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.

The whole of Spring can be summarised as James’s effort to find out whether he is ‘okay’ – the word flickers through the book like a will-o’-the-wisp – or whether there’s any chance that he and the apparently bewitchingly unpredictable Katherine might be.

Taken together, the books are luxuriant and Hobbesian. There is, refreshingly, no sneer of Pharisaical exemption or authorial superiority. Szalay is an offended satirist with a remarkable verbal imagination, not a comedian happy to get laughs. In fact, laughter brings no absolution. Things are merely every bit as bad as they are. This picture typifies the general mood: ‘They wandered through the nature reserve, and when they returned to the house – Joan was in the kitchen reading the Mail on Sunday – they had tea, and sat in the low-ceilinged lounge with the telly on.’ As does this, a page earlier:

It was an English barbecue. There were sausages and burgers and minted lamb kebabs. Australian wine and Belgian lager. It was not cold, but the sky was solidly overcast. They talked about house prices. Mike was very pleased with how little the house had cost him because of its proximity to the airport … and insisted … that they did not mind the noise.

I remember Chekhov’s exclamation: ‘My friends, you live so badly!’

Paul Rainey, the antihero-cum-hero of London and the South-East (‘his flabby ashen face, his round white shoulders, his downy tits’), sells space in magazines that don’t exist to guileless foreign firms (his work has an almost patriotic dimension); gets bladdered in the pub on the way home, while entertaining fantasies of Michaela the barmaid; smokes spliffs in doorways; barely makes the last commuter train back to Hove; slinks into bed next to Heather, or not (‘Heather stands in the doorway, in a pink dressing-gown, which is tightly and neatly tied at her thick waist like a sturdy overcoat’); hates his work, hates his colleagues, hates his patchwork family, hates his life; is, shatteringly, 39; gets effortlessly cuckolded by Martin, he of the ‘fleshless tracksuited arse’ and ‘yolk-yellow Saab’, who lives in the same street and also, handily, clears Paul’s drains. Paul waxes nostalgic about the days of ‘fucking dial-a-deal’ and is on and off anti-depressants (‘Felixstat’). Could there be a better representative of Millennial (Dome) Man – or homo economicus? I noted: ‘No value, no production, no loyalty, no trust, no capacity for sympathy or empathy’. A rare vision of kindness (but also of a foolish, old-fashioned, and therefore contemptible productivity) comes in the form of a prostitute who offers to do it a second time for free; while ‘class’ is indicated by a lacquered-looking receptionist (‘Gwyn’), or the better-stocked sort of fruit bowl (grapes, peaches, maybe kiwis). Szalay has at his fingertips all the mechanical urgency, pleading, appetites and squalor of our transparent, crowded and increasingly irreal era.

What Campbell’s soup cans were to Warhol, tawdriness, shoddiness or just flat-out ugliness are to Szalay. I’m sure his use of the present tense, which means that everything comes at the reader with a pressure, an insistence, an ungainsayable ubiquity, is a deliberate aspect of this: nothing ever was, whether for a time or in certain unrepeatable circumstances; it’s not over, it plain is. London and the South-East has innumerable moments and not a few extended passages that dwell on lousy aesthetics. An Indian restaurant has ‘the cola-coloured glass front of an isolated curry house’ and a ‘dead, velvet interior’, while the snooker player Jimmy White has ‘a dingily raddled appearance’. The jumbled scenery of the train ride up from the south coast is described as ‘a landscape that seemed confused about its own identity, the closes and shopping centres plonked down in ploughed fields, the dormitory towns overspilling their valleys’. Drinking ‘Claymore’, a knock-off whisky, ‘seems futile somehow, but he takes it out – with its underdesigned, over-Scottish label, thistles and fluttering tartan – and pours himself some anyway. It tastes of watery alcohol with sharp overtones of sour vomit and a desultory smokiness, its lukewarmth somehow slightly sickening in itself.’ All these are beautifully written – expertly, patiently, memorably true to fact and witty. In the last instance, there’s the parody of tasting-notes, the nonce-Scottish design, the resourceful, somehow tailor-made unpleasantness. Joseph Brodsky used to say: aesthetics before ethics. How, then, given that one pub is described as having ‘muted ragu tones’, and another a ‘burgundy honeycomb’ of a ceiling, can we possibly hope for even passable behaviour from any of the regulars, who will shop, deceive and lust after one another unceasingly?

Pascal said that man’s misery stemmed from his not being able to stay in his room. We’ve come a long way since then. Now we don’t even stay in our countries. That – along with ageing and not improving – is the theme of Szalay’s new novel, All That Man Is. It’s a Euro-novel, cleverly conceived, authoritative, timely and (in a good way) crushing. Its Europe is a further reach of pain and folly: a bit of Hemingway, though rather curdled by now, a bit of Ballard, a bit of Houellebecq. A Belgian boy gets his rocks off in Cyprus with a fat English woman and her even fatter daughter. A Hungarian bodyguard escorts a beautiful Hungarian girl to Mayfair for a few days of high-priced prostitution. A Danish journalist tracks his scandal-roiled minister to a holiday house in Spain. An early-retired Scottish businessman goes home to Croatia after attending his mother’s funeral in the old country. An English property developer runs the rule over some Alpine villages in France.

