“To everything there is a season,” a line taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, entered the popular lexicon in the 1960s, when the Byrds had a hit with Pete Seeger’s Bible-adapting Turn! Turn! Turn! It has typically been used as a bit of inspirational verse on the wisdom of patience and acceptance. But David Szalay, the Montreal-born British writer who now lives in Hungary, has something very different in mind when he uses it as the epigraph for his new book.
The Man Booker-shortlisted All That Man Is (McClelland & Stewart, 437 pp, $26) is not quite a novel, but it’s not quite a standard story collection, either. For one thing, Szalay’s stories aren’t titled, but numbered, which makes referring to them separately a bit unwieldy. They don’t form a single narrative, not even loosely, but do proceed roughly chronologically according to the age of their protagonists, so an emotional arc does emerge. Most show British males adrift on the European continent, a strategy that does more than provide endless sources of culture-clash comedy. Away from their home turf, these mens’ foibles, follies and plain human failings are thrown into stark relief. What’s more, they seem to know it: their discomfort goes beyond everyday frustration into the realm of existential despair. As we’re told of one of them, “There’s this feeling he sometimes has that he’s a long way from home. That nobody’s there for him if it all goes wrong.”