Over the past five weeks, here at the Culture section we have dedicated our time to giving you a detailed look at the 2016 shortlist for The Man Booker Prize. At the very least, this year’s selection has been a mixed bag: some are awe-inspiring and others are, well, awful. And with that, it is rather disappointing to end this series with such an unsatisfactory and underwhelming offering.
What constitutes a novel, lengthwise, has been frequently debated since the shortlist was announced. At first glance, All That Man Is seems to set itself at the fore of the pack, fitting the novel’s description at 437 pages. However, David’s Szalay’s work is not so much a novel, but rather a series of short stories offering a misguided analysis of men and the obsessions and perturbations that Szalay believes make up the male psyche. Stereotypically, such obsessions are sex, cigarettes and alcohol.
The stand-alone narratives lack the robust link Szalay desperately needs to pass this off as a novel. A cyclical pattern is suggested, as each new figure, each time a little older, faces the same obstacles his predecessor found between himself and happiness. Perhaps unsure of this subtle link himself, Szalay comes full circle as we meet the grandfather of the first narrator, Simon. It is a contrived and unconvincing way to tie the whole piece together.
The misery transposed on the page becomes predictable and pathetic, as once again another male fails to find fulfilment in life. The “dull emptiness” alluded to by one character can easily be in reference to the faux-novel as a whole.
Szalay too suffers from this pandemic of missed opportunities. The potential richness in imagery and multiculturalism the various European settings offer Szalay’s imagination are numbed by these monotonous moments of sex (or the lack thereof) and cigarettes. This can be construed as evidence of the universal discontent man faces, but it certainly cannot make this book any more enjoyable. The writing style that Szalay offers is as inconsistent as his plotlines are monotonous. The Modernist-inspired narrative of Part One suggests a radical revision of the modern-day narrative; frustratingly, such experimentation is limited to the opening protagonist, with the other eight fragments reverting to a rudimentary style of writing.
What makes the novel unforgivable is its archaic objectification of women. Although the title suggests that men are at the centre of Szalay’s narrative, if he thought his title was an acceptable excuse for his poor portrayal of women, how sadly mistaken he was. The only fleshed-out females in this work are a mother and daughter introduced in Part Two, and by ‘fleshed-out’ I mean morbidly obese, and a fixed point of ridicule. Yet even they are not exempt from the overarching obsession these males have with sex. The debased, sexist view that Szalay’s characters possess offers no hope for men, and less so for humanity.
The overarching perspective of All That Man Is, shared by both characters and readers, is sorely negative. It overshadows any skill that Szalay has, which is evident in the text, albeit not enough to redeem this shortlister. As I write this review, the winner has not yet been announced, but will be on 25 October. I can only hope that the result will save me from having to return to this book again.
All That Man Is by David Szalay (Jonathan Cape, 2016)
Photo credit: Celso Flores