David Szalay, named one of Granta’s best young British novelists in 2013, has written a book that lives up to such an award. Longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, All That Man Is, a striking novel-in-stories, offers a piece-by-piece portrait of what it means to be human. The novel is made up of short, 30-page glimpses into the lives of nine men who are all at different stages in life and struggling with existential crises: Two British teenagers go on a trip to Germany and have to determine how to spend their time; a lazy boy from France gets fired by his own uncle and has a bizarre holiday in Cyprus; a work-obsessed newspaper editor from Copenhagen destroys a minister’s career by divulging details of his affair; a fitness trainer is roped into being a security guard for a beautiful woman who secretly works as a prostitute; a prestigious professor negotiates an affair with a student; a Russian weighs heavy thoughts of suicide; and a political figure recovering from a heart operation comes to grips with his own mortality.
With razor-sharp writing and lyrical vocabulary, All That Man Is never misses a beat. The men’s stories are defined and independent, but Szalay manages to weave in similar themes and echoes of past narratives (one man reveals that a prime minister’s mistress is pregnant and plans to get an abortion while the next story portrays a professor with a student girlfriend who discovers she’s pregnant and struggles with her decision, for example).
The novel almost seems to grow up itself—the age of each character increases as the book progresses, and the first narratives touch on concepts of teenage boredom and not feeling capable while the last few describe men who must accept the ideas of discontent and dying. All That Man Is also explores the spectrum of male relationships to women: Females morph from sexual objects to deeply complex humans who make life both richer and more complicated. Szalay has written an illuminating and enthralling work that will delight novel-readers and short story enthusiasts alike.