Monday, 17 October 2016

All That Man Is by David Szalay

Book Review

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016

Yes! I've managed to get this review in before the Man Booker Prize winner is announced on the 25th. It was touch and go for a while because it took me forever to finish All That Man Is by David Szalay (Vintage Publishing) and I wasn't sure I was going to do it in time.
There's no question that this isn't a well written book, but God it bored me silly.

Nine men. Each of them at a different stage of life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving - in the suburbs of Prague, beside a Belgian motorway, in a cheap Cypriot hotel - to understand what it means to be alive, here and now.

Tracing an arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, All That Man Is brings these separate lives together to show us men as they are - ludicrous and inarticulate, shocking and despicable; vital, pitiable, hilarious and full of heartfelt longing. And as the years chase them down, the stakes become bewilderingly high in this piercing portrayal of 21st-century manhood.

I really like the concept of All That Man Is; a look into the lives of nine men, from youth to old age, to see what man truly is.
I also can't deny that the book is beautifully written, and Szalay does capture moments of being alive.

"Tingling, he lies on it, lungs filling and emptying.
Arm over eyes, mouth open. Heart working.
Mind empty.
He is aware of nothing except the heat of the sun. The heat of the sun. Life."

He is wonderful at creating a sense of feeling with very few words. This can be both good and bad; Szalay's description of travel made me never want to get in a plane, train or automobile ever again. He is good at capturing the more hideous aspects of travel. This especially hit me with the first story of Simon who is backpacking around Europe and is "thin and filthy from ten days of Inter Railing." It brought back my own inter railing experience, which was an amazing time, but this brought vividly back the less amazing times travelling on cramped transport, exhausted, hot and with only the prospect of an uncomfortable hostel bed to make you feel better.

So there is no question that Szalay isn't a brilliant writer, but the writing didn't stop me from being bored by most of this book.
It's not really a novel, more nine short stories about different men and different settings, only two have a slight connection. It makes for very disjointed reading. The sections start in the middle of this person's story and end before it comes to a proper finish, which is an interesting idea but doesn't read well; just as you start to take an interest it's on to the next one and you have to get to know a new situation and protagonist all over again.

Nearly all the men are unlikeable; selfish, pretentious, pathetic or just downright dull. I didn't really care about any of them, with the possible exception of Tony; number nine and the oldest of the collection. His section was probably the one I liked the most but was also profoundly sad. Being the eldest of the lot, this section focuses a lot on death, and there were some passages that stuck with me.

"There is something very strange about trying to imagine the world without him. The strangeness, he thinks, is to do with the fact that the only world he knows is the one he perceives himself - and that word will die with him. That world - that subjective experience of the world - which for him is the world - will not outlast him. It is the ending of that stream of perception that seems so strange. So unimaginable."

However, despite some insightful passages, All That Man Is did not grip me. I'm not sure it deserves to win the Man Booker Prize, though the only other shortlisted book I've read is Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, which I did like, so I can't compare it to the others. I meant to read them all but, you know, life.

My Rating: 3 Stars

I think it would have been two if not for the quality of the writing.

Has anyone else read All That Man Is? What did you think?

I was given a free copy of All That Man Is via NetGalley on a read to review basis. My thanks to the author and publisher.

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