The slender new novel from Szalay—whose most recent book, All That Man Is, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016—is a (world) tour de force, an exploration in fiction of the concept of six degrees of separation.
The novel's most direct literary model is probably Arthur Schnitzler's fin-de-siècle Vienna play La Ronde, an erotic round made up of 10 dialogues between lovers whose liaisons cross boundaries of marriage and status, with the daisy chain making its way back around to where it started. Szalay's book consists of a dozen brief, plainspoken, deceptively simple sketches, glimpses. He begins with a flight from London to Madrid, with an elderly woman on the way home from tending her cancer-stricken middle-aged son. After an incident of turbulence, she confides in a small way to her seatmate, who has spilled a soft drink on himself. He continues on from Madrid to his home in Dakar, where tragic news awaits. And so on—flight by flight, chapter by chapter, character by character, the novel circumnavigates the globe: Sao Paulo, Toronto, Saigon, Doha, Budapest...until, inevitably, we link back to London and the cancer patient with whom we began. Along the way, Szalay grants brief, poignant glimpses into a wide variety of people and circumstances: a freight pilot whose taxicab to the airport hits a pedestrian, an expatriate gardener with a secret, a melancholy oncologist and his brother the chancer, a globe-trotting journalist, an Indian city-dweller and her abused rural sister. The chapters are tiny cross sections of lives, lovingly examined under the writer's microscope. The result is a book that is high concept but—thanks to Szalay's gift for compression and the same empathetic imagination that was on display in All That Man Is—never gimmicky.
Szalay has devised an ingenious way to accommodate enormous range in a miniature form. Subtle, smart—a triumph.