Touching down, taking off: ‘Turbulence’ is masterful, compelling

The people in David Szalay’s novel travel great distances, but they tend to glide past each other rather than truly connect.  

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“Turbulence” by David Szalay, Scribner, 145 pp.

Soon after beginning David Szalay’s slender new novel “Turbulence,” I was reminded of Salman Rushdie’s characterization of the air as a “defining location” of the late 20th century, a “place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic,” because, as Rushdie famously said, “when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible.” 

If Rushdie presents air travel as a catalyst for migration and metamorphosis, Szalay suggests that the casual approach we take to flight creates a discontinuity in which fellow citizens of the world connect briefly before gliding past one another. Upon waking from a nap during a flight, one passenger muses, “This had already happened several times, and each time what she had experienced was less like sleep than like an odd discontinuity in her presence in the world.”

Szalay, who lives in Budapest, Hungary, but was raised in England, has captured this paradox of the post-postmodern era through a novel that circumnavigates the globe with lightning speed. Readers are plunged into a new city and point of view in each section, all of which are titled after the three-letter airport codes (“LGW-MAD” for example). There, a new character takes center stage, one with whom we had only a passing acquaintance from the previous chapter. This structure is similar to that of “All That Man Is,” Szalay’s earlier, Man Booker prize-nominated novel. Births, deaths, debt, and unrequited love – along with a few nausea-inducing flights – are among the forms of turbulence each character navigates. 

Geographic barriers may have dissolved with the ease of hopping from continent to continent, but the barriers thrown up by economic disparity, cultural differences, or simply the solitary nature of the human condition remain. If anything, in “Turbulence” they appear magnified in the context of globalization, thrown into relief by the apparent ease of traversing the planet. 

“Turbulence” is somehow light yet also quite moving, offering readers deep, empathetic connections with men and women whose lives differ dramatically from those of one another. Szalay’s range is impressive, given the tendency of many novelists to circumscribe their stories within a particular culture or social circle, usually the one most familiar to them. By contrast, Szalay draws his characters from a variety of nationalities, economic circumstances, religious identities, and stages of life, yet all are distinct individuals who are entirely believable and captivating. 

In one section, a man who seemed monstrous – an absent husband who returns home once a year, only to ignore his children and abuse his wife – in the next section became the character my heart went out to most and from whom it was hardest to wrench myself away. Szalay is particularly adept at immersing us in the consciousness of men who, whether doctors or gardeners, rage against their powerlessness in the wider world and in the smaller world of their personal lives. That he does so with such economy is what makes “Turbulence” masterful. Whether it’s a professor returning to Hong Kong to renew her marriage after an affair, a German cargo pilot mourning the sister he lost as a child, a son in Delhi nursing his father while also siphoning his money, or a housekeeper desperate for time off to help her family in Kerala, their inner monologues are so compelling that I felt a sense of dissonance and loss as the curtain fell abruptly on each scene. 

Perhaps that dissonance is the point, given the book’s larger motif about the way we live now: somehow more connected and disconnected all at once. In any case, I wanted more time with every person in Szalay’s book. But that’s the curse of 21st-century life.

Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York. 

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