Michael Gorra

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Michael Gorra

All That Man Is by David Sza­lay. Gray­wolf, 358 pp., $26.00

The noun in the ti­tle of David Sza­lay’s fourth book of fic­tion means some­thing quite spe­cific. All That Man Is: not hu­mankind, or mankind, or peo­ple; still less women or chil­dren. No, he means men, Y-chro­mo­somed adults, and yet the rhetor­i­cal sweep of that phrase does ges­ture to­ward some large sum­ma­tion. Man, as in Shake­speare’s seven ages—the lover, the sol­dier, and the decrepit as well. Sza­lay has a sim­i­lar in­cli­na­tion to gen­er­al­ize, and his “man” takes the form of a set of typ­i­cal spec­i­mens, though in prac­tice they are all of a very par­tic­u­lar kind. Sza­lay has said that his work­ing ti­tle was Europa,* and while the men in his nov­els have dif­fer­ent na­tional ori­gins each is a Euro­pean in the twenty-first cen­tury, as if Sza­lay were of­fer­ing a tax­on­omy of gen­der and geog­ra­phy alike.

A Cana­dian by birth, Sza­lay was ed­u­cated in Bri­tain, now lives in Bu­da­pest, and has pub­lished three widely praised ear­lier books, be­gin­ning in 2009 with Lon­don and the South-East. They earned him a small hand­ful of awards and dis­tinc­tions, but this one, a fi­nal­ist for last year’s Man Booker Prize, seems an achieve­ment on a dif­fer­ent level, and any con­sid­er­a­tion of it has to be­gin with the col­lec­tive noun “man.” It needs ex­plain­ing, and so does the work’s re­fresh­ingly cun­ning form; per­haps in­deed they are one and the same. The book is com­posed of nine sec­tions, each of which con­cen­trates on a dif­fer­ent man of a dif­fer­ent age. There’s more stitch­ing here than a ca­sual read­ing might de­tect, but no char­ac­ter de­vel­oped in one sec­tion ap­pears di­rectly in an­other; and I will call them “sec­tions” or “parts” rather than “chap­ters” or “sto­ries.” Nov­els have chap­ters and sto­ries are gath­ered into col­lec­tions, but All That Man Is looks to hover be­tween the two, and blur­ring or dis­turb­ing that dis­tinc­tion is pre­cisely what this book is about.

The nine parts run in length from thirty to fifty pages. All of them are writ­ten in the third per­son and the present tense, and they’re ar­ranged chrono­log­i­cally. We progress through the year from April to De­cem­ber in 2013, and the main char­ac­ter of each sec­tion, af­ter the seven­teen-year-old in the first part, is older than his pre­de­ces­sors: twen­tyeight in the third part, forty-four in the sixth, and so on. The un­writ­ten months of Jan­uary through March would pre­sum­ably be­long to boys, the omit­ted pre­lude to the lives that fol­low. Each of the char­ac­ters has left his home coun­try and crossed one con­ti­nen­tal bor­der or an­other. While their pri­mary re­la­tion­ships are with other men and stop short of any true friend­ships, they are all in trou­ble with, or maybe just trou­bled by, the women around them.

So the teenaged Si­mon in the book’s open­ing sec­tion trav­els through Cen­tral Europe with his school buddy Fer­di­nand, ir­ri­tated by the other boy’s so­cial ease and talk­ing, “not for the first time, about the im­pos­si­bil­ity of achiev­ing any sort of sat­is­fac­tion as a tourist.” In Berlin the two of them go to Kreuzberg, the al­leged “hip­ster dis­trict,” which to Fer­di­nand proves dis­ap­point­ing; while Si­mon “finds his friend naïve—though he does not say so—for think­ing it would be in­ter­est­ing.” Still, his own naiveté is worse, a mas­quer­ade of so­phis­ti­cated judg­ment. He com­plains that Prague is Dis­ney­fied, tries to read The Am­bas­sadors, and longs for his sub­ur­ban English home, near the girl he wor­ships and yet has never re­ally spo­ken to.

