‘Insufficiency’ is a favourite David Szalay word. The narrator of his previous novel, Spring, suffered from ‘insufficiency of feeling’; in this new collection of carefully juxtaposed tales, a Scottish ne’er-do-well adrift in Croatia decides his smile is ‘insufficient’. Szalay’s dissections of masculinity can produce wonders from such banal anxieties. Over 400 pages, he goes to town on nine specimens of the male gender, only surfacing to spit out the bones.
While the stories aren’t linked by characters, they trace a rough chronological arc through a man’s life, skipping the mewling infant and whining schoolboy. In the first, a jejune student laments his failure to bed a willing hostess on an Interrail adventure, while his more confident companion scores. All men, Szalay suggests, have similar skeletons of sexual regret in their cupboards. The subsequent tales present middle-aged men hopelessly chained to their hard-ons: ‘He had masturbated under a weak shower to a torrent of images of Emma . . . A shocking quantity of seed turned down the plughole.’ All are quietly disturbed by their own propensities, proclivities and, ah, achievements, but also in urgent spiritual crisis. They reflect on their surroundings as much as their interiors: often in ‘a silent maelstrom of despair’, they’re also alive to ‘the sails of smoke that sag in the windless air’, or a ‘melancholy little square, cobbled, and full of drifting leaves’. Nobody captures the super-sadness of modern Europe as well as Szalay. The atmosphere is stained yellow with a Mittel-European ennui: ‘Sometimes he feels transparent, at other times insufferably solid.’
And it’s not a book without humour. There’s a dark yet hilarious scene that will put the reader off stir-fried beef for life, as well as a tense and funny visit to a fortune teller. And car spec is always drily mentioned as an index of masculine success: A loser drives a ‘rust-perforated 1.2 litre Volks-wagen Polo, leaking oil in a side street’, while a feckless journalist bombs down to Cordoba in a ‘VW Passat . . . with the air con shoved up as far as it will go’.
Though it doesn’t present itself as a novel, the book hangs together: the predicaments of the various tormented men come together to produce a rich exploration of male vulnerability. By the last story, a septuagenarian longs for ‘serenity at the end . . . not just an awful sordid mess of shit and pain and tears’. It’s the most we can wish for, Szalay slyly implies. With All That Man Is, he emerges as a writer with a voice unlike any other.