Nine Lives

Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
David Szalay at the museum and former home of the poet Julio Flórez, Usiacurí, Colombia, January 2014

The noun in the title of David Szalay’s fourth book of fiction means something quite specific. All That Man Is: not humankind, or mankind, or people; still less women or children. No, he means men, Y-chromosomed adults, and yet the rhetorical sweep of that phrase does gesture toward some large summation. Man, as in Shakespeare’s seven ages—the lover, the soldier, and the decrepit as well. Szalay has a similar inclination to generalize, and his “man” takes the form of a set of typical specimens, though in practice they are all of a very particular kind. Szalay has said that his working title was Europa,* and while the men in his novels have different national origins each is a European in the twenty-first century, as if Szalay were offering a taxonomy of gender and geography alike.

A Canadian by birth, Szalay was educated in Britain, now lives in Budapest, and has published three widely praised earlier books, beginning in 2009 with London and the South-East. They earned him a small handful of awards and distinctions, but this one, a finalist for last year’s Man Booker Prize, seems an achievement on a different level, and any consideration of it has to begin with the collective noun “man.” It needs explaining, and so does the work’s refreshingly cunning form; perhaps indeed they are one and the same. The book is composed of nine sections, each of which concentrates on a different man of a different age. There’s more stitching here than a casual reading might detect, but no character developed in one section appears directly in another; and I will call them “sections” or “parts” rather than “chapters” or “stories.” Novels have chapters and stories are gathered into collections, but All That Man Is looks to hover between the two, and blurring or disturbing that distinction is precisely what this book is about.

The nine parts run in length from thirty to fifty pages. All of them are written in the third person and the present tense, and they’re arranged chronologically. We progress through the year from April to December in 2013, and the main character of each section, after the seventeen-year-old in the first part, is older than his predecessors: twenty-eight in the third part, forty-four in the sixth, and so on. The unwritten months of January through March would presumably belong to boys, the omitted prelude to the lives that follow. Each of the characters has left his home country and crossed one continental border or another. While their primary relationships are with other men and stop short of any true friendships, they are all in trouble with, or maybe just troubled by, the women around them.

So the teenaged Simon in the book’s opening section travels…

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