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2016 Man Booker: All That Man Is by David Szalay

all that man is

Next up on our list of Man Booker 2016 longlist books is All That Man is by David Szlay. Three of our judges read this book. Here are our ratings and how it ranks on our list…

Note: Thank you to Graywolf Press for providing us with review copies in exchange for our honest reviews.

All That Man is by David Szalay
Published: October 4, 2016
Judges: Jen, Andrew, & Book Worm
Find it/buy it here: All That Man Is

Synopsis (from Amazon): Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving–in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel–to understand what it means to be alive, here and now. Tracing a dramatic arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, the ostensibly separate narratives of All That Man Isaggregate into a picture of a single shared existence, a picture that interrogates the state of modern manhood while bringing to life, unforgettably, the physical and emotional terrain of an increasingly globalized Europe. And so these nine lives form an ingenious and new kind of novel, in which David Szalay expertly plots a dark predicament for the twenty-first-century man.

Dark and disturbing, but also often wickedly and uproariously comic, All That Man Is is notable for the acute psychological penetration Szalay brings to bear on his characters, from the working-class ex-grunt to the pompous college student, the middle-aged loser to the Russian oligarch. Steadily and mercilessly, as this brilliantly conceived book progresses, the protagonist at the center of each chapter is older than the last one, it gets colder out, and All That Man Is gathers exquisite power. Szalay is a writer of supreme gifts–a master of a new kind of realism that vibrates with detail, intelligence, relevance, and devastating pathos.

Jen’s Review: With a few exceptions, I’m not overly fond of short stories and so you should read my review with that in mind. If you love short stories, then you will likely enjoy this book more than I did. Although thematically connected, is this collection of short stories really a novel? I personally didn’t think so. I had high hopes for this book yet of all the books on the list, it was the one I struggled with the most for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons simply come down to personal preferences. For example, while I think the author is clearly very talented, I didn’t connect with his particular writing style, finding at times bordering on pretentious. Similarly, I didn’t really connect with any of the protagonists. This book was about men and masculinity. The portraits captured were of men across the lifespan. To add to that, it contained a fair amount of men’s existential angst – again not a particular favorite of mine.

I studied gender in graduate school and while it may strike many as odd (being a woman), I specialized in men’s mental health and my research examined the intersection between rigid adherence to masculinity and various mental health treatment outcomes. So I was initially very interested in the concept of the book. Unfortunately, I found the themes very repetitive. I personally found that each story repeated the same theme rather than adding to a complex picture of modern man and notions of masculinity. Furthermore, I found that the notions of masculinity were narrow and relatively stereotypical. While I appreciated the author’s attempt to capture the vulnerability and self-doubt that can go hand-in-hand with adherence to hegemonic masculinity norms (forgive me if I start to go down the path of my graduate studies), the portraits simply didn’t go deep enough for me.

Szalay certainly packs a lot into each story and I liked the concept of capturing individuals across the lifespan. But these stories are all depressing, gloomy, and filled with existential angst rather than in-depth analysis of masculinity. If this is “All That Man Is” then it’s a pretty grim and relatively stereotypical picture. In addition, I also found it slightly cliché and irritating that the women in the book were pretty much all sexualized or sex-objects. The one exception was in the final story which I found to be the most complex and enjoyable of all the stories.

There’s no question that Szalay is an incredibly talented author and I think this book will appeal to many readers. I wanted to love it. I didn’t, but I encourage you to read it for yourself especially if you enjoy short stories.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot complexity 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total 12/20

Andrew’s Review: I was deeply disappointed with this book. I was hoping for an examination of modern masculinity through the eyes of a variety of men; men of different ages, classes, races, ethnicities, etc. Instead, we are presented with nine unique stories (is this really a novel?), all with a fairly myopic view. These men are white and most are fairly affluent. They travel freely around Europe for work and pleasure and are obsessed with sex, women, and their status. Very little time is spent examining their relationships with friends or family, which in my opinion would have been much more interesting and given us greater insight into their character. Often this book presents itself as an existentialist’s fantasy; we are completely alone in the world and are defined only by what we’ve accomplished and will leave no mark when we die. I found it to be a bleak, depressing, and frankly horribly inaccurate presentation of what it means to be a man.

Due to the bleak nature of the book, it was fairly unenjoyable to read. I had to force myself to finish the last three stories. The writing itself was quite good; Szalany has a spare style that I enjoy and the dialogue rang true. In a short span of pages, locations and characters were quickly and satisfyingly developed as was the general mood of malaise and stagnation. This is what is so frustrating about this work. Szalany obviously has the talent to create a much better and more satisfying examination of masculinity. Instead, he chose to focus on bland individuals who exhibit stereotypical insecurities and ignored the myriad complexities of all that man is.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 2/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot complexity 1/4
Overall enjoyment: 0/2
Total 10/20

Book Worm’s Review Regular readers will know that short stories are not my thing and once again this is not the book to change my mind. The writing is good but lacking in that extra something and I really didn’t care for any of the characters, or feel an emotional connection with them or their lives.

Jen and Andrew have covered the points about this being bleak, depressing and full of angst and I agree with them. I am just glad the men in my life are not this unhappy.

I was also annoyed by the treatment and characterization of women. Honestly guys not all of us are out to jump you I promise.

From the description this book promised so much more than it delivered. It had the potential to be a great book it just never lived up to it for me. Not one for me I am afraid.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot complexity 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total 11/20

Average score across all panelists: 11/20

Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. Do Not Say We Have Nothing (19.5)
2. Work Like Any Other (18/20)
2. Hot Milk (18/20)
4. The Sellout (17/20)
5. The Many (16.8)
6. Hystopia (16.63)
7. My Name is Lucy Barton (16.13/20)
8. His Bloody Project (14.5)
9. Serious Sweet (13.67)
10. The North Water (13.5/20)
11. Eileen (12.5/20)
12. All that Man is (11/20)

Want to try it for yourself? You can buy your copy here: All That Man Is

Unfortunately none of our judges loved this book but it has received many positive reviews. Here are a few for you that you should check out:
Shelf Love review
BooksandLiliane review
The Library of Pacific Tranquility review

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you plan on reading this book? Does it deserve to make the Man Booker Shortlist?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. LOL you guys made me want to read this

    Liked by 1 person

    September 7, 2016
    • Good! You should read it.

      Like

      September 7, 2016
    • I actually think that of all of us, perhaps you would have liked t the most. I’m curious

      Like

      September 7, 2016
    • Anita Pomerantz #

      Somehow I missed this review . . .not sure how . . .but now that I’ve seen the shortlist, I’m a little curious to read this (since no one liked it). I’ll probably regret it, but I do actually really like short stories so maybe I’ll like it? I’m just curious . . .

      Liked by 1 person

      September 13, 2016
      • Maybe. I don’t have a good sense of whether you would like this one. Give it a shot and see. I found the stories and themes rather repetitive so if you read the first few stories and hate it (or love it) you will know whether or not to continue

        Like

        September 13, 2016
  2. After reading your review, I may skip this one. Thanks.

    Like

    September 16, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  4. All That Man Is by David Szalay: #ManBooker 2016 shortlisted | BookerTalk

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