All That Man Is by David Szalay
Controversially Booker shortlisted (is it really a novel or a collection of short stories..?), this work is a curiously compulsive read, despite being full of some fairly repulsive characters.
It is a collection of nine tales, about nine men, each at different stages of their lives: from the earnest teenage backpacker to the elderly English patrician resting up at his holiday home in Italy. Each of the stories border hop across Europe, perhaps indicating that the central concerns of man are no different whatever their culture - these being sex and money. The men are mainly not pleasant, or if good at heart, quite pathetic at the stage of life in which we find them. The Russian oligarch who has lost his money and family, through his own pigheadedness, and now has nothing left; the backpacker who in his earnestness fails to have fun and connect with people; the bigot from the south east, whose businesses fail and who moves to a squalid part of the “Croatian Riviera” because it is cheap, and thinks he is better than everyone else, but remains a failure whom none like; the bodyguard who falls in love with the prostitute he is protecting … The charm of the book is that, despite their failings, there is a tenderness in the way the characters are revealed, each comes across as a fully rounded character, in a real situation - we feel we know something of their past, we understand and live with them in their present circumstance, and we understand where their lives are likely to go. Is it a depressing book about men, and all that man is? Yes and no - there is some hope, if only when we get to the older characters in the latter part of the book, as they gain understanding and acceptance of their own insignificance - and that the life they have is what they have made for themselves; it won’t get better, so accept it and enjoy things for what they are. Or, like the Russian oligarch, just end it. Ultimately, a satisfying read, which kept me engaged throughout.