Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Reading group: Turbulence by David Szalay

This book of linked episodes won the Edge Hill Prize for short stories, and as one of the three judges that year (along with Sam Jordison and Tessa Hadley) I of course admire it greatly and was eager to share it with the group.

It takes a large cast of characters connected by flights, each section dealing with a character only briefly or loosely connected with the character in the previous section. It's a short book, and the sections are fairly brief, but manages to convey huge psychological complexity, and to make the situation of each character moving. One thing that really moved me was the way the book portrayed the paradox of the interconnectedness of this global world - and of us all to each other - and our simultaneous aloneness with our personal dilemmas. Another thing I found very moving was the changes in viewpoint and perspective, the difference between how characters are seen by others on the one hand, and their inner lives and personal reality on the other. An early instance of this concerns a pilot: in the section dedicated to him we learn, as he flies a cargo plane from Dakar to Sao Paulo, of the death of his sister when they were children, and the way that, clearly, it has affected him for good, and see his vulnerability and his sensitivity. The next episode opens with the viewpoint of a young female journalist about to take an important flight to Toronto and desperate to get rid of the man with whom she had a one-night stand the night before - a desperation we are made to share along with her anxieties about her commission. It is a moment before we realise - and a little shock when we do - that this is the pilot we came to know in the previous section, seen through her eyes as a piece of inconvenient meat she needs to get out of her bed. 

Doug, Mark and John very much agreed with me, Mark in particular saying he found the book quite brilliant (and not, he said, just because of his past career as a flight attendant). John said he didn't understand how Szalay managed to make the characters, so briefly dealt with in terms of physical space in the book, so  convincing and moving. I said I'd noticed that often when we share a character's point of view here, that character is not named, which makes for psychological veracity - people don't name themselves when they are lost in their inner thoughts, and so it's distancing to name them (which a lot of authors don't seem to have noticed!) The main thing that makes the book so moving, I think, is the way Szalay adopts the techniques of both short stories and novels (the book has in fact been marketed as each, at different times). It uses the short story techniques of economy: implication rather than explication, and omissions and jumps that create moving juxtapositions (connections and contrasts), while also embracing a novelistic overall story arc and forward motion, culminating in a satisfying novelistic link to the beginning.

Doug did say however that the one thing he found unconvincing about the book was that ending, which he found artificial and forced. I have to say that on this, my third or fourth reading of the book, it did strike me that there was a psychological element missing from the last section, which did have the potential for making it seem a little manipulated (I won't say what it is, in order not to plot-spoil), but I must also say that the first two or three times I read the book it never occurred to me, and, apart from that psychological aspect, I still found moving the way the general direction was steered back to the beginning, underlining the theme of our disconnectedness yet surprising connectedness. Mark and John I think felt the same.

Our only real dissenter was Ann, who I'm afraid had found the whole thing too schematic. She had guessed right from the start that the book was going to take us in flights around the world back to the same point (and had quickly flicked through to see that this was the case) and couldn't read it without a sense of the sketched plan Szalay must have drawn up to follow, with all the obvious representative characters ticked off, right down to the Syrian refugee. None of the rest of us had had this reaction. Personally, I couldn't see anything wrong with an author having such a scheme: I saw it merely as the openly disclosed framework for something much more subtle in terms of themes and narrative surprises.

Doug said he didn't think it was a novel, though, as you could read the stories entirely in isolation. Someone else disagreed that that was the case: the stories were much richer if read in sequence through the prisms of the previous stories, which of course is how you read a novel.  Doug said however it didn't have the feel of a novel, it felt like something else. I commented that the novel has always been subject to change and innovation, its very name meaning new. In any case, as with Tove Jansson's Summer Book, which we read earlier this year, I thought that, apart from the pressures of marketing, from a literary point of view there was no need to categorise the book: it was what it was, very successfully in the view of most of us.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here  

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