All That Man Is - David Szalay


RATING: ★★★☆☆


Manhood in novels. It seems to be the topic of choice for authors throughout the centuries.

During my MA English, I learned that the true first English novel, a story that was published and marketed in book form and didn't have an oral story tradition, is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe in 1719. Others say the first English novel is The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan from 1678. Many people agree that the first Spanish novel is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, which was published in parts, but can be originated back to 1605.

What is noticeable about these choices, besides the fact that it is hard to pinpoint the start of the novel or to trace a clear evolution, is not only their male authors, but the male narrators. Not only are they narrators, they also exist in the novel's title and their journey, physically, religiously and mentally, dominate the narrative of the novels. 

This tradition didn't stop in the 18th century. This year I've been making a conscious effort to read more classic novels and have discovered how more prominent male authors/narrators are in literature. I've read Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, and many other authors that are not only men, but also centralise the male experience. Somehow the emotions of men are more valid in the world of classic literature. I know that Virginia Woolf exists (and is a wonderful author), that Mary Shelley started the genre of science fiction (which some people like to contest, but I'd refer to this great article as proof that really science fiction was invented by a woman). But overall, the male authors seem to outweigh the female ones.

In this climate, that is only slowly changing because of the rise of feminism and the path cleared by woman who impacted literature (J.K. Rowling for example), David Szalay wrote All That Man Is. To say I was curiously nervous about this book is an understatement. The title is brazen and clear: this is the story about men. I didn't want to read another homage to manhood, but I think manhood in this day and age is extremely complicated. I see men my age struggle with their place in the world and uncomfortable with how their fathers expect them to be and how liberated they could be. Feminism, often deemed as the devil, could help them embrace all aspects from themselves, but unfortunately, the idea of traditional manhood prevents some men from embracing the concept. 

What is being a man? How are you a good man? When do you fail?

All That Man Is portrays manhood in its 21st century form with all those questions in the background. Instead of the romanticised men portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald or the world conquering brute men of Hemingway, David Szalay presents nine extremely different men with their beauty and faults. We start with a teenager and end the novel with an older man. All man are travelling, or are at least away from home and from the conventions of manhood they were raised to know. 

Personally, I disliked all nine men. While they ranged in my dislike, all of them seemed entitled and made me roll my eyes at some point. They all mansplain. They all want sympathy for something. They all put up a front and push people out to seem cool. Halfway through this novel, I was annoyed and aggravated and I couldn't believe David Szalay wrote a book, a successful one too!, about men being entitled brats in different parts of Europe. 

And then it clicked - in the last chapter. It's not like the last man in the novel was more sympathetic than the other ones. I just suddenly realised what David Szalay was trying to do with this novel. Though these characters are flawed, some seriously flawed, they are so incredibly realistic. The fact that I felt emotion for each of them shows the skill in the writing. The fact that I didn't like them just shows that, truthfully, I just don't like that many people.

The nine stories, though sometimes seeming incoherent, all have to do with time and growing up. These men all struggle with manhood in different ways and though I might find that struggle annoying at times, it is valid. I missed a voice of reason for these characters, but who has a voice of reason when you're travelling? In the end I could appreciate that David Szalay didn't become the voice of reason; didn't judge his characters for anything, but just let them be.

This novel shows the complexity of manhood in the 21st century beautifully. Was it perfect? No. As I mentioned, the nine stories sometimes seemed too detached to be in a novel together and honestly, I think nine short stories is also pushing it to get the point across that David Szalay wanted to get across. I read this book a few weeks ago and I must admit, I don't remember the name of a single male narrator. Not one. But that's also not the point. The point is their journey, and I do remember that. Their point is that they are real and you'll feel everything you can while reading this book. It is flawed, just like the characters are, and just like manhood is, but it is also thoroughly enjoyable and a fascinating look at our current world.