PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Mystery of 'All That Man Is'

David Szalay's novel preserves the mystery of modern manhood within an anthology of realism.

All That Man Is

Publisher: Graywolf Press
Length: 358 pages
Author: David Szalay
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-10

With All That Man Is, David Szalay sets out on a nearly impossible task. The audacity of the title would surely leave room for readers to criticize him for falling short of such an ambitious project. Yet, All That Man Is manages to accomplish exactly what Szalay promises.

Somewhere within what seems at first to be only nine short stories, it becomes clear that such an ambitious novel as this could only have been told in the way Szalay chose, as vignettes. Is it a novel? Somehow, yes. The stories need to be read in the order Szalay has them arranged. Something ineffable would be lost if they were read out of their order of appearance.

All That Man Is must necessarily be the story of multiple men rather than one man throughout his lifetime. Each story occurrs more or less in the same time period. Szalay knew what he was doing; a project as ambitious as trying to encapsulate all that modern man is in a single novel could not have been told in the ordinary linear fashion. Nevertheless, there is a linearity, not only in the incremental way each man ages, but inasmuch as what underlies them all is of greater importance than what obviously distinguishes each from the other.

Most rewardingly, Szalay doesn't take the easy way out with any of his stories. Men are uncomfortable, perhaps offensive to some sensibilities but ultimately sympathetic. None are caricatures, and each story ends without some life-changing cataclysm (despite early signs that trend that way). Szalay's novel is as much about men as about life's unpredictability. The moments accrue one by one. Moments of careful planning, self-doubt, and the consequences of each; moments of saying things that cannot be taken back and moments of recognizing that events are beyond your control. Young men interrogate old men, try to do so understandingly, but only recognize their passage from one category to the other when it's already behind them. The men in these chapters grow older, they gray, their sex lives persist but change, wane, and somewhere in the middle of it all, a life forms without ever having recognized the point it transitioned from burgeoning to burdened.

The moment between "There's plenty of time left" and "How did I get here?" passes without any recognition by the characters because, of course, it isn't a documentable moment. By the sixth chapter, the story seems to have wandered somewhere its central character hasn't expected, not off track but simply drifted slightly out of the lane, carried by the inertia of young ambitions. Something elusive has begun to dawn on the man in his 40s, "This is all there is. It's not a joke. Life is not a joke." It happens as quietly and unexpectedly for the characters as it does for the reader.

Sex, purpose, and loneliness all play a role in the lives of the men at the center of the novel. Some take precedence in youth, some in old age, but there's a moment where each one intersects with the novel's central characters and draws the narrative along. In the end, in fact, the oldest man is shown to be the grandfather of the youngest. Vague ages -- late 30s, 40s -- leave room for both the characters and the reader to fudge the line. There's always more time ahead than behind until there isn't.

Time and loneliness creep up on the men. No one is ever ready for the inevitable, even though each character here (except perhaps the 17-year-old and the early 20-something) sees it coming. This sense that something is slipping from their grasp builds until in his 50s one man recognizes "[a] sense, essentially, that he had wasted his entire life, and now it was over." It doesn't necessarily matter whether some men are left with indications that their career is flourishing, or whether some are too young to have even fully embarked on a career. It's impossible to imagine that each man wouldn't eventually be confronted by this haunting uncertainty about his purpose.

All That Man Is is a novel that manages to pull a single linear narrative from nine seemingly disparate stories. These stories are driven by more than simply the ages of the characters. It's difficult to distill exactly what that underlying element is, but it's also undeniably clear that whatever is it that binds these nine men together it's something essential to modern manhood.

In the last chapter, the 73-year-old contemplates his mortality and finds the idea of his life ending difficult to fathom. "The strangeness ... is to do with the fact that the only world he knows is the one he perceives himself -- and that world will die with him." All That Man Is contains observations about life, mortality, and perception, but reading that passage near the end it's also clear that something indefinable binds both the 70-year-old's life and the lives of the other men who preceded him. Szalay has done a remarkable job of both documenting this and preserving its mystery.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.