If David Szalay’s new novel shows all that man is, then we’re in a sorry state. A collection of nine barely linked short stories that is being marketed as a novel, the book depicts nine men at different life stages travelling or living in a different European country than their native countries.
The book starts with young men and works its way through middle age to old men. Seventeen-year-old Simon is travelling with his friend Ferdinand through Europe. They seem to be incompatible travelers. Simon is interested in art and music, while Ferdinand wants to party. Simon has mixed feelings when Ferdinand has sex with their middle-aged landlady in Prague.
Bernard is an aimless 20 when he quits his job to go to Cyprus with a friend. He ends up going alone, where he finds himself involved in a sexual relationship with both a hefty young woman and her mother.
Baláz is hired by Gábor to come with him and his girlfriend Emma to London. The details of this job are murky, but Baláz needs the money. It turns out that he is to provide the muscle while Gábor and his friend Zoli pimp Emma out to wealthy men.
Karel is an academic who begins the story believing his relationship with a lover who meets him periodically for a few days is perfect. But she has news for him. She has just discovered she is pregnant. To this news he answers, “This is shit!”
Kristian is a talented journalist with a friendly connection to a politician, Dahlig. The tabloid he works for decides to expose Dahlig’s affair with a married woman. Even though Kristian and Dahlig have a cordial and political relationship, Kristian thinks nothing of interrupting Dahlig’s vacation in Spain to break the news and try to force an admission from him.
I think you get the idea. These are not likable men. At best, they are feckless and inert. At worst, they are ruthless and amoral. Szalay affords each of them a moment of insight, clarity, or immersion of the senses, but these moments are fleeting. Sordid is a good adjective to describe these lives. This was not one of my favorite pieces of fiction. I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.