When I reviewed David Szalay’s previous novel Spring a few months ago, I concluded that he was a great talent. His latest novel, the Booker-shortlisted All That Man Is, only serves to confirm my opinion. Once again, Szalay demonstrates that he is a master at depicting the complexities of modern life and its messy relationships with stark realism and dark humour. All That Man Is consists of nine intertwined stories of nine different men, each of them away from home, each of them grasping to make sense of what has gone before, what lies ahead and what it means to be alive.
In a departure from Spring, with its focus on the UK, All That Man Is widens its focus to Europe, be it the suburbs of Prague, an overdeveloped Alpine village or beside a Belgian motorway. Each story here involves continental travel and several of the protagonists are European. As the novel progresses, the main characters grow older as Szalay takes us through the different stages of a man’s life and the spring of youth turns into the chilly winter of old age.
The book’s title, taken from Yeats’s Byzantium, suggests that Szalay aims to sum up ‘all that man is’, and his verdict is sobering. However dissimilar the external circumstances of each character may seem, the novel unsparingly lays bare the narrow, repetitive nature of modern masculinity. But Szalay’s adroit prose prevents this collection of stories from becoming nothing more than a depressing look at flawed, pitiful individuals and banal, regret-filled lives. His great skill is that he writes with tenderness and pathos even when his observations are piercing and flinty.
Like Spring, All That Man Is manages to be both funny and disturbing. This collection of short stories that come together to form a questioning, challenging novel greatly moved me.
All That Man Is is published by Jonathan Cape, 272 pages.