Two spare, world-spanning new novels by gifted prose stylists plumb the themes of love, death, and desire. Set on airplanes, in lonely flats, houses, and hotels, Turbulence by David Szalay and Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds differ radically in form and tone but possess overlapping concerns. Both books illuminate the isolation and heartbreak engendered by our contemporary culture; while Szalay’s sombre work explores mortality and our common humanity, Foulds’s witty satire focuses on obsession and the quest for fame.
The two authors share a number of biographical coincidences. Both have been finalists for the Man Booker Prize – Szalay for All That Man Is in 2016 and Foulds for The Quickening Maze in 2009. Szalay was born in Montreal, though his family soon relocated to London and he now lives in Budapest. Foulds underwent the opposite trajectory, having grown up in London and recently relocated to Toronto.
Turbulence, which originated as a series of commissioned pieces for the BBC, centres on a dozen diverse characters linked through 12 plane journeys that cumulatively circumnavigate the globe. Each chapter detonates with a small shock of recognition, as the central figures visit children, siblings, parents, and lovers. The focus in each successive piece is on one character’s point of view – then, as in a relay race, the narrative baton is passed to the next person. Power stems from the brief yet profound cascading effect these individuals have on one another.
Each of Szalay’s characters is in crisis. In the lead story, a mother flies home after visiting her grown son, who is fighting prostate cancer. She is terrified of plane travel, and more terrified of her son dying. She wonders why the man next to her, who is Black and not English, does not move into the empty aisle seat, giving them both more room, but is afraid to suggest this, concerned that he might interpret her comment as racist. Severe turbulence knocks her neighbour’s Coke into his lap and she offers him tissues from her handbag. The two strangers connect briefly with talk of their respective children.
The next chapter grapples with the subject of class, drawing us into the life of Cheikh, the woman’s Senegalese seatmate. As soon as Cheikh climbs into his car, he knows something is wrong with his chauffeur, Mohammed. Cheikh assumes the problem has to do with marriage or money troubles and takes pompous pleasure in his elevated status. “It pleased Cheikh that he was able to … be such a transformative power in the world of Mohammed’s family.” At the end of the story, we find out that the true cause of the chauffeur’s unease has to do with Cheikh himself.
In a 2016 interview with The Paris Review, Szalay talked about his disaffection with the traditional novel form: “It occurred to me that a kind of meaning could be achieved by the relation of one story to another – by the structure in which they’re set, by echoes between them.” He was referring to All That Man Is, but this is also an apt description of Turbulence. Szalay’s concision of sentence, scene, and structure creates a brilliantly contained narrative pressure. The book eventually comes full circle, ending at the place where it began, with each character serving as a compass point on the journey. Turbulence is a superb work of fiction, one of the best books so far this year.
Foulds’s satiric novel, meanwhile, lampoons two privileged characters: a vain, rapacious actor and his crazed fan, both of whom are locked into their private obsessions with little awareness of the gritty, troubled world beyond them. Kristin, divorced, rattling around in her mansion outside Philadelphia, is obsessed with the British TV show The Grange (a Downton Abbey–like series). She is particularly taken with its hero, portrayed by Henry Banks, who “was everywhere and nowhere … the key signature in which the music of her life was played.” Having “redecorated her marriage away,” Kristin finds herself inspired by her yoga teacher’s spiritual exhortations to “think of [herself] as a germinating seed about to get up and walk into [her] future.”
Dissatisfied with TV fame, Henry longs to star in a film made by a famous Spanish director. Henry trails the director around the National Gallery and starves himself to suit the part he covets. Hunger gnaws at him, the perfect metaphor for an inner emptiness that no amount of fame will fill.
A subplot involving Henry’s parents and their thwarted artistic ambitions is vivid, insightful, and very funny. The prose throughout this novel is fresh and penetrating, flecked with original images, such as the portrait of clonish models at a film festival in Qatar who function like “traffic cones.”
Though Dream Sequence contains a dual point of view, Henry manspreads throughout the text, hogging most of the narrative space. Though Kristin and Henry eventually meet, the ruthless and melodramatic climax is facile and fails to resonate deeply. A disparity exists between the gorgeous precision and psychological acuity of Foulds’s language and the thinness of his subject. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to take delicious pleasure in his droll and sparkling prose.