All That Man Is
The Man Booker 2016 Shortlist book, All That Man Is by David Szalay is a book of poignant short stories about the love, loss and longing told through the viewpoint of nine different men’s lives, starting with a story about a 17 year old man, and ending with a story of a 73 year old man.
The book features short stories from:
-Two gap-year travellers staying with a Czech husband and wife; -A Frenchman on a very cheap holiday in a terrible hotel in Cyprus whose search for hedonism fails but who instead sleeps with a very overweight English girl and then her mother; -A Hungarian fitness instructor acting as security for a high-class prostitute visiting London who becomes obsessed with her; -A Belgian (but British based) academic in Germanic philology who finds his casual but regular lover is both pregnant and determined to keep the child; -The ambitious deputy-editor of a Danish tabloid who finds that one of his key political contacts is having an affair with a married woman and decides to break the story to promote his paper and career; -An English estate agent trying to establish his own business by persuading a owner of a low-budget chalet development in an obscure part of the French alps to partner with him to go into more up market and ambitious developments; -An alcoholic Scot drifting in Croatia – having originally gone there to live some type of playboy/beach lifestyle;
-A suicidal Russian oligarch who has just lost a major London court case and now faces ruin particularly as his wife sues for divorce; -A retired ex-diplomat, estranged from his ambitious wife not least due to his unfulfilled attraction to young men, having a melancholy stay in his Italian villa in an obscure part of Italy.
The book is well written, often focusing on the less happy, but often realistic aspects of peoples lives. The stories themselves are little microcosms of the whole- a searing loss summarised by the lines: “Yesterday he experienced a sort of dark afternoon of the soul. Some hours of terrible negativity. A sense, essentially, that he had wasted his entire life, and now it was over.”
My main frustration was that it felt like the short stories ended a just as you were beginning to invest in the characters leaving you with a fragmented 15 minutes of someones life, rather than a well crafted story. However, the main themes of the book; love, loss and loneliness ran throughout each story, so at the end of the book you had a better understanding of the themes as a whole, as opposed to the characters who were acted as vehicles to carry the themes along.
Despite the many short stories in the book, one month after reading it I cannot recall a particular story from memory, instead I can recall the unflinching humanness of the book as a whole, as it shows, rather than tries to explain human complexity and emotions.
Ultimately the book takes the rough with the smooth parts of life, and implores its readers to: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?