Turbulence by David Szalay review – stark tales of life in flux

A series of stories arranged around plane journeys creates a close-up portrait of our common humanity

David Szalay’s characters travel relentlessly, but are never at home. They felt this lack particularly keenly in his 2016 Man Booker-shortlisted novel-in-short-stories, All That Man Is, which moved through the stages of nine different men’s lives, the gulf between their alpha-male aspirations and daily reality experienced variously as outrage, sorrow and cosmic alienation. As European men, they were told the world belonged to them: instead they found themselves knocked off course by shyness, by loss of status, by the humiliating grind of hard graft or old age. From a teenage InterRailer to his fading grandfather, across Europe via hotels and motorways, budget airlines and cruise ships, Szalay patiently built up a brilliantly unsparing portrait of masculinity and its dark shadow, misogyny.

This new 12-story cycle, Turbulence, stretches its horizons to encompass the entire globe, as well as the female perspectives rigorously excluded from his previous book. Putting a girdle round the Earth in just 130-odd pages, it’s inevitably a much leaner work, written in a brisk, authoritative past tense rather than a layered and shifting present. Neatly organised as a series of plane journeys in which the narrative focus is passed between a dozen different characters, it begins and ends in London with a stifled fiftysomething Englishman awaiting the results of his cancer treatment. “Ironic, mocking and evasive”, Jamie is a familiar Szalay character, forced at last to accept his daughter’s insistence that “some things are serious. Which is frightening.” In between we spend time with a Senegalese businessman, an Indian caretaker living in Qatar and a Hong Kong academic, among others.

In the opening piece, “LGW-MAD”, Jamie’s expat mother returns to Spain once his radiotherapy is over. Rocked by the realisation that her son might die – “She still thought of him as someone young” – she smothers her habitual fear of flying with bloody marys at the airport. Szalay deftly sketches in the tedious everyday miracle of air travel, from the “snaking security queue” to that “profoundly surprising moment” when the plane’s nose lifts. And then comes turbulence that, in a figure of the book’s larger upheavals, “ended the illusion of security ... made it impossible to pretend that she was somewhere safe”.

Next, in “MAD-DSS”, the stranger who was sitting next to her continues his journey home to Dakar, where, in a story ringing with alarm, he idles in traffic, wondering why his driver is behaving so oddly. Then, in “DSS-GRU”, a pilot flying freight to Brazil has a tentative, fleeting encounter with a woman he finds on a dating app. As the book progresses, each story refracts and contextualises the one before, revealing the double life of a migrant worker or the family history of a man who is furious with his brother. It highlights those hinges in time where life is changed irreversibly: a childhood bereavement or a troubled birth, when an eager new grandparent finds herself “very aware of her failure to be equal to the needs of this moment”.

There’s not an ounce of fat to be found, as decades of emotion hang in the spaces between the short, declarative sentences: “‘That must have been hard on your parents,’ the captain said. Werner said that it was.” The writing is permeated by a kind of unanswerable understatement, as with the 60-year-old academic torn between a sudden new love and mourning for her fractured marriage: “There was a feeling, apart from anything else, that it was late in the day for this sort of thing. There was also a feeling of desolation.” As the stories operate through plot ironies and the sudden illumination of character, this radical simplicity of style means that they offer up most of their pleasures on first reading (or listening: they were written for radio).

What Szalay does so well is the minute-by-minute apprehension of the close-up world, what he calls “the tightly packed fabric of reality”, combined here with an impressively global vision. We may live on a planet that has shrunk sufficently to enable golfing weekends in Vietnam, but at the same time air travel reminds us of what “insignificant specks” we are – the “quantity of emptiness” all around our atomised selves.

In the final story, Jamie’s daughter sees in his cramped toilet, alongside a stack of old magazines undisturbed since her childhood, a framed quote from John F Kennedy’s 1963 “peace speech”: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” It could be read as an inspirational mission statement for the collection, or a brutal irony. It’s part of Szalay’s genius that he can encompass the distance between the two.

• Turbulence is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy for £8.79 (RRP £9.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Justine Jordan

The GuardianTramp

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