Szalay’s Europe is denatured, inauthentic, confused, increasingly indistinguishable, up for grabs, strung together by rental car outlets, minor airports and numerous unimportant cross-variations of taste and obtainability. ‘Bergkönig’ or ‘Keo, the local industrial lager’, pick your poison. Prague offers an Australian pub; somewhere in Croatia has an Irish one. An elderly British diplomat, self-exiled to Italy, sees the roads lined by ‘Bosnian girls, quite a lot of them, he has been told’. Their presence has been made possible by – he reminds himself – his own sterling efforts at the 2004 negotiations for EU expansion. The Hungarian body-builder, Balázs, who smokes Park Lanes, is perplexed to find himself in the London street of the same name. (Park Lane Publications is also the name of the space-selling magazine outfit – a droll little trifecta.) The Russian magnate Aleksandr, a descendant of the characters in Szalay’s second book, The Innocent, gets himself helicoptered out to his superyacht in the Adriatic (the Europa, wouldn’t you know; he gazumped the squillionaire who originally ordered it). He is dismayed to notice, when his thoughts turn to ending it all – in the style of Hart Crane or Robert Maxwell – that, wherever he jumps from, he will probably only find more superyacht beneath him. A woman’s hair may be ‘a sort of aureate beige’ or ‘dyed a maximal black’. Pleasures are technical, liquid and faddish; they are afforded by ‘torrenting’, ‘blasting’, ‘hot-rocking’ or ‘up-skirting’. People hang out at Porkies (a restaurant), Jester (a club) or Dzoker (a pub). DVDs dubbed into the wrong minority languages are a recurrent source of home comfort blended with irritation – language is on the way out, with English leading the way. Cars speak louder than words: in Spring, a 1970s Rolls has ‘a sluttish suspension’; in All That Man Is there are ‘waxed and frowning BMWs’, ‘muscular black Audis’ and a ‘luxury SUV’. A man beaten up by locals comes round like this:

A hubcap.

          Fuck.

     Hubcap of a …

     Toyota Yaris?

     Dizzy when he stood up.

     And sick. Suddenly he felt very sick.

The make is insult on top of injury. When he meets a woman, all he wants to talk to her about is the S-class Mercedes he keeps somewhere and can’t really afford. (He – Murray Dundee, known as ‘the Croc’ – appears in London and the South-East as well as the new novel.)

The international element complicates things, makes them simultaneously unpredictable and harshly transactional, even if it’s nothing more than a man getting the heating going in his Italian villa. Everything registers as mildly crooked, brash, disappointing, ersatz; either straightforwardly unpleasing or unsubtly less than it appears. There is ‘a derisory pine kitchenette’ in the Hungarians’ London short-term let; the magnate’s chocolates boast ‘an artisanal misshapenness’; the international developer envies his former boss, who is off flogging the Alps to the Chinese, and talks brutishly about ‘Cham’ (for Chamonix), stressing ‘the heritage aspect’ and ‘the wow factor’– by which he means nothing more or less than ‘a posh cheese shop’ for his rooked catchment of expats. There is a cheerful and ghastly sordidness to everything, and Szalay’s prose with its ruthlessly banal dialogue, arm-twisting present tense, shard-like fragments, and every other page or so an irresistibly brilliant epithet or startlingly quotable phrase, lets nothing go to waste. Even if it’s something as simple as a man putting up an umbrella, to go out into the rain and try to talk down his unhappy mistress, it’s unforgettable: ‘It bangs into place above him, and immediately fills with sound.’

Situated at the edge of all this – quaintly, almost exhausted, with surprise and not a little pathos – is a vestigial nature: the light, the weather, some kind of backdrop or frame. ‘It isn’t “spacious” at all, not even in the estate-agent definition of the word. It feels pinched. There is definitely no wow factor, except slightly out on the terrace, with the mountains shoving up into the sunlight.’ A mild, weirded-out disgust is about as good as it gets. When Murray finally gets out to see the sea (his ‘Croatian Riviera’ is actually some way inland, just as another character’s Hotel Poseidon is in Cyprus), this is his Thalassa moment:

There aren’t really beaches here. There are walkways along the shore, winding paved paths, overleaned by spry old pines. Dry patches of paving stones under the pines. On one side as they walk, former villas of Austro-Hungarian notables, now hotels. On the other side, steep steps or even ladders down to strips of shingle, or empty terraces, or little marinas. The sloshing sea. Slapping at green-matted walls. At squeaking jetties.

‘We don’t really like the sea, do we?’ fat daughter says to fat mother, or the other way round.