A lot of literature written about men describes the way they would like to be viewed from the outside, Cool, calm, collected, James Bond, Jack Reacher. If you want anything that delves into a man’s actual feelings, inadequacies, or the challenges we face daily, it is likely to be heavy on imagery and description, rather than the confessional nature of books focusing on women. Hemingway’s male characters don’t tell you how their feeling but you guess from the words and actions, like an outsider looking in. The modern antidote to this a UK TV show called “Peep Show” where the two main (male) characters are accompanied by a voiceover charting their tortured internal logic, selfishness, occasional selflessness, frequent helplessness, and general bafflement at the human condition, as they desperately try to keep up appearances and conform to the masculine ideal. If you liked that deep look into the psyche and thought processes of men, then a new book of short stories “All That Man Is” by David Szalay is for you.
The book is in nine parts, all set in various parts of Europe, with each story about a different man at a particular stage of life, emerging from adolescence, youth, maturity, middle age or older. None of the characters have much in common on the face of it (penniless posh English student, French tourist, Russian Billionaire, retired civil servant, Scottish misanthrope) but all have exactly the same fixations – sex or love, money and the associated pride, status and self-image. The strange thing is you start each story thinking “this clown is nothing like me” but every single time you get this awful echo of your own past, or fear of your own future.
It’s mesmeric despite some of the rather depressing subject matter. Part 9 is the story of the bitter middle-aged drunken Scot living a rentier (The absurdly inflated UK housing market pays for all sorts of people globally, I promise you) in Croatia. His self-delusion, sheer greed and sense of entitlement is something to behold. I always used to have running joke with Asian expat friends that if it all went wrong you could just retreat to Batam (a dusty Indonesian island across the Singapore strait) and eke out a meagre existence drinking cheap beer and eating $1 mee goreng. The fact that this guy chose Croatia is by the by – it’s the same mode of existence. His travails and disasters are cringeworthy but absolutely ring true. For modern day realism, sly, dark humour and Szalay’s chameleon like ability to make each character alive and believable in very different contexts, this is highly recommended.