View from the clouds: air­bound sto­ries of­fer in­sight into hu­man life on Earth

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Books - Re­view by Alas­tair Mab­bott

Tur­bu­lence David Szalay Jonathan Cape, £9.99

In Tur­bu­lence, the mir­a­cle of air travel col­lapses phys­i­cal dis­tances be­tween peo­ple, but also high­lights how dif­fi­cult it can be for them to con­nect with one an­other. David Szalay has used a sim­i­lar struc­ture for this book to that of his ear­lier All That Man Is, win­ner of the 2016 Gor­don Burn Prize and only just beaten by Paul Beatty to that year’s Man Booker Prize. Echo­ing Sch­nit­zler’s 1897 play La Ronde, it’s a se­quence of vi­gnettes in which a sup­port­ing char­ac­ter from one seg­ment be­comes the fo­cus of the next, and so on, un­til we ar­rive back where we started – in this case, Not­ting Hill.

Each of these linked sto­ries be­gins with a flight on an aero­plane, ei­ther a jour­ney home or an ar­rival in a new coun­try. Rather than a ti­tle, each sec­tion is given the codes of the in­ter­na­tional air­ports of the pas­sen­ger’s de­par­ture and ar­rival. And the tur­bu­lence al­luded to in the ti­tle isn’t just the kind faced by the avio­pho­bic old lady at the be­gin­ning. Szalay’s char­ac­ters are all deal­ing with piv­otal mo­ments in re­la­tion­ships.

This is si­mul­ta­ne­ously a short story col­lec­tion and a novel, so some men­tal ad­just­ment is re­quired un­til you get the hang of it. In “MAD-DSS” (Madrid to Dakar), a busi­ness­man re­turns home to Sene­gal and can tell from his chauf­feur’s man­ner that some­thing ter­ri­ble has oc­curred in his ab­sence. In the next story, we find out what that was, from a new char­ac­ter’s per­spec­tive, but have to ac­cept the fact that we will not re­turn to the busi­ness­man again, never find out how he re­acted or how he will cope. In this book, we are trav­ellers who can only move for­ward and never look back.

It’s tan­ta­lis­ing and frus­trat­ing, be­cause each slim vi­gnette hints at a big­ger story, like teasers for a block­buster we will never get to read in which all these threads are some­how drawn to­gether. And with 12 of these sto­ries packed into 136 pages, each one stripped down to a min­i­mum of scene-

set­ting and back­story, the farewells come painfully fre­quently.

Szalay has given us some bril­liantly ren­dered slices of life to en­joy: sib­ling re­sent­ment com­ing to a head on a Viet­namese golf course; a Cana­dian au­thor who fears she’s let­ting her­self and her daugh­ter down with her re­ac­tion to a new-born grand­child; a pilot con­fid­ing in his cap­tain what it felt like to lose his sis­ter; a young woman re­turn­ing to Lon­don to see her fa­ther, who is in re­mis­sion from can­cer and search­ing for a way to re-es­tab­lish his bond with her. The mean­ing of each story is sub­tly al­tered by the one that fol­lows, which in turn sets up ex­pec­ta­tions for the next.

Shot through with mo­ments where com­mu­ni­ca­tion breaks down and the sense of one’s sep­a­rate­ness sets in, these in­di­vid­ual scenes nev­er­the­less form a co­her­ent whole, and there’s barely a story here which isn’t in some way en­gag­ing and ab­sorb­ing, the au­thor’s com­pas­sion and in­volve­ment with his char­ac­ters shin­ing through even in their times of deep­est iso­la­tion.

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