The relationship of a reader to a work of fiction, when it works, is symbiotic. In the best instances--or at least the most conducive to a level of enjoyment for the reader--there is an element of the vicarious. This is the sense that you, as a reader, are privy to certain information. The irony of this is that you can feel this way--when anyone else who picks up the book will get the same experience. I’ve often thought a gossip quality in a narrative can serve a similar function as it allows the reader an entry into the piece, and a sense of engagement; maybe this is the same quality as “getting something” from the text and akin to what occurs for genre readers (horror, thriller, romance, et. al.) I’m thinking of this as I read David Szalay’s much praised All That Man Is which, though the opening story did not feel compelling to me--in fact, so underwhelming is it that I considered stopping. The only reason I did read the entire novel (which is essentially a novel in stories) was having favorably read chapters that had appeared in the Paris Review. On the whole, there are elements of several chapters that offer what I’m calling a vicarious experience, and these made it worthwhile.
Szalay does not write charming characters, another quality I’ve been fixed on as a necessity for an engaging read. Maybe the vicarious quality makes up for this lack of charm. With a degree of winsomeness, I can summarize the book as a series of male characters in their attempts, however pathetic, to find willing members of the opposite sex. As Szalay’s novel exemplifies it, this is a formative primal urge.
As often as it is there, this welcome and engaging quality of the vicarious is as often missing in Szalay’s work. I’m not sure if Szalay has deliberately tried to dampen his character’s appeal to the reader, and for what reason. Nevertheless, he frequently manages pulling a reader in to the narrative. This is the gift that a writer must strive for, and achieve.
I suspect Szalay did not start out the book with that first story, as I doubt many agents or publishers would have found it compelling. This aspect is something that I become conscious of in my own work, usually with the novels. It is obvious that the narrative needs to carry a reader. I think post Knausgaard, this quality of the vicarious is one that I need, as well because I’m finding less fiction engaging these days. Or I need to find this quality in order to commit to reading.
For Szalay, the curiosity for me began to kick in fifteen or twenty pages into the second story. Up to that point, I believe I was thinking, “where is this going?” while suspecting it would have to go to the obvious places. But isn’t this then just an instance of having my expectations met? If so, is that merely a kind of escapism, and is that what I’m really looking for? I think I teeter on the edge of that: the expectation of having my expectations met, and the expectation, still, of surprise.
Szalay isn’t always clear on where he places the focus in the novel. The opening ot the third story is almost bewildering in its lack of clarity as to the narrative’s direction. I don’t believe this is intentional, but the sense is that the author is trying to work within a close third person. As with the first story, the storytelling puts the reader at sea in trying to understand the writer’s intent. I get the sense that Szalay may have started the story with one idea, then shifted focus (and none of the chapters have titles, just numbers).
Szalay is often sloppy, and lacks precision (it might be argued that that is one and the same thing). I think I wanted to like All That Man Is more than I did, based on those constructed notions that the author was writing for me, not coincidentally the vicarious quality I believe we are praising Knausgaard for. But in this case I come away with an equivalent sense of unease, as if I’ve just had to listen to someone’s tawdry coming of age tales on a cross country (Europe) bus trip, and maybe that was ultimately more of a disappointment.