What is man? It’s a question that has haunted many philosophers as well as writers. For lack of a better answer, I’d like to think it is the very act of asking this question that defines us.
Until only very recently, humanity’s tale has been concerned with the fates of men almost exclusively, with the world’s ‘other half’ being universally neglected and forgotten. Yet, now that womankind has found its voice and has begun to surface in our collective literature and wider culture for the third consecutive century, it is in fact man’s self-image which has become increasingly fractured and broken. Yes, thankfully, literature and art are no longer dominated by the ‘hero’s tale’; by the inescapable role models of wise kings and brave knights, devout saints and hardy workers – or, of course, evil tyrants. But while the number of possible stories to tell has suddenly exploded, we are left with an image of man that has become muddled, ill-defined and shaky. In this 21st century, what is there left for a man to be?
In his provocative collection All That Man Is, David Szalay dives in at the deep end to uncover some striking and possibly uncomfortable truths about modern manhood. Through nine short stories, Szalay travels all the avenues, switch-back turns and dead-end back alleys that make up a man’s life, weaving together the tales of nine very different men through different times of their lives. What slowly emerges is a loosely overarching account of nine lives, spanning a single year’s march from the bloom of spring to the dead of winter – poetically chronicling a man’s lifetime through its own inexorable seasons.
In order to arrive at any worthwhile conclusions about the current state of masculinity, Szalays successfully sketches out a surprisingly diverse cast of novel, unlikely archetypes; ranging from the surly teen poet, the half-witted dead-beat, the mercenary muscle, the cut-throat journalist, the unfeeling scholar, the dissatisfied real estate developer, the expatriate middle-aged loser, the debt-wrecked tycoon, to an ailing old gentleman slowly stumbling towards his death.
Following these characters across their separate lives, the story shifts locations all over modern-day Europe, from London to the Balkans, from Berlin and Copenhagen to some forsaken backwater in Croatia or Italy, and back again, as these men test their mettle against the vagaries of fortune. Meanwhile, Szalay shows his own remarkable talent as a storyteller by making sure each of them has their own, unmistakable voice within the story. He affords us glimpses into their separate episodes of crises and upheavals, as they just keep missng each other, literally within an inch of their lives.
In fact, more crucially, while all of these men step into the limelight out of very different circumstances, they are all connected in a more visceral way. They all share a common sense of emotional detachment. Yes, most of them know they are wracked by feelings such as loneliness, shame or loss, or alternatively by spite or lust. But all of them seem fundamentally incapable of communicating their feelings to another human being, or even of fully admitting them to themselves – thereby becoming powerless to change the course their former selves have plotted.
This ingrained insulation leaves these protagonists disconnected from their parents and friends, their spouses and children, as well as their own deeper needs, unable to form open and meaningful relationships, as they set out to make their next big break. Abandoning ambition and advancement in order to experience belonging and to feel at peace just doesn’t seem to be an option for any of these modern men – until it’s too late.
What strikes me most about their stories, is how even now, men are still competing (mostly against themselves) to acquire ever more money, sex, power and respect – even at the expense of their deeper, more personal desires. Over the course of one short life, these classical ‘measures of man’ continue to pressure many of us into hurling ourselves down an ever narrowing path, towards some vague, archaic sense of glory, which seems so inextricably embedded into the core of our biology – to ‘come out on top’. All the while, it’s the finer things in life – precious time, love, affection and peace of mind – that we would desire so much, that nevertheless keep slipping away from us, because this gender-defining rat race renders us incapable of recognizing them before our chance at lasting happiness has gone.
David Szalay’s All That Man Is draws a convincing yet discomforting portrait of modern masculinity, painting an awkwardly recognizable picture of a gender cast adrift, struggling to live up to aeons of self-imposed expectations. At the same time, it’s Szalay’s honest and beautiful language which tentatively shows an ever-present window of opportunity to re-invent the male perspective, allowing us all to rise above the rut, and to face the future with some much-needed vulnerability, as well as new-found dignity. If that doesn’t make for a must-read, I don’t know what will.