“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.”
Szalay’s stories frequently hinge on the subversion, or even the downright reversal, of stereotypes, none more effectively than the first, featuring two teenage boys backpacking around Europe in their pre-university year. At one point they find themselves lodging in a depressing suburb of Prague (there are lots of suburbs in this book, and they’re all depressing), where their host, the disaffected wife of an absent footballer, is keen to seduce the shyer of the two. Most young men could not devise a more perfect scenario, but to his friend Ferdinand’s horror, Simon is only interested in seeing churches.
The second story, about a spectacularly unambitious young man who manages to parlay some undeserved severance pay into a solo holiday in Cyprus, will be read with grim recognition by anyone who has had a trip go wrong: the hotel is too far from the beach, the walls are too thin, the food is awful, everybody seems to be drunk all the time, and “fun,” if it is to be had, is hard to distinguish from self-abasement. It’s a Szalay-favoured tableau, as it turns out: in two further stories, all that is wrong in a man’s life is handily summarized by the fact that he has gone somewhere to be near the sea, but has instead ended up some distance inland, in nondescript, decidedly unglamorous surroundings that serve as a constant reminder of his failure.
In All That Man Is, the prospect of love is often little more than a cruel joke played on men who have forgotten what love is, if they ever knew. Murray, the Brit expat of the seventh story, stranded in Croatia where he can’t speak the language and prone to getting drunk at the worst times in the worst of places, might be the saddest of all. Slouching into his mid-50s, the outlook is bleak. “He has started lately, the last year or two, to have the depressing feeling that he is able to see all the way to the end of his life — that he already knows everything that is going to happen, that it is all now entirely predictable.” It’s a dawning epiphany all the more dispiriting for the feeling that everything leading up to it has been none too inspiring either. This is a man whose proudest opening boast in a pickup situation is that he once owned a Mercedes. That’s right — he doesn’t even own it anymore.
It’s a tribute to Szalay’s skill and empathy that his (anti)heroes, while nearly all of a general type, are all very much their own people, too, and never completely without their good qualities. But it also might be telling that arguably the best story in the book, the third, finds Szalay straying furthest from his over-arching mission. Here, we have a foreigner lost in England rather than an Englishman lost on the continent. Balázs is brought to London by a Hungarian friend to be bodyguard and chauffeur to a high-end prostitute; inevitably, he develops feelings for the woman he is protecting, and equally inevitably, severe complications ensue. Szalay takes the kind of person whose presence in a big modern city is all too easy to ignore — Baláz is undocumented, exploited, without recourse — and gives him a compassionate portrait that forces us to face how we assign otherness.
The final story attempts a full-circle effect by making its elderly protagonist the grandfather of one of the first story’s callow teens, but the choice feels forced, and unnecessary to boot: Szalay has already provided a kaleidoscopic yet unified reading experience of rare power and emotional nuance. Some critics and readers have grumbled about the one-dimensionality of the book’s female characters, but such complaints miss the fact that the inability of these men to view women in anything other than an objectified context is a big part of their failure, and of the book’s point. There may be a season for everything, but these people are staring down a dark winter of the soul, and it’s a darkness of their own making. Szalay’s chosen title, while it works as a proclamation — here, ladies and gentlemen, is modern man in full — is also a statement of profound disappointment. As Peggy Lee once sang, “Is that all there is?”