When is a novel a novel? The Man Booker Prize is traditionally awarded for the best original novel written in English and published in the UK. Yet reading British author David Szalay’s “All That Man Is” I couldn’t help but think that what I was reading was a selection of short stories linked by a common theme and that might just hamper its chances to go all the way.
This, his fourth novel. is in nine parts, each being a self-contained tale of a man at a different stage of his life, beginning with 17 year old Simon backpacking in Germany and ending with his 73 year old grandfather, Tony, (the most explicit link between any of the stories) in Italy and contemplating his demise.
In each of the stories the main character is away from home, in a place where he feels, to some extent, an outsider, be it on holiday, work-related or an escape. Each one of Szalay’s nine men views their life with something bordering on disappointment, whatever they are searching for in their travels doesn’t really materialise in the way that they hoped. Murray, in his mid 50’s, relocated to Croatia, really has little to do and few friends to do it with, the much younger Bernard, a French man, expects to discover real life on a package holiday to Cyprus. Perhaps the least disappointed is journalist Kristian, a Dane on the scent of a grubby news story and the most disappointed Aleksandr, a wealthy Russian oligarch contemplating suicide on his yacht.
If this all sounds downbeat, it is not. In fact, the second section, Bernard’s holiday was one of the most laugh-out loud funny tales I’ve read in a long time. I think Szalay hits the nail on the head with many aspects of the male experience. His younger characters are motivated by sex (or lack of it) the middle aged by their careers and the elderly by impending doom. The final tale of a Knight of the Realm, whose important government job is behind him attempting to function alone in his holiday home in Italy is beautifully written and feels very poignant.
The nine stories all feel authentic and whereas I warmed to some more than others overall it is an impressive read. But is it a novel? And do I even need to worry about that too much? This would certainly be a discussion the Man Booker judges would be likely to be having. If it proves to be an important factor then it may very well be missing from the shortlist. If not….then it will deserve its place.
Update – Sept 13th – Congratulations to David Szalay for making the shortlist.
All That Man Is was published by Vintage in 2016. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.