I am not sure in what way All That Man Is qualifies as a novel. David Szalay is clearly an accomplished and interesting writer – of long short stories. There is a consistent theme – existential angst in the male population – but apart from a link in the final story with the two teenagers Inter-railing in the first story, and a tangential reference in the same final story to a wine mentioned in the penultimate story, there are no character links at all.
The fact is that this is mostly about men, and about men judging themselves and their friends and colleagues and finding nothing to feel very satisfied about. There is a masculine admiration for the cars they drive, or have driven; there is a pre-pubescent, youthful and adult male fascination with women – fancying them, getting them, loving them, using them, judging them which wends its way through all the permutations indicated by the above, as well as its opposite and the accompanying sense of failure, misery, inadequacy and its attendant self-generated methods of satisfaction.
Then there is the angst – is this all there is? What am I? What have I done? and what was the point of it all?
In this whole book, there is no one of any age who sees his achievements as fulfilling, and taken on balance the men in this book are losers. Only in the final story is there any sense that the central character, Antony, has reached his seventies and looks back, not in dismay at what he has done, but dismayed that there is so little time left to do anything more. But he is also not without some regret, but who doesn’t have some regret? The unexamined life is one that has not been fully lived.
The other stories are, one after another, about men who have dead-end jobs, travel a lot (mostly in Europe) and are restless and unhappy, but seem to feel powerless to change anything. The inertia is dreadful, the endless pursuit of a better life while never getting off the treadmill – gruesome.
There are other common themes – Tarot cards for example, sleazy hotel rooms, shallow sexual encounters, food.
There is a trajectory – in the first story the two males are teenagers, each story covers another decade (roughly) until the final story the man reaches his seventies. Does that make it a novel? Not to my mind.
None of this though is to say that this is not worth reading. It is well written and even though few of these characters are particularly likeable or admirable, the situations in which the author puts them, the ways in which he depicts their predicament is persuasive, if not entirely riveting.
I suppose I read the entire book thinking ‘there must be a link somewhere, a common thread that links all these people’ and becoming more and more puzzled when there wasn’t. All that you can say is that it is a novel about male angst, a portrait of modern man? Certainly, it flags up some of the stresses of life, the perpetual search for meaning – but there is so much more and this doesn’t seem a very insightful way of examining it.