Most read­ers will have known some­one like Si­mon, or been one; he’d seem a stereo­type if it weren’t for the care with which Sza­lay brings his in­gen­u­ous mis­ery back to us. There’s very lit­tle here in the way of a res­o­lu­tion. Fer­di­nand sleeps with the land­lady of their Czech B&B, and at the end the two young men take a train for Vi­enna; stand­ing in the cor­ri­dor Si­mon has “a sense of loss with­out an ob­vi­ous ob­ject.” Some­thing is over, though it’s not clear what; and some­thing else will now take its place, maybe some­thing bet­ter. Though it prob­a­bly won’t be, not if it re­sem­bles the other lives that fol­low. Balazs in the third sec­tion comes to Lon­don from Bu­da­pest as the mus­cle man for a call girl and her pimp. Once a sol­dier in the Hungarian army, he learned his English in Iraq, reads Harry Pot­ter in Mag­yar, and be­lieves in the whore’s heart of gold; he loses his job af­ter beat­ing up a client who calls her a “slut.” In an­other sec­tion an English real-es­tate bro­ker in­spects a clutch of newly built apart­ments in the French Alps. John thinks iron­i­cally in the lan­guage of his own sales brochures, and re­al­izes in look­ing over the flats that “ex­pense has been spared.” Yet it has also been spared in his own cramped home, with the wife and chil­dren and mort­gage that both stran­gle and sus­tain him. He still dreams of a big score, an­other way of be­ing, but “this is his life, these things that are hap­pen­ing,” and he can only hope it’s not as in­sub­stan­tial as it seems. Again there’s an open end­ing, and again a sense of dwin­dling pos­si­bil­ity.

Sza­lay’s prose is of­ten quite beau­ti­ful, spare and pre­cise, though it doesn’t at first present the same kind of com­plex­ity as the book’s struc­ture. Or at least its words and sen­tences don’t. But the gaps be­tween those sen­tences, the punc­tu­a­tion that spa­ces out his phrases—that’s a dif­fer­ent ques­tion. He’s a mas­ter of white space, and one page in Si­mon’s sec­tion con­tains but two words, a gasp of al­most inar­tic­u­late won­der. More com­mon is a pointil­list use of one-sen­tence para­graphs that serve to cap­ture the slow drip of Sza­lay’s char­ac­ters’ per­cep­tions. In the fourth part a Dutch-born Ox­ford me­dieval­ist named Karel presses his re­luc­tant Pol­ish girl­friend to have an abor­tion. He can feel her with­draw­ing as they walk through a Ger­man city, and thinks that

Maybe she had de­cided—as he had in­tended, in the mad­ness of yes­ter­day—that she didn’t like him. He had dis­ap­pointed her, there was no doubt about that. Lunch, though, was al­most nor­mal.

Or take this para­graph from near the start of an­other sec­tion. The man here is called Kris­tian, a Dan­ish news­pa­per ed­i­tor who drives his chil­dren around Copen­hagen in or­der to ap­pear in­volved in fam­ily life. Still,

their school is on his way to work any­way. The Dansk Ten­nis Klub in­volves a de­tour. To drive there takes twenty min­utes at least. The traf­fic is quite heavy at that time in the morn­ing. He talks to them, his daugh­ters, Tine and Vikki, while he drives—about tele­vi­sion and pop mu­sic and fa­mous peo­ple mostly. Tine is eleven. Vikki is eight. They like to talk about tele­vi­sion stars. Pop stars. He knows quite a lot about that, even though it is no longer his area of par­tic­u­lar ex­per­tise, as it once was.

These fig­ures of­ten look at their own lives from a long ways away, and then Sza­lay’s own per­spec­tive mag­ni­fies the dis­tance. Chills it too, with his de­lib­er­ately flat and oddly for­mal dic­tion, his ap­par­ently fac­tual state­ments that nev­er­the­less cap­ture the way Kris­tian parses out his self-re­gard: “To drive there takes twenty min­utes at least.” It says noth­ing that isn’t true but still makes you doubt the char­ac­ter’s ev­ery word; the com­mas in the last sen­tence stand as self-in­flicted wounds.

