The Fury and the Mire of Human Veins

There just aren’t enough books about men. Specifically, there aren’t enough books about white, European men. Enter David Szalay, stage left, with his latest book, All That Man Is. His new novel can’t quite be called that—it’s closer to a short story collection, telling the tales of nine men at different points in their life, from seventeen to seventy-three. What connects these men is more a mood than anything narrative, a sense of overwhelming Weltschmerz, an inertia that leads Ferdinand and Simon, two students celebrating the end of their A-Levels by backpacking around Europe, to look at all that the continent has to offer, with the same level of disinterested ennui that Tony, the eldest of the nine men, looks towards decrepitude and death. If there’s one thing worse than tourists, it’s tourists determined not to enjoy themselves.

Everyone in All that Man Is is, in some sense, a tourist—that is to say, nobody’s story takes place in their home country. Whether they are actual tourists, as in the first two stories, working in other countries, or are celebrating not working any more by retiring to sunnier climes, the stories are uprooted, deracinated somehow—always pointing towards a home, but never quite getting there. There’s a lot of hanging around in what Marc Augé called non-places, those strange places that nobody really feels strongly in any way about enough to build up common social references or any sort of community. In a novel where everyone is on the move, it’s easy enough to find references to motorway rest stops and train stations, but the logic of the non-place reaches out to consume pretty much everywhere, from unattractive villages in Croatia to superyachts.

All That Man Is, by David Szalay
All That Man Is, by David Szalay

It’s against this backdrop that Szalay’s vision of disappointment plays out—all of the men in the novel are disappointed in one way or another. Sex is a disappointment; lack of sex is a disappointment. Money is a disappointment; lack of money is a disappointment. Power is a disappointment; lack of power is a disappointment. It’s worth noting that the there’s always a lot more of the latter than of the former in Szalay’s world. It’s this bleak landscape that he shines an uncompromising light on, showing the world in flashes of seedy and scathing detail, though never for long enough at a time to get what one might call perspective. It’s a world of microwaveable “congealed brown food,” of “the fake Rolex that hangs too loosely” on someone’s “fat wrist,” of cigarettes smoked and cups of tea left to go tepid—like looking at a pointillist painting up close, but never quite being able to step back.

All That Man Is takes its title from a line in ‘Byzantium,’ one of W.B. Yeats’ more peculiar and enigmatic poems. Yeats writes that, “A starlit or moonlit dome disdains / All that man is / All mere complexities / The fury and the mire of human veins.” Szalay’s creations are, by contrast, “More image than man, more image than a shade”—their veins are devoid of fury or mire.

David Szalay, All That Man Is, Jonathan Cape (London: 2016)

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