By David Szalay, Jonathan Cape, 144 pages, £9.99
The 21st century began with the fear of millennium bug-stricken aircraft falling from the sky, then found its violent expression in the image of weaponised 767s bringing down the twin towers. Even though flying is safer now than ever before, our crashes are pored over with a kind of frantic, computer-animated fascination, enlarging them in the minds of viewers.
It’s no wonder that, according to a recent study by National Geographic, more of us are scared of flying now than 10 years ago. If the 20th century, from the Wright brothers to the moon landings to the boom in long-haul travel, was all about the streamlined silver thrill of flight, we now seem to be experiencing a darker chapter in our airborne history.
“She knew it was silly, her fear of flying,” one of the characters in Turbulence, David Szalay’s latest novel, says. “The statistics spoke for themselves.” This rational thinking is overwhelmed by the first flutter of the turbulence that will send the unnamed narrator into a panicked fit. “What she hated about even mild turbulence was the way it ended the illusion of security, the way that it made it impossible to pretend that she was somewhere safe.”
Turbulence is structured as 12 linked stories, each of them presenting a brief glimpse into the life of a solitary air traveller. The characters brush past one another, their tales overlap, there is a sense of a narrative baton being passed from one story’s protagonist to the next. Szalay presents us with lives that are messy, stalked by the threat of disease or bankruptcy or domestic violence, lives in thrall to atavistic animal impulses yet suspended in hi-tech bubbles far above the earth. With its sweeping vision of a complex, interconnected world always in motion, it feels like Turbulence is attempting to do on a global scale what Szalay’s last book, All That Man Is, did for Europe: present us with a series of lives that feel at once profoundly particular and yet also emblematic, a portrait of our species at a time of crisis.
The 2016 Man Booker shortlisting of All That Man Is — and the word is that it was very close to edging out the eventual winner, Paul Beatty — seemed to come from nowhere. It wasn’t even initially reviewed as a novel: the linkages and affinities in its collected stories took a few readings to reveal themselves. Turbulence is a slimmer book and a bleaker one. There is no story that’s played so overtly for laughs as Bernard’s trip to Cyprus in All That Man Is (for me, the best comic story of the past decade), nor do we get the nostalgic intimacy of Simon and Ferdinand’s Interrailing adventures.
Instead, Turbulence gives us a series of lives strung between places, making unhappy compromises, at home neither here nor there. We meet a shiftless freight pilot, a Doha gardener carrying a guilty secret, a girl, Miri, managing relationships with difficult parents, one of them dying. We follow a Hong Kong housewife home from the US, then go with Abir, her jilted lover, on a golfing holiday; Abir’s brother owes him money — in the next chapter we find out why. The final tale carries echoes of the first — a parent and child, a malignant tumour, an almost total inability to communicate between generations. You’d think that this structure, which nods to the smallness of the world, the interlinked nature of lives, would be somehow comforting; in fact, each character seems utterly lost, profoundly alone.
What Turbulence shares with its predecessor is Szalay’s characteristically effortless prose, his ability to distil lives into vignettes, the sense of an author whose curiosity about his fellow humans is boundless. The 21st century, Turbulence suggests, is taking place several miles above the earth, or in overlit and anonymous airports. Szalay is our greatest chronicler of these rootless, tradeworn places, and the desperate, itinerant lives of those who inhabit them.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd