Turbulence by David Szalay
David Szalay is a writer about whom I had heard good things, particularly about his novel All That Man Is, which was nominated for a Booker Prize. I happened to have an advance reader copy of his novel Turbulence, which I must have been holding onto for a while because it was published in July 2019. It’s very short, 145 pages, so I was able to read it in a night.
The story opens with a woman standing at the window of a man’s apartment, looking down at the leafless trees of his street on Notting Hill in London. The man, it turns out, is her 50-something year old son, who has just come home from the hospital, where he was being treated for prostate cancer. His case is serious, and for the past month, his mother, who lives in Spain, has been staying at his apartment while he was in the hospital. Now that he is home, he seems eager to book a flight for her to go home.
Airplane flights are what connect the chapters of this book, and the turbulence of the title is both literal, as in what the passengers experience sometimes on the plane, and literal, as in the shake-ups in their lives. Each chapter is titled with two abbreviations for the airports to and from which the featured character is traveling, hence chapter one is called LGW-MAD, as the mother is traveling from London Gatwick to Madrid. I had fun trying to guess which cities were featured as I came to each new chapter title. In the book, we cover much of the world, from MAD to DSS to GRU to YYZ and so on. The author fills you in, but it’s fun to try and guess at first.
The book is a sort of game of dominoes, with one character setting off another’s story. As a character from each chapter travels to their next destination, they meet someone along the way, and that person carries the story into the subsquent chapter, leaving the first person behind. And so the woman whose son is ill meets a man on the plane ride home, and the next chapter is his, and the one after that features someone who intersected with that man’s life, and so on through this short book. In the end… well, I won’t say, but we are certainly led to see that the randomness of life may not be so random after all.
The moments we witness in the lives of the characters we meet are short and dramatic; each chapter could exist on its own as a short story. There is no real linear thread in this book. Instead, it is episodic, pearls in a necklace. Apparently his Booker-nominated book, All That Man Is, is structured similarly. The author himself says that book, however, is not “a collection of smaller works that just happen to be packaged together in one volume.” He says it is a “unified thing,” as is this book. These characters, who are very loosely connected to each other, all happen to be experiencing some kind of turbulence in their lives, a turbulence from which we cannot know whether or not they will recover. It’s an interesting structure and concept, and well done. As we all know, it’s hard to write short, and to convey so much about these characters in few words is not easy to do, but Szalay gives us a sense of pathos, of loss, of sorrow, of misdirection, and, just possibly, of hope.