All That Man Is by David Szalay

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All That Man Is by David Szalay

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Tim Swingler
Reviewed by Tim Swingler
Summary: With its pan-European locations and its sad, funny and poignant cast of characters, this is a difficult book to pigeonhole but a massively enjoyable book to read. A real original, very highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: April 2017
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099593690

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Two teenage boys on an Inter Rail trip around Europe find themselves staying with a frustrated housewife on the outskirts of Prague, a driftless young Frenchman discovers sexual fulfilment on a package holiday in Cyprus, a lovestruck Hungarian minder is embroiled in a prostitution racket at an upmarket London hotel, a Belgian academic is forced to confront his egotism when his partner becomes pregnant, a Danish tabloid journalist exposes a high-ranking politician's love affair, a property developer inspects a new project in the French alps, a Scot living in Croatia flounders in love and business, a Russian millionaire confronts divorce and the loss of an expensive lawsuit, an elderly English politician survives a road accident in Italy.

'All That Man Is', winner of the 2016 Gordon Burn Prize and deservedly shortlisted for the Booker, brilliantly showcases David Szalay's genius for taking the commonplace and making it fascinating. It might seem a stretch to compare him to Raymond Carver, or William Trevor, but what he has in common with those two giants is to take mostly ordinary, unremarkable people with ordinary, unremarkable problems, and to whom nothing of spectacular interest is happening, and make the reader believe in them and care about what happens to them.

That this is a riveting, unputdownable book is even more remarkable given its structure. It isn't really a novel; the protagonists are different in each of its nine sections (which could just as well be enjoyed as short stories, though unlike a lot of collections in that genre there isn't a single dud here) and there is no narrative trajectory that runs though the text (apart from a tenuous familial connection between the first and the last stories, and the occasionally recurring image of the millionaire's yacht). The blurb writer must have struggled to pin this book down; it's essentially about men struggling with some degree – trivial or life-changing – of existential angst, and it may be that this book will appeal more to men; the female characters are certainly less well-rounded, functioning as bit-players in the men's stories, but it's those stories that make up the book.

'All That Man Is' is not without humour and has its laugh-out-loud moments. The Croatia story is probably the funniest, with Murray Dundee the most dislikeable character in the book, a booze-raddled, car-obsessed climate-change denier, he catches his reflection in the hub cap of a parked car whilst lying on the pavement after an altercation in a nightclub: Hubcap of a… Toyota Yaris?. His pathetic attempts to establish matiness with two Albanian kebab shop owners could be straight out of Martin Amis. Elsewhere, in Cyprus, having been jilted the night before, Bernard hooks up with an English widow who tells how her husband drowned in a vat of molten zinc: Bernard appreciates the parity she seems to accord that event and his finding a girl he had only just met snogging someone else in a nightclub. Later, the reader may bridle at his decidedly non-pc descriptions of the woman's waddling daughter looking like a huge melted candle, all drips and slumps of round-shaped waxy flesh, and enjoy the way in which that reaction is parried by Bernard's insatiable desire for her.

Szalay is an acute noticer and there is a filmic and strongly sensory quality to the prose: rain, mist, clouds, road surfaces, buildings, cigarettes, drinks, smells, food – all add to a sense of location which is forensically accurate. In terms of place and character this is an interestingly 'European' book. Is it coincidence that it should have been published during the year of Brexit?

For further reading, we can recommend more from Szalay: The Innocents and Spring.

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