Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Booker Longlist: All That Man Is

Booker Longlist: All That Man Is: David Szalay

David Szalay’s collection of short stories that announce themselves as depicting collectively all that man is, centres around the twin obsessions of sex and money, which would be merely tiresome and disappointing, were it not for the fact that Szalay is so bracingly fresh when it comes to social relationship. In each of these nine stories he manages to convey an impressively vivid array of shades of awkwardness. From a disgraced billionaire sharing a microwave TV dinner with his bodyguard to the cheerfully nuanced schadenfreude of the journalist charged with informing an eminent politician that news of his affair with a married woman is about to break, from the academic clumsily pressing his girlfriend to have an abortion, to the old man trying to reverse out of a one way street, Szalay suggests that if the Inuit have fifty words for snow, contemporary man must have at least that number for discomfiture. 
What Szalay’s men all share in common is a certain ennui, a lack of real agency. They are all dislocated, away from home, distanced from their own power, out in the uncertain world utterly exhausted by it. The men in these stories are European men in England, or English men in Europe, timely at this moment when we are trying to work out where we might belong and what masculinity and power look like, stripped back to the basics.
The title, taken from Yeats’s Byzantium, prompts us to look for themes like immortality, ‘death-in-life and life-in-death’, decadence, ambiguity, the artifice of eternity. And they are all here, lodged in the text like a kind of music. Roughed up with gratuitous violence, dulled through the filter of alcohol, but still recognisably here, sweetly offering a counterpoint to the futility of the present situation. They are here in the repeated conceits: the tarot cards, the linking of the first and last stories, stabs at suggesting repetition rather than unity between these lives. And they are here in the moments when the men take themselves out of their own stories and lose themselves, momentarily in insights gleaned from the world, or from beauty.
So in Szalay’s reckoning of all that man is, what are we invited to conclude? That he is lonely, in the sense that he is existentially alone. He cannot connect so he surrounds himself with the trappings of power, which even he sees as chimerical. He is deeply unspiritual, moved by instinct rather than genius. He is vulnerable, as surprised by his mercurial desires as by his misreadings. Here are men defined by the women they can bed, the drink they can take, the pain they can stand, the money they can make and lose. So far, so ho hum.
And yet the characters, for all their unsettling dispiritedness, are entirely believable. We know these men (we have endured their company too many times for it to be entirely pleasurable to meet them again) we recognise them, and yet in spite of their shortcomings, Szalay tactfully, gracefully, encourages in us a curious sympathy for them. They move through the present – the same indefinite days we must all pass through – apparently baffled by the endless possibilities that propose themselves to contemporary man.
We sympathise with them because, in spite of their jaded relationships, they are restless. In some simple, barely formulated way they all trying to understand their condition, and they understand it in distinctly cultural terms. They are variously reading Dante, JK Rowling, Henry James. The Russian oligarch’s bodyguard has a copy of Titian’s Allegory of Prudence upon his wall. Here they seek to supply for themselves what is missing in their lives: spiritual wisdom, a bit of magic, engagement, a past a present and a future.
All That Man Is is a book of scrupulous attention. The texture of experience, of the lives of these men is thoroughly and economically written. There is scarcely a word out of place. Its rhythms belie its energy. It seems lethargic, mired in disappointment, yet it is buoyant with its own sense of observation. Like Yeats’ poem, it looks haphazard, random, certainly not a novel, yet technically it is a feat to be admired. Would I recommend it? I’m not sure I liked it enough. Does it illuminate something larger than itself? It’s certainly clever, but in the end I think it might be more artifice than miracle.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

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