David Szalay’s “Turbulence” began life in 2018 as a series on the BBC’s Radio 4. The resulting book, first published last year in the United Kingdom, shares the radio program’s episodic nature, relaying 12 stories about characters whose lives are linked via air travel and whose in-flight anxieties have nothing on the troubles awaiting them on the ground.
“Turbulence” has much in common with Szalay’s previous novel, 2016’s “All That Man Is.” That book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and, like the new work, strains the traditional definition of a novel, with loosely related stories populated by characters undergoing existential crises across Europe.
The connections between the characters in “Turbulence” are more overt than those in “All That Man Is.” A person who is introduced in one chapter becomes the protagonist of the next, and the book starts and ends in London, touching down in Madrid, Dakar, Senegal, Seattle and elsewhere in between. While some characters within each story are strangers to one another, meeting on a plane, in a taxi or through a hookup app, many are related by blood or marriage. Few are happy. No one’s trip goes as planned.
At a slim 145 pages, “Turbulence” is a fast read. Szalay begins each chapter with a clear throat and a determined gaze, and the stories jump from their opening lines: “Cheikh knew something was wrong when Mohammed wouldn’t look him in the eye”; “The next morning she had to lose the pilot before she could leave”; “They said the boy was dead.”
Szalay is not, however, a breathless storyteller. While he’s masterful at quickly establishing a mood and a character, he creates humid, uncomfortable tales, their air thick with worry and the threat of tragedy. A Hong Kong doctor on vacation in Ho Chi Minh City looks out from the back seat of a taxi “at the noisy, energetic poverty of modern Vietnam.” He’s there to play golf with his brother, who lives in their native India and who owes him a modest amount of money that grows in significance the more the doctor thinks about it. The expected confrontation arrives, but its intensity is surprising.
In another chapter, a Sao Paulo journalist in a hurry to be rid of a one-night stand and make her flight to Toronto is stopped by “one of those moments when the presence of a large stranger in her apartment suddenly seemed surreal, and for a few seconds even slightly threatening.” The stranger is a pilot from the book’s previous story, which concerned the man nearly missing his flight to Brazil after witnessing a deadly traffic accident that, of course, involved a character from the chapter before.
Much of the fun of “Turbulence” — and yes, there is joy to be had in reading this cheerless but clever book — is discovering how Szalay will upend the reader’s perspective of a character from one chapter to the next. The pilot in “DSS-GRU” — each title draws from its chapter’s corresponding airport codes — is sympathetic as he shares with an indifferent flight captain that his sister drowned when they were children. In the next chapter, “GRU-YYZ,” the pilot is flat-out pitiful as he fails to read the journalist’s signals and reveals something that would have been better left unsaid.
“People were able to live multiple lives,” one character notes. It’s a prosaic observation that Szalay turns over to reveal an infected underbelly: Learning that her daughter is engaged to a Muslim, an Englishwoman wonders if the man has been truthful about his past. “Ursula wanted to ask her daughter how she could be sure that he didn’t have a family back in Syria — a wife, kids, whatever,” Szalay writes. “There was no way of knowing.”
But ignorance, Szalay reminds us, does not have to be a permanent condition, and the mother’s eventual change in attitude feels earned, stemming as it does from an actual human interaction rather than her imagined ones. Szalay understands that how people respond to one another during life-changing events can be just as important as the events themselves.
In one story, a woman learns that her grandson has been born blind, and she struggles to provide her daughter with the support she so clearly needs. “It was one of those events, she thought, that make us what we are, for ourselves and for other people,” Szalay writes. “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.”
“Turbulence” suggests that such events might shape us, but they don’t define us. Take a good look, Szalay is saying, and do something about it.
Jake Cline is a writer and editor in Miami.
By David Szalay
147 pp. Scribner. 145 pp. $25