All the vile Trump spewings of late have made me and many women across the country hyper-aware of the kind of male sexual aggression we’ve lived with for years. So it’s extraordinary that a book all about men, All That Man Is, by David Szalay, has me so excited (in a good way).
Szalay, a Brit, writes about men in many stages of their lives, from a teenager on a desultory tromp around Europe with a friend, to a 73-year-old former highly-placed government official contemplating the end of life.
And if it sounds depressing, well it is a bit, but in a really interesting way. Szalay somehow makes us care about unlikely characters, e.g. a Hungarian bodyguard protecting a prostitute and her pimp in a ritzy London hotel.
Even his tour in Iraq had been a disappointment, Szalay writes:
He didn’t try to pretend that it had been exciting, or even very interesting. He had spent more or less the entire time in various town-sized bases, playing computer gems in plain air-conditioned rooms and eating American food. He had spoken to not a single Iraqi—except one interpreter who tried to sell him drugs—and had never even fired his weapon.
Among the others we meet are an aimless 20-something Frenchman who has a close encounter with an obese woman and her daughter in a seedy all-inclusive bargain hotel on Cyprus, a Danish tabloid journalist who thrills in the salacious destruction of a public figure, and a Russian billionaire who watches his empire crumble.
The writing is keenly observant, in the small moments as when he describes a character’s movement—“His toes, having freed themselves from a flip-flop have taken hold of a metal strut under the table” to the bigger ones, as when the final character in the book imagines his death:
There is something very strange about trying to imagine the world without him. The strangeness, he thinks, still lying there, is to do with the fact that the only world her knows is the one he perceives himself—and that world will die with him. That world—that subjective experience with the world—which for him is the world—will not in fact outlast him. It is the end of that stream of perception that seems so strange.
Szalay has called this collection of nine separate stories a novel, and there’s been some discussion about whether that’s an apt description. I would argue it is. The book is a mosaic of what it means to be a man today, right now, in a globalized, often-incomprehensible world. Some of these characters are in crisis, some not all have moments of revelation, all of them question just what the hell life is about.
This book was my introduction to Szalay and I’m eager to read his previous work. Coming back to my observation about our sordid presidential election at the start of this piece, I have to say it was a perverse relief to get out of my America-centric absorption even though the picture Szalay presents of life across contemporary Europe is far less than rosy.