At the end of David Szalay’s latest novel, “Turbulence,” a character takes stock of a framed quote from John F. Kennedy’s American University speech: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.” Kennedy’s words were at the heart of his “Strategy of Peace”; Szalay’s appropriation of them takes us to the heart of his fifth work. Over the course of 12 masterfully sketched stories, each one focusing on a different individual on the move, he circumnavigates this small planet and highlights humankind’s interconnectedness.
The first story begins in London with a woman taking leave of her son, Jamie, who has recently undergone treatment for prostate cancer. As she prepares to board her plane to Madrid, her newly hatched worries about his chances of surviving the year are eclipsed by her deep-rooted fear of flying and an immediate threat to her own life. That threat intensifies when she is airborne, with a bout of turbulence that shatters “the illusion of security.”
This tale ends with the woman in an ambulance; the next one starts with her fellow passenger Cheikh continuing on to Dakar and returning home from business. Sitting in the back of his car, he realizes that his driver seems nervous and won’t look him in the eye. “Madame will tell you,” he explains to his boss. And so Cheikh enters his unlit house with a sense of dread. After stoking the suspense, Szalay exercises tight authorial control and leaves his reader in the lurch. Only by turning to the next story do we get cathartic release and the painful truth.
These first two stories establish the pattern for the whole book. Each story is roughly nine pages long. An end destination in one tale is a starting point in the next. Characters work in relays, with a secondary figure assuming the lead in the story that follows. It is all neatly done, and when we reach the final tale we find Szalay has arced round and formed a loop: Jamie’s Budapest-based daughter has flown over to check on her ailing parent and announce some big news.
Between Jamie’s mother’s in-flight ordeal and his daughter’s visit, we are served one short, potent measure of perfectly distilled drama after another. In São Paulo, a lonely pilot meets a woman on a dating app, but while he yearns to see her again, her morning-after future plans don’t include him. In Seattle, a famous writer struggles to process her newborn grandson’s blindness. And in Doha, a migrant worker for a rich “owner” pursues an illicit love affair.
Whether in the clouds or on terra firma, Szalay’s travelers are shocked and shaken by various traumas. By rights, his pared-back prose and miniature portraits should be able to describe and convey only so much. But as in his previous novel “All That Man Is,” his light touches and fleeting glimpses belie great insight and depth.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: David Szalay.
Publisher: Scribner, 145 pages, $25.