way. This is all there is. Which is a perfectly fine observation but also seems the less interesting narrative choice.
This lack of originality is not helped by the fact that woman for the most part are described as objects in the novel – something to fuck or avoid or appease depending on how old you are. It’s also frustrating that all the men depicted are straight – that is until the very end where we learn that our octogenarian has hid his gay predilections for 45 years. In other words the one gay man in the book is still firmly in the closet.
And yet, having said all that, the prose is extraordinarily good. I kept reading because Szalay’s voice is perfectly pitched based on the age of the protagonist. The story of Bernard and his travel to Cyprus is played like a comedy and is laugh out loud funny – even if it does involving quite a bit of fat shaming. The fifth chapter reads like a political thriller as deputy editor of a Copenhagen tabloid, Kristian, travels to Spain to face an MP – who happens to be a close friend – about claims that the MP has been having an affair with a married woman. And then there’s Tom story, the final piece in the novel / story suite that perfectly captures – in terms of voice – the anxiety of a man who knows that his best days are well behind him.
So, yes, the writing is fantastic. But the content… given how much I appreciated the prose I expected something smarter and less obvious than what Szalay delivered. Something that genuinely explores the varied nature of masculinity, especially in an age when the there’s this growing view that men’s rights are threatened by political correctness and feminism. Ok, maybe it didn’t need to be that topical or controversial. Clearly it’s not the book Szalay wanted to write. But this book – as fine as the prose is – provides little that’s interesting, fresh or provocative.
* I’m using the term “novel” here to mean a sustained single narrative with an appreciation that this definition is narrow and needlessly restrictive.