There’s something in David Szalay’s All That Man Is that reminds me of David Mitchell, and I’m reasonably sure it’s the number nine. Mitchell is known for his novels that weave together the lives of far-flung characters, a procedure that Szalay has followed in All That Man Is. In fact, All That Man Is shares a lot with Mitchell’s debut novel, Ghostwritten. Both feature nine loosely linked, globe-spanning protagonists whose stories are told in sequence. Most of these people are dour and obsessed with obtaining glory in some far-fetched way. Both books won (or nearly won) top accolades: Ghostwritten won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize; All That Man Is was a finalist for the Man Booker. The similarities end there. Where Ghostwritten dabbles in magic and science fiction, Szalay’s novel is realism as it should be: believable but not dull.
Here’s how All That Man Is works: Nine European men, each away from home and running from their demons, have their stories told in sequence. The novel begins with the youngest, a standoffish teenager named Simon, and ends with the oldest, the retired economist Tony. Each travels across a now totally globalized Europe and each muses on his place in the universe. Each one is missing something, something that he thinks would complete his life. For lazy, directionless Bernard, it is sensuality: his story revolves around a trip to Cyprus, where an encounter with two obese women slowly turns sexual. For the more sophisticated protagonists like real estate developer James, the answer is less certain.
Szalay’s prose is mostly an economical, straightforward realism, which gets the job done and says little more. Take this exchange between pathetic British expat Murray, living in Croatia, and his local acquaintance Damjan:
This is in fact the first time they have had a drink together without Hans-Pieter being there. It turns out to be surprisingly hard work.
They end up talking about tyres.
‘So what about Pirelli?’ Murray finds himself asking. ‘How do they compare? With Firestone, say.’
Increasingly, there are long silences, during which they separately survey the room, trying to find a woman worth looking at.
Then Murray asks another question about tyres, which Damjan dutifully answers.
They have been talking about tyres for almost an hour.
These kind of wry passages, which pretty aptly capture the everyday awkwardness of life, are successful, if not necessarily a joy to read.
On occasion Szalay employs a vaguely self-conscious experimentalism. He sometimes draws more attention to certain words or phrases by sticking them in the middle of the page. Other times he resorts to stream of consciousness. For the most part there is little psychic distance between the narrative voice and the characters: Szalay’s quick dagger-like sentences do a remarkable job of imitating coherent thought.
With a title like All That Man Is, the reader could be forgiven for expecting her Romantic notions of the goodness of man to be confirmed. But the nine men described in the novel are hardly heroes. Frankly most aren’t even decent. While they deal with all-too-familiar problems—love, money, disappointment—few of the protagonists are likeable or easy to root for. The only two who truly engaged me were the Hungarian ex-soldier Balázs, serving as a guard for his boss’s prostitute girlfriend, and the elderly, pensive Tony. The rest run in shades from pathetic to contemptible: Murray is a mean-spirited drunk who spits shallow Tory propaganda (scarily apropos in the post-Brexit and Trump era); Karel is a smug, self-satisfied medieval studies professor who tries to pressure his girlfriend into having an abortion. And that sums up most of the men’s views about women nicely: objects to be used until they become an inconvenience.
Globalization is treated as incidentally as the men treat the women. Countries merge together, and no one is particularly attached to his own. One of the only differences a character notices between various European states is Balázs’s observation that England is “a landscape somehow more thoroughly filled than any in his own country. It seems more orderly. It is very obviously more monied. It is early June and everything looks plump and fresh.” But this sense of difference is only sparingly remarked upon. Later stories show that such universalism is fragile: When Russian oligarch Aleksandr reflects back on his life, he laments Russia’s inability to transition to liberal democracy in the 1990s. He is no fan of Putin but paradoxically admires his uncle, who worked for Stalin. In the end, he is forced to give up his yacht, a boat that is tellingly named Europa. All That Man Is was published before Brexit and the rise of the new European nationalists. But Szalay gives the impression that the pan-European ideal may be dying along with Aleksandr. Based on recent political events, it seems that this ideal is to be replaced by the bitter nationalism of people like Murray. It’s difficult to say which Szalay would root for more.
If Szalay intended to capture an era with All That Man Is, Aleksandr’s section is perhaps the only one to pull it off. Some of the men’s stories intersect with power politics: Kristian, an arrogant but ultra-competent tabloid journalist, interrogates Denmark’s defense minister regarding the minister’s affairs; Aleksandr likes to consider himself a great man for his political and economic ambitions (“Historical—his favourite word” is among my favorite of the novel’s lines). But for the most part, the characters are unimportant and unimpressed with life and politics. Their lives say little about the “increasingly globalized Europe” the dust jacket promises. Instead, its assertion that these men “paint a sorry picture of modern manhood” seems more accurate.
Which brings me to a final contrast with David Mitchell. Mitchell’s novels preach reciprocity and kinship with humanity; in Ghostwriter and Cloud Atlas, the unexpected connections between characters promote such a view. Szalay’’s characters are hardly related at all. There are many awkward silences in All That Man Is—in conversations, but also thematically. Szalay seems barely to remark on nationalism, sexism, or the great shift to the right in transatlantic politics. But that Szalay’s characters barely connect with one another conceals the most deafening of the book’s silences: That their quest to find themselves is, in the end, mostly a failure. See Murray’s conversation about tires.
And while Mitchell’s novels embrace the inherent value of all people, Szalay proclaims that it is devilishly hard to find meaning at all. Tony, approaching death, tries to follow the advice of an inscription he sees at a church, “Let us love what is eternal and not what is transient.” But the passing of time itself is “what has no end,” Tony thinks. “And it shows itself only in the effect it has on everything else, so that everything else embodies, in its own impermanence, the one thing that never ends.” Even this desperate hypothesis he is unable to explain clearly to his daughter Cordelia:
‘It’s important,’ he says, struggling to make sense, he can see that on her face, ‘to feel part of something larger, something…permanent.’
‘Yeah,’ she says patiently, pouring herself some more water.
She doesn’t see the point of this, he thinks.
He’s not sure he does either.
All That Man Is
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