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All That Man Is by David Szalay Review

For The Guardian:

I once had a discussion with my first US editor, an old-school literary titan of 40 years’ experience, on the subject of overt existential angst in the novel. Her main message was that if you’re going to do it, then you’d be better off keeping it Beckettishly short – a view, I have always thought, not dissimilar to Macbeth’s reflections on murder: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly”. This conversation came to mind with regard to David Szalay’s accomplished fourth book – albeit for paradoxical reasons. First, because he had not done it quickly – All That Man Is stretches to 448 pages. But second, because he had nonetheless done it exceptionally well. How so?

The answer is that this book is not a novel but a collection of short stories – each just the right length (that is: short) to deal with Szalay’s central existential theme: “Life is not a joke”. It seems disingenuous to pretend otherwise – unnecessary, in particular, because this collection is of the highest standard among younger British authors that I’ve come across. Szalay has previously won the Geoffrey Faber prize and a Betty Trask award, so I’m not noticing anything that hasn’t already been celebrated. But if you are unfamiliar with his work, let me urge you to read him since, on this evidence, he is one of those rare writers with skill in all the disciplines that first-rate fiction requires.

The most immediate pleasure is his literary intelligence – manifest in his scrupulous resistance of anything trite, twee or otherwise dumbly constructed. Instead, these nine stories about very different men are replete with richly observed humanity, caught on the page as if in the midst of lives that extend backwards and forwards beyond the time we spend with them.

And Szalay’s writing is virtuosic whether observing external realities or psychology. In the fifth story (which previously appeared in the Paris Review), for example, an Andy Coulson figure working on a newspaper in Denmark visits the minister of defence on holiday in Spain to confront him with evidence of an affair. Uncertain as to what exactly is about to be exposed, the minister’s “toes, having freed themselves from a flip flop, took hold of a metal strut under the table”. Meanwhile, Szalay renders the internal lives of his men very finely indeed – often second by second. The father-daughter encounter in the final story (which links, rather lamely, to the first) is as textured and moving and as skilfully done as anything by Alice Munro. Likewise, the moment when billionaire Aleksandr sits down in the eighth story for a microwaved rogan josh with his bodyguard is a masterclass in how to write a quiet but multilayered scene of physical awkwardness and spiritual distress.

However, it is not solely by means of the short form’s quick exit that Szalay keeps the existential angst from bogging the book down: he also has a prose style that marries nuance and precision with a kinetic cadence; his language is energetically alive throughout. When Bernard, a hapless young Frenchman holidaying in Cyprus, crosses a dance floor, he “pushes his way through a hedge of partying anonymity”. In story six, James, who is in the Alps, looks “outside [where] green slopes strive skywards, rich with evening sunlight, thickly gold”. In story three, the lift in an expensive London hotel is described as a “jewel box”. In story four, an academic’s latest girlfriend is pregnant – news he does not want – and the two of them linger unhappily in their guest house room until “finally, as if outstared by the sun, they dress and leave”.

The stories are enjoyably bound by cultural references that refigure Szalay’s theme. Simon, a soon-to-be student, is reading The Ambassadors by Henry James – a novel in which the protagonist urges a younger man to live “all you can”. The academic thinks of Dante’s opening lines from the Inferno: “Halfway though life’s journey, I found myself in a dark forest”. Auden’s “If I Could Tell You” introduces story nine: “Time will say nothing but I told you so … ” And there is an unlikely print of Titian’s Allegory of Prudence – a painting of three heads representative of the three ages of man – hanging above that aforementioned rogan josh.

My one reservation has to be Szalay’s female characters. This is a book about men who are existentially marooned and its subject matter is reasonably and abidingly male: fair enough. But all the same, Szalay’s women are experienced too often in a sexual or objectified context: a seductress; a sex bout with a daughter then mother; an escort; an unwantedly pregnant lover; mistresses; a half-fancied flirtation; a sex object and her mother again; an estranged wife suing for millions. This holds Szalay back, I think; only in the ninth story do the women step forward to do their writer justice. Indeed, there is a slight sense in which the stories start to feel sex-stalked. At one point, the girlfriend of the academic urges him to “stop thinking about his thing”. Not terrible advice. Because otherwise these are the best short stories I’ve read for ages.