Tuesday, October 11, 2016

All That Man Is by David Szalay

I’ve just found my best book of the year…in a year filled with best books. Szalay (pronounced SOL-loy) writes nine stories about men, different men, each approximately seven years older than the man preceding him. The men are white Europeans, visiting or living in a country not their own. The youngest man is seventeen, the oldest is seventy-three. I laughed my way through this tragicomic look at what it means to be a man, for Szalay put in more than enough to qualify this as the best sort of literature.

Some critics have raised the point that a collection of stories about white heterosexual males isn’t rounded enough without a diverse population. While I crave the author’s take on the immigrant experience or that of a black male in London, the truth is I want his opinion on everything...with jokes, please. He has chosen to share this delicious, mordant look at what adherence to the masculine role has done to several generations of white males adrift in their culture, and that has produced an entirely sufficient and complete work of art. I look forward to what he comes up with next.

Women are the sun and stars about which the stories revolve. Their roles appear to be supporting ones, waitresses, prostitutes, mothers, wives, vacationing lushes, but any woman would recognize that there is ample going on behind their eyes. Their power is undeniable, if only they would seize it. A few of them do. Szalay “fleshes out” several of his female characters, but the most gorgeous one is never physically described, except by the double exclamation, “Wow. Wow.” That was a wise cop-out, sparing the author attacks for focusing on a woman’s physical charms, or for mistakenly forgetting to emphasize a reader’s most fantasized-about body part.

The whole collection of stories together are unforgettable in their descriptions of the haplessness of European white males, but the amusement we experience is tempered by the knowledge that men like these are responsible for fighting wars, closing borders, electing nitwits, denying climate change, and any number of other scourges plaguing our societies. Their lack of self-examination is our annoyance.

Murray Dundee on the “Croatia Riviera” had me screaming with laughter and weeping tears of hilarity. At the beginning of #7, Dundee returns to his mother’s memorial service in Scotland, sleeping overnight in his sister’s house, in his nephew’s bed. He doesn’t sleep well, though he claims he does. Too much thinking going on. Murray has hit a few speed-bumps settling in Croatia in his attempts to 1) make friends, 2) start a business, 3) bed a woman. A local man Murray can’t call a friend, “short, muscular, untalkative - the sort of man that Murray instinctively defers to,” suggests Murray might be cursed, and he does seem that. Murray goes to see a woman about it.
She’s in a dressing gown, A solid, surly woman…like someone who sells you a train ticket to Zagreb, frowning at you through the perforated glass as you try to explain what it is you want, while the queue lengthens. Short hair. Little buds of gold in her earlobes, Breath that smells of cigarette smoke, bacteria.

She says something to Murray in a sharp, imperative voice.

“She says you should relax,” is the translation…

...He has the weird fear that she’s going to ask him to strip.

The stories begin strong and just get deeper and richer as we progress though the novel. The glitz and glamour and misplaced attention in story #8 brought to mind the outsized ambition of Donald Trump (can I ever not see this man in the novels I read?) but I found myself slowing my reading as the stories went on. There is something about the accretion of sorrow and of despair, no matter how funny, that makes us feel these men. There is always the edge of the precipice in sight. Each new story presents the prospect of fulfillment: would you be happy if you…took a sun vacation in the Mediterranean? Had a luxe apartment in the Alps? Took your retirement on the Croatian Riviera? Owned a multi-storied yacht? Unexamined lives and denial bring them there…alone…and their fate, when they realize it is too late to change anything, describes our pain.

In a Paris Review interview Szalay tells us that he originally thought of calling these linked stories Europa. It does seem like a good title, but perhaps the current title with the word “man” in it is more appropriate. Certainly one gets the sense of Europe in this novel, in much of its diversity, but the subject is both broader and narrower than that.

All I can say is if you don’t read this one you are missing something very special indeed. I won’t expect Szalay will top this one immediately (isn’t that the problem with writing something so very good to begin with?), but whatever he comes up with next is going to be interesting. All my chips on the man with the x-ray vision.

This novel has just won the 2016 Gordon Burns Prize, and has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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