Review: ‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay

As a student, I never minded too much the restriction that reading lists place on you. That isn’t to say I always completed my course reading in full and on time, it just wasn’t too much of a chore to me. I’m very aware though, now as a postgrad, there isn’t space to skip reading. Since my undergrad became exclusively creative writing based by my third year, my reading was self-directed to be related to my own work. Meaning, this was my first ‘obligation book’ in three years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great experience.

All That Man Is comes presented in nine parts, each of which follow a European man in a different European country than his own, starting with an inter-railing seventeen year old, up to the holidaying seventy three year old. They are all struggling in some way to make meaningful connections with those around them. Currently, the book is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was recently awarded the Gordon Burn prize at the Durham Book Festival. Lots of people love this book. I’m not one of them.

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I really tried to enjoy this, and I do recognise from a technical point of view that Szalay is a skilful writer – it’s just that his writing didn’t speak to me, personally. Equally, the parts which were meant to be humorous don’t line up with my sense of humour. I’ve mentioned before how frustrated I get with characters whose problems are very obviously fixable with some attempt at communication, and every one of these men fell into that trap. If you don’t have the same intolerance as me for that device, you may well enjoy this, but if you do it gets head-bangingly irritating. The blurb issue was also present here – I can’t find a way to reconcile ‘striving to understand just what it means to be alive, here and now’ with the men in the book I read. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there, just that I didn’t see it.

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This is also just a matter of my interests – if you find the characters interesting, this will probably be an enjoyable book, but personally I struggled to conjure up any interest in them. When I put the book down, I had no drive to pick it up again, and a lot of the storylines I forgot very quickly. I think the structure was also an issue for me – once things seemed to get to a point that I was more interested in a character, their part would end and it moved on to someone entirely different in another country.

There’s a lot of discussion about whether this is a novel or a collection of short stories, and honestly I don’t have a strong stance on that. It was written and published as a novel, but for me it didn’t read like a novel would – there was not enough of a connection between parts to bridge the gaps, unless you count that all of these men were kind of despicable. Equally though, it didn’t read particularly like a short story collection either. Frankly though, I don’t have the interest in it to spend much energy on what it is. I read it, and I will forget it fairly quickly.

I think it’s fairly clear from the tone of this review that I’m not going to be recommending it to people anytime soon, but if you have interest in it, please don’t let me put you off. I think this was purely a matter of taste, and plenty of others on my course found it really interesting –  I just wasn’t one of them.

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