All that Man Is has been criticised by reviewers for being a collection of short stories rather than a novel. And although, to a certain extent, this is correct, Szalay is urging the reader to feel otherwise.
A portrait of manhood
Through the lives of nine men of different ages, backgrounds and nationalities, Szalay is trying to achieve a portrait of manhood.
The first story focuses on a 17-year-old boy, travelling through Europe with his friend before going to Oxford. The book finishes with the story of a retired Government official struggling with agreeing and becoming debilitated. Between the two we have the stories of a 30-something academic with commitment issues; a 40-something tabloid journalist; and a suicidal 60-something billionaire. Each of these nine stories explores life both at its most mundane and specific and at its most complex and all-encompassing.
Szalay is extremely good at creating point-of-view characters who are so realistic and unique they are palpable. The reader is sucked into their lives in the first few pages, and quickly develops an understanding of their character and actions.
Simultaneously, he can maintain a stylistic consistency throughout the nine stories, all of which have many similar themes. Although all of these characters have a connection to England, the book is set across Europe, from Spain, to Denmark, passing through Poland, Belgium, France. Landscape is one of the underlying themes across all stories, and although it is so varied; it is also similar. Europe, in a way, is a common character in these nine lives, overriding individuals and nationalities.
All of these men are extremely flawed, some more than others, but somehow sympathetic. Most of their stories are bleak, but entirely believable. The main themes that are threaded throughout are those of love, sexual desire, careers, money and loneliness. All of these are explored in each of these snapshots of life.
I found it a really compelling read, and the one thing that convinced me that this was a novel, rather than a collection of short stories, was the fact that I didn’t have the need to pause between stories, as you sometimes do with short story collections, to make sure you have absorbed the narrative before going on to something new.
It never felt like you were transitioning into something new, and it is that unity that, for me, made it a novel. And a very well-written one at that.