There has been debate surrounding the inclusion of this title, not regarding the quality of the writing but because it could be seen as a short story collection rather than a novel. However, it has been marketed as a novel, and Jonathan Cape submitted it to the Man Booker Prize on that basis, for it is in the rules (as per their website) that this prize should be given for ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges’. That this book should be up for recognition is not in doubt and just last week Szalay won the Gordon Burn Prize for this same title. I decided to come to the book with an open mind.
These are stories about men. Nine of them, beginning with a teenager and ending with his grandfather, the only two men linked in the book (although they do not physically appear in one another’s stories). The men increase in age as we travel through the book, across Europe and into various scenarios. What links the men is that they are white, generally unhappy or fatigued with life, things not having gone quite as they would have. Five of them are lusting over unattainable women. These are not aspirational characters and they are mostly written quite unsympathetically. Pitched as a portrayal of twenty-first-century manhood I found it quite depressing!
Each story has a distinct voice bar the first two which I found a little similar, partly because of their closeness in age, and that they were two young men travelling abroad for the first time in adulthood. It was interesting to view life through the eyes of men from different countries, a sort of assault against Brexit in that these men came from all over but shared so many of the same disappointments and desires. I loved the details that convinced me that the author had travelled these roads, caught trains and done his research. The locations of each story were beautifully drawn, from Belgian motorways to real estate up in the French alps, from a Greek tourist resort in high season to a billionaire’s yacht in the Mediterranean. I didn’t doubt a detail.
What I missed in all of these stories was a sense of love. There is much longing and lusting, but most of the women in this book are two dimensional: wives mentioned in passing; girls met in a bar who hook up with better looking men. They are there to illustrate the men’s inadequacies and I found it a little sad, for the male protagonists as much as for the women. They are all at quite desperate moments in their lives and so I suppose this could be the reason. The younger men are trying to get to grips with adulthood, the middle aged dealing with divorce and wondering if there will be more to life; then there are those who are wrapping up, battening down the hatches for the dwindling years left.
This is an interesting read but it is certainly not a novel, not by the traditional definition. I kept comparing it to This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz which I read earlier this year, a short story collection with far more common narrative between the tales than with this volume. I would be surprised therefore if this won the Man Booker prize, not only for the controversy of being included in the first place but because, having read the other five novels, I consider this worthy of its place on the shortlist but perhaps not of the prize itself.