- All That Man Is
- David Szalay
- McClelland & Stewart
All That Man Is
By David Szalay
McClelland & Stewart, 437 pages, $26
The Path of Most Resistance
By Russell Wangersky
Astoria/House of Anansi, 240 pages, $19.95
One side effect of the recent Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro was the elevation of U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte to the position of avatar for a specific type of recognizable dude bro, the kind that is frequently bandied as an emblem for everything wrong with contemporary masculinity. Old-school, egotistical machismo – the type exemplified by 20th-century figures such as Norman Mailer and John Wayne – has come under fire recently: the stereotype of the "strong and silent" cowboy has been castigated as insufficient or even damaging, and in certain cultural or academic circles, it is difficult these days to find the word "masculinity" unaccompanied by the adjective "toxic."
Montreal-born, Oxford-educated writer David Szalay now lives in Hungary; it is possible that the European context in which he locates himself has allowed him to remain insulated from the culture wars currently raging around the subject of masculinity in North America. In any event, his approach to the topic in his recent story cycle, which has just been longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, largely eschews fashionable depictions of the predatory male psyche in favour of a more nuanced presentation that does not deny the avaricious or unattractive aspects of men, but also displays an empathetic understanding of human fallibility and longing. The men who populate Szalay's fiction are often arrogant and self-aggrandizing, but their attitudes are rooted in a deep existential dread and, finally, an abiding and unavoidable sadness.
All That Man Is, which has been promoted and reviewed in Britain as a novel, is a tightly interwoven series of self-contained pieces that follows a programmatic structure. Broadly, the arc of the book traces the course of life from the onset of adulthood – marked here by the sexual awakening of adolescence – to old age and impending death. The individual stories are not given titles, but are demarcated only by numerals from one to nine. The cover treatment on the Canadian edition features the title superimposed over a series of leaves meant to indicate the four seasons of the year, beginning with the hope and youthful vigour of spring and ending with the withered brown of winter.
The metaphor of changing seasons reflecting the periods of life is a cliché – one that is extended in the book's epigraph, which alludes to Ecclesiastes, by way of The Byrds: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." Though here, as elsewhere, Szalay proves remarkably canny. His epigraph also recalls another literary allusion to the Biblical book, which appeared at the start of an earlier fictional examination of masculine pride: "The sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down." Like Hemingway, Szalay employs spare, often indirect prose to illuminate his male protagonists' surface bravado, which masks deeply submerged insecurities, quite frequently revolving around the subject of women.
In Szalay's opening salvo, two 17-year-old students, Simon and Ferdinand, are travelling through Europe before beginning university; stopping in Prague, they are offered an unexpected liaison with their much older landlady. This, too, appears clichéd at first, but Szalay manages to transform this stock scenario into an unexpected parable about missed opportunities, predicated upon what turns out to be an ironic reference to a passage from Henry James. In another story, the man acting as muscle for an amoral pimp uses violence as an outlet for his unrequited attraction to the sex worker he is charged with protecting. And elsewhere, a middle-aged man is consumed with jealousy when he discovers that his "loser" acquaintance has taken up with the woman he fancies for himself.
Simon and Ferdinand are referenced in the final story, which focuses on Simon's septuagenarian grandfather, now staring down the inevitability of death. After being injured in a car accident, the grandfather recalls a poem Simon recently had published in a small magazine. The lyric centres on the notion that nothing is eternal except for the passage of time. By returning the reader's attention to the book's opening in the context of its counterpoint at the end of the road, Szalay neatly underscores the poem's theme, and renders his ultimate story, in context, one of the most shattering fictional examinations of mortality and impermanence in recent memory.
Russell Wangersky also addresses mortality in his new collection, The Path of Most Resistance, notably in the story Three Days, which focuses on an aged man without immediate family left alone in his bed for three days (going on four by the story's end) following a catastrophic pulmonary event. Death and terminal illness also hover over Wangersky's opener, the suitably titled Rage, in which the central character takes out the sublimated fury resulting from a cancer diagnosis on an unsuspecting fellow motorist.
Like Heavy Load, which closes the collection, Rage culminates in an act of violence used as a means of displacement or projection of unacknowledged negative emotions on the part of a male protagonist. This is reminiscent of the enforcer in Szalay's story, though Wangersky's linguistic technique is somewhat less subtle and his approach more straightforward. Elsewhere, Wangersky uses comedy as a means of underlining a masculine tendency to competition and dominance: Snow features a pair of aging retirees who race to be the first to clear their sidewalks and that of an attractive, younger female neighbour. The final showdown between the two is a moment of pristine absurdity.
Wangersky's stories focus on acts of resistance or rebellion, though these often prove futile at best or, at worst, outright dangerous. The reporter in The Revolution, sidelined to a journeyman routine of reading the hourly radio headlines during the fallow overnight period, has his act of revenge backfire on him when he realizes no one – including his station's superiors – is paying attention. The protagonist of Collections allows himself to be extorted – twice – by a conniving young woman who claims to be fundraising for charity. And the couple in Bide Awhile is consumed by a drunken argument that distracts them from the danger to one of their children.
Wangersky is adept at creating crystalline moments in which events or lives change or reorganize themselves; rarely does he offer closure or pat solutions to the situations he imagines. The only stories that falter badly are Farewell Tour, about a man revisiting locales associated with a failed relationship, and the title story, which takes the form of a letter from a woman to her estranged lover. The former, uncharacteristically for this collection, is too neat in its resolution, while the latter spotlights the artificiality of the epistolary form: no one in a long-term relationship would feel the need to recap the significant moments of the love affair in such an obviously expository manner. By forcing himself to provide this kind of necessary background information, Wangersky gets hoist on the petard of his own literary conceit.
Steven W. Beattie is reviews editor at Quill & Quire and writes a monthly column on short stories for The Globe and Mail.