All That Man Is by David Szalay is a surreal collection of snapshots of different people’s lives. We enter and leave in the middle of things. Each vignette is like a bad dream where you wake up in a more tired state than when you went to sleep. They are reminders of what it is like to be a man: aimless and not in control. When a man sits in a bar in old age and reminisce about life, these are the stories he will tell and wonder how it all went so bad. He tells them to remind himself he survived to tell them and to laugh before he cries. But then he doesn’t laugh then though. They are the nightmares of everyday life brilliantly told and choreographed. “Life is not a joke.” Life is filled with momentarily lost children, sudden and unexpected and unwanted pregnancies, the mundane, the ruts, the missed opportunities, the mistakes, jail, stolen money, and con artists.
“Yesterday he experienced a sort of dark afternoon of the soul.” This is the theme of the novel or of the lives in this novel. Nine men who are reaching, grasping for straws as their lives unfold and they have no control. It is their own fault for not paying attention or for just not participating in life or for being distracted by non-life aspects and in the end they are like the character in Shakespeare’s Ages of Man. Many get to the point of so what, what else can happen. The novel grabs you in the pit of the stomach, twists, and doesn’t let go. There is a haunting beauty about it, though. It is a man’s novel about men. It reaches to the core of men, exposes so many truths about commitment or lack thereof, to loneliness or just being alone, to self expectations and failure even when no failure exists. It should be a depressing novel, but it is not.
“I was an idiot. End of.”