Dif­fer­ent read­ers of these nine lives will have their fa­vorites, but de­spite the lo­cal vari­a­tions be­tween them their emo­tional tenor is much the same. The char­ac­ters all feel a touch of selfloathing, and with most of them, Sza­lay sug­gests, that feel­ing doesn’t go nearly far enough. Cer­tainly that’s true of Kris­tian, a fig­ure who sug­gests not only the book’s strengths and lim­i­ta­tions but also its in­ner struc­ture. He’s the deputy ed­i­tor of “the top-sell­ing tabloid in Scan­di­navia,” and has flown to Spain to con­front a va­ca­tion­ing gov­ern­ment min­is­ter with the ru­mor that he’s hav­ing an af­fair. No state se­crets have been breached and the min­is­ter is un­mar­ried; still, in­quir­ing minds will want to know. “The story is out there, Ed­vard,” Kris­tian says. “It will come out. We want to help you on this.” He hopes that a quick con­fes­sion will let him “splash” it in the morn­ing. And he gets it, rec­og­niz­ing as he does so both the es­sen­tial un­wor­thi­ness of his pur­suit and the fact that it gives him the great­est plea­sure he knows.

Sza­lay him­self hasn’t worked on a tabloid and has said that he has no par­tic­u­lar knowl­edge of the busi­ness. And per­haps his know­ing­ness could

be chal­lenged. An ear­lier book, Spring (2011), told the story of an in­con­clu­sive Lon­don love af­fair, but sur­rounded it with a far more in­ter­est­ing ac­count of a pa­parazzo’s meth­ods and a de­scrip­tion of var­i­ous race-track dodges. This one ap­pears to know all about the ho­tel in­dus­try and Rus­sian oli­garchs in ad­di­tion to the mi­lieus I have al­ready men­tioned, and yet at times I nev­er­the­less won­dered how far it could all be trusted. Would a Dan­ish news­pa­per re­ally be so ex­actly like some­thing out of Scan­di­na­vian noir, mi­nus the mur­ders but with all the sex and se­crecy left in? Karel in the fourth part rang false to me; false as a me­dieval­ist, any­way, though he was en­tirely con­vinc­ing as a blindly self­ish young man. So maybe there’s a rea­son Sza­lay didn’t fi­nally call this book Europa. All those bor­ders, those na­tional char­ac­ters and dif­fer­ences—they’re more em­blem­atic than ac­tual. Dutch and Dane, French and English: they all think alike to him, metaphors for a sense of dis­lo­ca­tion, for the way in which we are all per­pet­u­ally out of place, and not only ge­o­graph­i­cally. Kris­tian’s sec­tion ap­peared last win­ter as a free-stand­ing story in The Paris Re­view, where it was called “Las­cia Amor e Siegui Marte!” Leave Venus and fol­low Mars. It’s a line from Han­del’s Or­lando that serves as an epi­graph to this part of All That Man Is; and in fact the ed­i­tor does think of his job as a form of com­bat. The first and the ninth parts are also headed by quo­ta­tions, one from a folk song and the other from Au­den; the book’s logic dic­tates that Kris­tian’s is the fifth. There are, more­over, 162 pages be­fore it and 161 af­ter; just as, at thir­tyeight, he is him­self “Nel mezzo del cam­min di nos­tra vita.” (Not that he would know that phrase of Dante; Sza­lay uses the me­dieval­ist to sup­ply it.) Tarot cards fig­ure in the book’s first, fourth, and sev­enth sec­tions. I give these de­tails to sug­gest how rig­or­ously if un­ob­tru­sively this book is planned. The start and stop of nar­ra­tive, the quick cut from one life to an­other—one no­tices that, and no­tices Sza­lay’s coolly ra­tio­nal prose as well. But its in­te­rior ar­chi­tec­ture seems al­most in­vis­i­ble.

