A mi­nor achieve­ment from a ma­jor tal­ent

David Szalay’s lat­est novel is best con­sid­ered as a step­ping stone be­tween his more sub­stan­tial work

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - ROB DOYLE

TUR­BU­LENCE DAVID SZALAY Jonathan Cape, 136pp, £9.99

All That Man Is, the fourth novel by the English writer David Szalay, marked the as­cen­sion of a tremen­dous tal­ent. Its 400-plus pages glided by in an orgy of sus­tained plea­sure, and left you gag­ging for more. It was the kind of book that cir­cu­lated by fer­vent word of mouth and met with a near una­nim­ity of rap­ture.

Tur­bu­lence is a slighter work, in ev­ery sense. It shares with All That Man Is a flu­ent in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, and a struc­ture that plants it in a fer­tile bor­der­land be­tween the novel and the col­lec­tion of sto­ries. The ear­lier work com­prised nine por­traits of men around the world, pass­ing by degrees from youth to old age so that a com­pos­ite pic­ture emerged of man in full. Although Tur­bu­lence is far shorter, it con­tains 12 sec­tions, and they are linked in con­crete rather than purely the­matic ways. This time there are as many fe­male char­ac­ters as male.

The ba­ton-pass­ing struc­ture traces 12 flights be­tween cities around the globe, from Doha to Dakar, Sao Paulo to Seat­tle. The sec­tion ti­tles de­note the air­ports of de­par­ture and ar­rival: LGW – MAD; HKG – SGN, and so on. Like its pre­de­ces­sor, Tur­bu­lence is clearly not the work of a lit­tle Eng­lan­der. Szalay has lived in Bu­dapest for years, and his in­stincts are global, cos­mopoli­tan, border­less. His char­ac­ters have names such as Cheikh, Sham­gar and Amir Bannerjee. Those who strug­gle to muster zeal for fic­tion set in drably fa­mil­iar lo­cales can rely on Szalay for the plea­sures of arm­chair wan­der­lust.

Each sec­tion lasts seven or eight pages and per­mits us a glimpse into some cri­sis or other: an el­derly woman whose son has pros­trate can­cer; a pi­lot tor­mented by sex­ual jeal­ousy; a world-fa­mous writer whose daugh­ter is in labour. As each vi­gnette un­folds, a sec­ondary char­ac­ter is in­tro­duced who, in the sub­se­quent sec­tion, will have cause to fly to an­other part of the world. A plan­e­tary im­age ac­crues of hu­man life in in­tri­cate net­work, des­tinies linked along lines of tran­sit, commerce, mi­gra­tion and tech­nol­ogy.

Szalay works within the clas­si­cal tra­di­tion of the short story, craft­ing epipha­nies and height­ened mo­ments that throw light on a char­ac­ter’s past, present and fu­ture. Here is a woman who has just failed to prove wor­thy of a tragic day in her daugh­ter’s life:

“She al­ready knew that the sig­nif­i­cance of what had just hap­pened would ex­pand as time passed – would ex­pand, in her own mind, and in Annie’s too, into some­thing huge, into a ma­jor fail­ure, of moth­er­hood, of hu­man­ity, a defin­ing event in their lives, from which nei­ther of them would ever be en­tirely able to es­cape, what­ever hap­pened in the fu­ture. It was one of those events, she thought, that make us what we are, for our­selves and for other peo­ple. They just seem to hap­pen, and then they’re there for­ever, and slowly we un­der­stand that we’re stuck with them, that noth­ing will ever be the same again.”

It’s pow­er­ful stuff. The prob­lem is, a few such ar­rest­ing mo­ments aside, the sec­tions are so brief that we don’t get time or space for the char­ac­ters’ crises to wholly captivate our sym­pa­thy. At its weak­est – for ex­am­ple, when a pi­lot re­calls his sis­ter’s drown­ing in child­hood – it comes across as melo­drama, an ap­peal for un­earned emo­tion.

There is enough deft­ness of por­trai­ture and in­ci­sive writ­ing to make Tur­bu­lence worth the time of day, but the best way to re­gard this book is as a step­ping stone, an ex­er­cise to main­tain au­tho­rial fit­ness be­tween one ma­jor work and – let us hope – the next.

■ Rob Doyle’s most re­cent book is This Is the Ri­tual, and he is the edi­tor of the an­thol­ogy The Other Ir­ish Tra­di­tion


English writer David Szalay: his in­stincts are global, cos­mopoli­tan, border­less.

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