This is the first of the Man Booker shortlist that I've read and honestly, I'm pretty disappointed. While it was a fairly enjoyable reading experience I really don't understand what it's doing on the shortlist, I don't know what exactly anyone sees in it... I'm actually kind of baffled.
This book is sold as a compelling, honest account of modern masculinity. A raw and complex exploration of manhood in the twenty first century. It is split into nine short segments, each focusing on a few days in a different man's life, with the men getting older as the narrative progresses, and dealing with the different situations that life brings.
I assumed this would explore concepts of toxic masculinity, gender identity, emotional intelligence, sexuality, race, body image, the changing dynamic between men and women, and potentially look at the horrifying suicide rates of young men. All of the things we know structure and guide a man's life whether he's conscious of them or not, but I was really let down.
Honestly, if this is 'All That Man Is', then man is unethical, constantly horny, and unbelievably boring. Although there were some differences in background and life outlook each story could probably have been about the same person, just getting steadily older and more lame and miserable.
Not a single one of the characters that this book focuses on has anything interesting in their lives. I couldn't really see why any of these stories were worth telling. There didn't seem to be any real stakes in most of the segments and there was no real journey or development in the characters either. One of the stories literally went something like this:
"Ah shit my casual girlfriend is pregnant, I'll try to convince her not to keep it. Well that's made her really upset. We'll walk around some name-drop sights in the city we're in at the moment and I'll say some smart sounding stuff about my profession. Ah ok she's agreed to terminate the pregnancy, oh wait no she hasn't. I feel conflicted. Also I pranged her dad's car. The end."
So why bother? Am I just missing something?
I will say that it is beautifully written. Szalay's prose is effortless and accomplished, never over flowery with metaphor or 'look how deep I am' prattle, but always very smart and confident. Whatever I think of his novel, his writing is incredibly capable and I'm definitely interested to see what else he's written.
I think the novel as a whole was mainly disappointing because I know that men aren't that shallow. They aren't led solely by their penis and they aren't flat boring dickholes. I have men in my life, friends and relatives and romantic partners who actually had other shit going on in their lives. They have families they care about, causes they want to fight for and struggle with their core nature conflicting with societal expectations. I actually feel slightly offended on their behalf, that this is meant to be the literature that represents them, when novels like Girls by Emma Cline or My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout have such rich and intricate characterisation of women that the narrative has to admit that the are ultimately unknowable. All of the characters we follow here are flat and unmemorable and have minimal development. The structure of the stories means that we only ever really follow each of the nine men there in the moment, we know very little about who they are and where they came from and, while in some cases the author did a really good job of summing up an archetype in just a few scenes (the shark-journalist workaholic whose wife has to hide his phone, or the twenty something loser who still lives with his parents and plays video games and ambles after girls who don't care about him.) That's all they are, archetypes. Stereotypes of men that we see in cheap media. The whole point of truly good literature is to challenge that and to give those stereotypes their own depths and truths and this just doesn't. I don't know what it really means to be a man, and I was excited to have my own assumptions challenged and really empathise with men and get a glimpse into their own rich complex inner lives. But no, apparently they're just shitty people who want boobs all the time. Cool.
If anyone has read this and did enjoy it please let me know because I would love to see what someone saw in it enough to get it published, let alone short listed for the Man Booker!
Thank you for reading.