Or at least it does un­til we ap­proach the end. In the sev­enth part the bit­ter and pen­ni­less Mur­ray, who has failed in one busi­ness af­ter an­other, looks from a Croa­t­ian beach at an enor­mous yacht cruis­ing off­shore and is star­tled by the way the waves seem to “blink around it. Sud­den is­lands of blind­ing white.” Then he dis­misses it with an ob­scen­ity. The next sec­tion will, how­ever, take us aboard that yacht, the prop­erty of a for­mer Soviet trade of­fi­cial who has since be­come a power in the Rus­sian iron in­dus­try. Sza­lay makes no ex­plicit link be­tween the two men, but once we draw the con­nec­tion it be­comes clear that there’s less dif­fer­ence be­tween them than ei­ther would think. The oli­garch now faces bank­ruptcy and plans to kill him­self; only “how does one jump from a ves­sel this size?” And the ninth and fi­nal sec­tion then re­turns us to the book’s be­gin­ning. In Italy a re­tired English civil ser­vant gets an e-mail with a poem by his grand­son; the young writer, now at Ox­ford, is called Si­mon. Chap­ters or short sto­ries? Is this hugely en­joy­able book a novel, or maybe some­thing else? Story cy­cles are hardly un­known: think of Sherwood An­der­son’s Wi­nes­burg, Ohio or Louise Er­drich’s Love Medicine; or, in a dif­fer­ent key, Rud­yard Ki­pling’s Stalky and Co. But the join­ery tends to be more fully de­fined, usu­ally through some con­ti­nu­ity of char­ac­ter; All That Man Is gives us some­body new each time. Its dif­fer­ent parts do, how­ever, all clearly be­long to the same suite, and Sza­lay has said that its ori­gins lie in his own grow­ing am­biva­lence about the novel as a form, his im­pa­tience with work­ing up all the seem­ingly nec­es­sary “masses of in­ci­den­tal de­tail...[and] elab­o­rate back­sto­ries” for his peo­ple. His ear­lier books were heavy with such de­tails, but writ­ing this one in sec­tions made it pos­si­ble to skip over any elab­o­rate crosshatch­ing: his char­ac­ters’ lives are lightly sketched, and their re­la­tions re­duced La re­pro­duc­tion in­ter­dite, to the needs of the mo­ment. Yet the book’s the­matic con­sis­tency also meant that he didn’t need to make each part “carry its own soli­tary bur­den of mean­ing,” as if it were in­deed a short story. Split the dif­fer­ence, have it both ways. He does call them sto­ries. He also calls this book a novel, and so it is. Cer­tainly it looks like one. Col­lec­tions of short sto­ries in­evitably come with a ta­ble of con­tents; this vol­ume quite de­lib­er­ately doesn’t. Its nine parts are num­bered rather than ti­tled, and taken to­gether they pro­vide a novel’s sense of sum­ma­tion: a se­quen­tial arc that plots out the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a man’s life, un­til we get to the last page and the im­age of a road “fad­ing away in the dusk.” Those fi­nal words both re­peat and am­plify the dispir­it­ing note with which each sep­a­rate part ends, and to me that sense of all things dwin­dling stands as the likely source of Sza­lay’s cre­ative dilemma; that, and not some loss of faith in the form of the novel it­self. Spring, af­ter all, had de­pended on a re­la­tion­ship that af­ter 270 pages sim­ply fiz­zled out, and a se­quence of short sto­ries may at this point be a bet­ter fit for a writer with a Larki­nesque predilec­tion for what doesn’t quite hap­pen. Still, this looks like a one-time ven­ture rather than a con­certed at­tempt to cre­ate some new for­mal pos­si­bil­ity, and I sus­pect that Sza­lay will soon come back to the novel as such, al­beit in some new and dif­fer­ent key, one that this book will have made pos­si­ble. All That Man Is uses its own pe­cu­liar shape to de­fine both the va­ri­ety and the unity of its char­ac­ters’ col­lec­tive life. It’s a book to go on with, the kind that makes a ca­reer worth watch­ing.

David Sza­lay at the mu­seum and for­mer home of the poet Julio Flórez, Usi­acurí, Colom­bia, Jan­uary 2014

René Magritte:

1937; from ‘Dalí, Ernst, Miró, Magritte . . . ,’ a re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ham­burger Kun­sthalle and the Mu­seum Boi­j­mans Van Be­unin­gen, Rot­ter­dam. The cat­a­log is pub­lished by Hirmer.

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