David Szalay’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted “All That Man Is” comes marketed as a novel, when in reality it is nine self-contained short stories. Readers expecting connections akin to the echoed ideas, reprised motifs and character cameos that unify David Mitchell’s multistoried novels will have to make do with a single strained link between the first and last tale. What does unite Szalay’s segments, however, is his rigorous scrutiny of masculinity and consistently arresting prose.
Though following nine different European protagonists, the book’s stories trace a life span, with the first about a teenage schoolboy and the last an old man. Szalay may have had in mind a variation on Shakespeare’s seven stages of man. More concrete literary models are made manifest in the opening pages. His schoolboy reads Yeats (Szalay’s title comes from the poet’s “Byzantium”), and in his copy of “The Ambassadors,” he highlights a passage that begins “Live all you can” — a mantra that becomes one of Szalay’s key themes.
Szalay gets off to a disappointing start. Before studying at Oxford, Simon inter-rails around Europe with a friend. He pines for a girl back home, mooches around cities, moans about tourists and rejects the advances of a lusty landlady. Just as his combined listlessness and aimlessness begin to grate, Szalay cuts him off and moves on to his far more successful second tale, an outrageous adventure involving French university dropout Bérnard getting more than he bargained for in a bleak Cyprus hotel with an English mother and daughter.
All of Szalay’s men are on the move, some rudderless, others spinning out of control. All are faced with crises or conundrums.
In Germany, a Belgian academic pursues a selfish agenda after learning that his Polish lover is pregnant. In the French Alps, an English real estate agent negotiates a large deal and weighs a potential romance. In Croatia, a Scottish expatriate who loses in love and in business must decide whether he is cursed.
Two murkier stories stand out. In one, a Hungarian bodyguard falls in love with the woman he is paid to protect. As she is his boss’ girlfriend and a high-class call girl, his feelings go unexpressed, and the story ends up a Chekhovian master class in understatement. In the other story, a Danish tabloid journalist flies to Spain to confront a defense minister about an extramarital affair. Szalay serves up foul play — two-timing, muckraking, backstabbing — before having his condemned man pose a pertinent question: Why should a man’s private life be a matter of public interest?
As in his 2011 novel “Spring,” Szalay shows he is skilled at depicting human transactions — get-rich schemes, sexual relationships — and exposing vanity, stupidity and ruthless self-interest. At the end of “All That Man Is,” he delivers pathos as an aging Englishman waits to die and a bankrupt Russian oligarch plans to die. Szalay does so much and so well that we come to view his snapshots of lives as brilliant, captivating dramas.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
All That Man Is
By: David Szalay.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 358 pages, $26.