The third book from Szalay, one of Granta's most recent group of Best Young British Novelists, is a tightly woven, precisely observed novel in stories, nine of them, about men adrift, lonely, wandering, and wondering.
The book's conceit is imaginative, its architecture impressive. The men depicted range in age from 17 (a callow, awkward university student on a budget trip through Europe with his more outgoing and lusty friend) to 73 (a retired government minister on a winter trip to his damp, mouse-infested cottage in Italy, where he's retreated not so much to lick his wounds as to catalog his infirmities as old age settles in). In between we meet a drifting young French tourist in search of sex and adventure who finds them in an unexpected form, or rather forms; a hypocritical Danish tabloid journalist chasing a scandal; a middle-aged English blowhard and expat in Croatia whose life is in epic collapse; and a Russian oligarch whose empires of metallurgy, marriage, and self-created mythology are crumbling. These men and the others (a selfish academic medievalist whose girlfriend is pregnant, a Hungarian bodyguard who's fallen in love with the jet-setting prostitute he's protecting, and a seller of high-end real estate who's chafing at his sense of being settled) resemble one another in several ways. All are sex- and/or power-obsessed, all away from home, all solitary, all in the grips of overwhelming inertia and of the philosophic realization, in some cases explicit and in some tacit, that "Life is not a joke." One may wish their circumstances were less cramped and airless, their ideas of manhood more capacious (and that women played a fuller role in their lives), but Szalay writes with subtlety and pathos about these flawed and floundering figures, none quite able to feel like the protagonist of his own life story.
A grim but compelling composite portrait by a talented writer.