Muted Ragu Tones

Michael Hofmann

  • All That Man Is by David Szalay
    Cape, 437 pp, £14.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 0 224 09976 9

It’s possible that the expression ‘tearing through a book’ has something to answer for. I read All That Man Is at a not particularly expedient time, furiously, unappeasably, in two days. Then I bought and read in a similar manner – none took me any longer than two days – David Szalay’s three previous novels: London and the South-East (one of the great mocking titles, up there with Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, or Updike’s Memories of the Ford Administration), The Innocent and Spring. I want to say that here is a newish, youngish – early forties – contemporary British novelist worth catching up on and following, in the wake of and on a level with the likes of James Buchan, Tessa Hadley and Edward St Aubyn.

The four books are distinct – there’s no real overlap to speak of – but possess the sort of shared traits that a reader likes to find in an author, and an author in himself. London and the South-East is a story of a downwardly mobile and alcoholic telephone salesman in Holborn; The Innocent is about a KGB operative and his journalist brother in provincial Sverdlovsk in the mid-20th century; Spring is an account of an energetically conducted but opaque courtship in a freewheeling but insecure London. All That Man Is is a suite of nine moral stories (unconnected, but self-assembled in the reader’s mind into a sort of collage-novel) persuasively set in different milieux across a new, East-ish, un-glam, second-tier or easyJet Europe – not Athens, Barcelona, Paris and Rome, but Charleroi, Frankfurt-Hahn, Katowice, Larnaca and Zagreb (all places named in the book, like the fixed points of an ugly constellation). They feature successively older male protagonists, from 17 to 80-something, each one unequal to whatever piquant challenge (a sexual offer, a tabloid opportunity, a pregnant mistress, an aneurysm) life has thrown him. All that man is … is inadequate.

What the books have in common is an attractive simplicity of presentation (all of them traffic in the present tense and make great play with verbless sentences); an instructive, almost missionary interest in certain contemporary lines of work, from race-fixing to telephone-selling to ‘papping’ to supermarket shelf-stacking; the frequent deployment of alcohol and sex; ambitious construction; plots that earnestly, rather sweetly, involve all sorts of schemes and scams; an outstanding ear for the banalities of speech, often combined with wonderfully unlikely or revelatory action (in Spring, a woman about to go down on a man finds herself saying, ‘I worked in publishing’ – well, he did ask her what she used to do – and in a dinner scene in the new book you read ‘“Are you happy?” she asks, putting ketchup on the last slice of her pizza,’ which feels like an unimprovable way of suggesting ‘I’m not’); and, generally, a richly and dependably desolating lexicon of contemporary circumstances, settings and accoutrements. The state of the language – mutilated, scumbled, brutalised, jargoned, flat-topped, impatient except when it comes to its cherished status-conferring qualifiers – is an essential part of Szalay’s technique as well: we read of ‘air con’, ‘a shit season’, ‘dodgy phone data’, ‘close protection officers’, ‘Nespressos’, ‘Pret sandwiches’, ‘wet-room’, ‘a Smeg fridge’, ‘End of’, ‘Number still work?’ An encounter might go:

‘Been watching the snooker, Martin?’

‘Not really.’

‘No? Fair enough.’

Or:

‘Alright, Mossy,’ Simon says. ‘How are you? Alright?’

Mossy says something.

‘Yeah alright,’ Simon says.

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