One woman, in her first-class pod on a Delta plane, watches a televised map of her flight’s progress and senses not merely her own loneliness but her own insignificance. “On the map the plane was marked by a plane-shaped symbol that would be, if it were to scale, about a thousand kilometers long. In fact it was hard to understand quite what an insignificant speck this airplane was, in terms of the size of the ocean it was flying over, in terms of the quantity of emptiness that surrounded it on all sides.”
The early stories in “Turbulence” tend to be about cosmopolitan people with resources. In the later stories, that begins to change. People travel for more desperate reasons. You sense that the first half of this novel is about the world as seen from above a well-appointed dinner table. In the second half, we see that same table from below. This view is not as pleasing. The underside of the world’s table is where people have placed their dried snot and chewed gum.
In one chapter, a day nurse in Delhi is accused by a wealthy man of a small act of thievery. She must fly to the Indian state of Kerala to visit her sister, who has been badly beaten by her husband. Her entire life dwindles to a seat in steerage. In the following chapter, we meet her husband, a gardener to a wealthy woman in Qatar, who has secrets of his own. About the wealthy woman, we read: “Mrs. Ursula was his ‘sponsor,’ as they said here — which meant, more or less, his owner. She kept his passport and his work permit, and he was unable to travel anywhere or do anything without her express permission.” After years of service, he has never been inside her house.
Szalay interrogates cultural certainties and insecurities. Two of the final stories are about a young woman, born in London, who now lives in Budapest. She tells her parents she’s going to marry a man, a veterinarian, who is an asylum-seeking Syrian and a Muslim.
The woman’s mother had been “cautiously proud” to know they were dating; it bolstered her own “liberal bona fides.” But marriage? The man is from a country so troubled that commercial flights cannot pass over it. Her father puts it most baldly, asking her if he isn’t “some Islamic nutter.”
Jack London used to pay Sinclair Lewis to come up with plot ideas for him. There are enough plot fragments in “Turbulence” to suggest many novels. Szalay could set up shop on eBay. I wish he’d carried some of them a bit further.
These melancholy flights have a lot to say about human impermanence. We may never, as Seals & Crofts sang, pass this way again.