There’s a deftly submerged schematic quality to Montreal-born writer David Szalay’s All That Man Is, an anthology of short stories that are (almost entirely) unconnected on the level of dramaturgy, but very clearly in conversation with one another.
In the first vignette, two university-age lads are traversing Europe by train; they are in search of sublimity, but contemplate settling for less. In the finale, a septuagenarian duffer recovers from an automobile accident caused by underestimating his own blind spot. In between, a carefully cross-sectioned gallery of European males, ranging from callow kids to masters of commerce, cope – or don’t – with problems specific to their respective age groups: trying to get laid on holiday; the anxiety of beginning a family; the resignation of outliving one’s own youthful aspirations.
Szalay, who has already written three novels, isn’t a conventional dramatist: his stories begin in medias res and more often than not either fade out or abruptly cut away without closure. He favours subtler forms of resolution for his characters, placing defining details in throwaway bits of dialogue or physical action (it’s no coincidence that vehicles feature centrally throughout most of the book), and he manages the Raymond Carver-esque feat of keeping his empathy even-keeled and unsentimental. A nicely portentous story about an emotionally cloaked academic contemplating a bit of unexpected, ostensibly life-changing news inhabits a very specific kind of masculine selfishness without condoning it (or attempting to punish it with too much gusto).
The stories in All That Man Is are contemporary, and the focus on predominantly white, educated men may feel out of step in a literary climate lately – and not wrongly – searching out different subjectivities (on the page and behind it). But Szalay’s niftiest feat is to impart a certain timelessness and universality by setting his stories in European cities redolent with whiffs of social and cultural history. These modern morality tales are framed by tradition, not as a means of undermining them or emphasizing their relative smallness, but rather to suggest a continuum of experience and anxiety. The potential pretentiousness of this is defused by the author’s talent for writing characters who plausibly feel like readers: their intellectual reflections on books and music never feel imposed from above, but emanate from the inside out.
Not all of Szalay’s gambits work. A heavy-handed episode about a slab of hired muscle pining after his lithe assignment flirts with both genre and gender clichés, and the ethical ditherings of a journalist bent on smearing a vulnerable politician never come into focus. Such atomization is a byproduct of working in such a fleeting, glancing mode, and it would be easy to mistake the unevenness for a lack of overall vision. But Szalay’s collection is beautifully built, winding up with passages of such humane delicacy as to render earlier missteps moot. An overdetermined reference to King Lear aside, the ninth and final story takes its place in the pantheon of portraits about aging, topped off by the best of the author’s strategic non-endings.