Right in the eye of the storm with Giles Foden's "Turbulence"
Disparate themes become impediments in this gripping account of meteorologists in World War II.
Right in the eye of the storm. (Associated Press / August 11, 2010)
Alfred A. Knopf: 318 pp., $25.95
There is a game in which one child suggests several things — a rose, say, a chocolate cake, a steam engine — and another improvises a story linking them. Giles Foden's "Turbulence" pursues various themes: There is the tense effort by meteorologists in World War II to predict when the weather will allow the cross-Channel invasion of Normandy. There is the involvement of one of them, Henry Meadows, with a guru-like genius recluse who may have devised a weather-predicting formula, and with the recluse's stormily agitated wife. There is Henry's dream-like obsession with East Africa, where he was raised and where his parents were killed in a mudslide. And there is a ship made of a mix of ice and sawdust that Henry constructs in Antarctica years later to be sailed to a Gulf desert kingdom to provide refrigeration. The themes range from compelling to melodramatic to seemingly far-fetched (that ice ship). What they lack, in their disparity of subject and tone — from coolly gripping to garishly superheated — is a convincing fictional link.
Henry is the narrator throughout, and the shattered, unstable quality of his voice is one of the keys to the larger incoherence that swamps the stories he relates. His account of his parents' death approaches the hallucinatory. "[T]he event would distort my perceptions of — and relations with — others," he complains. "… it turned me into this inward, unreflexive creature, this truculent, obtuse, curly-haired character I now look askance at in the mirror." For the reader he is not so much an unreliable as an unstable narrator.
Until the climactic section on the invasion's meteorologists, told with tight suspense, his gesticulating introspection clouds rather than illuminates what he is relating.
The mudslide, he tells us, accounted for his interest as a promising young physicist in the phenomenon of turbulence. This leads to his wartime enlistment in weather studies. His chief dispatches him to a remote town on Scotland's coast to try to cultivate Wallace Ryman, who abandoned his innovative weather research to dedicate himself to peace studies. Henry is to try to get him to apply the so-called Ryman numbers to figure out the weather for the June invasion. Foden elaborates the theory murkily — it puzzles the meteorologists as much as it does us — but it has to do with positing gaps between weather systems through which unforeseen events may slip.
Ryman, in any case, is unwilling to elaborate; insisting that science should not be used for war. He is, besides, a moody, spellbinding figure, with mystical obsessions — not unlike the central character in John Fowles' "The Magus." (In its abstruse, semi-prophetic scientific explorations, the novel suggests, as well, some of Richard Powers' fiction.) Henry is part bewildered, part captivated and part resistant. Even more baffling, and alluring, is Ryman's wife, Gill, seductive yet fiercely devoted to her husband. The tone in which Henry tells of his turbulent stay with the Rymans, ending in a tragic accident, broods with ponderous lushness and a foreboding more insisted on by the author than evoked in the reader.
Foden writes vividly of the bleak Scottish seascape, of the local characters, of the war threats from reconnoitering German planes. It is a relief, though, to go from the distraught, futilely susceptible Henry in magus-land to active and innovative Henry among the meteorologists assembled near the Channel ports who are working to provide Eisenhower's headquarters with weather estimates. Foden writes splendidly tense scenes as the experts argue over whether the chosen June Monday will allow the minimum conditions necessary for the crossing. Not only are they wildly divided between a go-ahead and a postponement, but as the days pass, the disputants swap about their positions. Meanwhile Eisenhower's staff presses for a definite answer, and the head of the group suffers a near breakdown trying to work out a compromise. How well Foden dramatizes the subordination of expertise to the world of action that presumably needs it.
And Henry emerges from his self-involved shadows. A discrepant weather report from Iceland contradicts all the others.
Henry checks on it, realizes that at last the Ryman numbers can be used. A narrow channel of good weather is making its way through the big weather fronts; it will arrive after the storms on the proposed Monday invasion day and before new storms on Wednesday. Finally the experts agree, and the invasion takes place Tuesday. And the weather, it turns out, is worse than the minimum conditions the military had set, yet any other time would have been impossible. So much for the precision of expertise; so much for the inveterate randomness of reality. It is Foden at his best.
At his worst, the confounded ice ship. Far-fetched as it is it serves both to start the novel off and to conclude it. And having hardly any credibility and certainly nothing to do with anything else of importance in the book, it wrong-foots the reader.
Rose and chocolate cake: OK, kid, but you haven't managed to work in the steam engine.
Eder, a former Times book critic, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.