Turbulence – Giles Foden

7 June 2010
Chapters 1-13
I’m about a third of the way through and… Giles Foden is aiming for plausibility in a story about wartime weathermen, so we get a lot of maths and physics, done with that kind of airy wave of the scientific narrative wand you sometimes get. The first-person narrator (I’m sure I’ll remember his name in a bit) is prepared to while away hours with a slide-rule and what he knows of differential calculus in order to get to grips with formulas and concepts even a layman knows are almost impossibly complex. Early on, Foden has him following a single snowflake being blown around in a gust of wind, just to remind us how hard it is to get hold of even the tiniest part of the pattern, never mind the whole picture. And our man’s specialism is fluid mechanics, a branch of physics as arcane to most of us as Zoroastrianism: we’ve heard of it, and we might understand a short summary if offered it, but that’s about all. Fine.

Our man – he’s called Henry Meadows – is located in a similar kind of scientific and mathematical backwater to the Bletchley Park of Robert Harris’s Enigma. Except in most ways it isn’t similar at all. Instead of the Midlands and dozens of Cambridge graduates organised into a finely-tuned machine, we get the west coast of Scotland, and this Cambridge man is thrown not into a hotbed of talent but a fishing expedition. His quest – which is what this story comes down to – is for the holy grail of a number. Or Number, capital letter, with a name attached. It’s 1944, and if only Meadows can understand it, he might be able to get our boys over to Normandy in predictably perfect weather conditions. It’s a pity that the only person with the key to Ryman’s Number is Ryman himself, a pacifist who has, to change the metaphor, taken his ball home years ago. And home is in Argyllshire.

It’s hokum, obviously, but it feels well-researched and it’s perfectly readable. I like the way Foden gives you wide cinematic landscapes to look at – something else he shares with Robert Harris – but I’m not so sure of our narrator. The way he constantly refers to the science of absolutely everything, his conscious, or self-conscious, use of fancy language, his blokeish comments about the women he’s stumbled across during his first week…. I’m not convinced. Two of the women are upper-class Wrens (or something) doing their bit for the war effort. They’re also artists in their spare time, collaborating on canvases in a way that could stand as a metaphor for their lesbian relationship. (Of course our man, being a red-blooded bloke, hasn’t got past his own fantasies long enough for this to dawn on him. But his older self, narrating this decades later, has dropped enough hints to let us know he’ll find out eventually.)

The other woman is Ryman’s wife. As soon as we’ve met her Meadows is telling us he’s going to end up wrecking her life (not his exact words). She’s childless, but there’s a rocking-horse and unused christening gown in the house, and when she asks him about rhesus blood groups – he happens to have just met another Cambridge eccentric, a German Jewish migrant who specialises in that very thing – Ryman steps in quick to stop her going down that route. We can work out why, because Foden doesn’t make it difficult: obviously, she and her husband are rhesus incompatible, or whatever the term is. (We understand what this means because the scientist has explained it in one of those short summaries I was talking about.)

What else? We get Meadows’ back story: brought up in Nyasaland, but unceremoniously catapulted out of there after he witnesses the death of his parents in an avalanche of mud brought down by a freak storm. It’s enough to make a man turn to meteorology. And we get a couple of eccentric scientists: the Jewish migrant obsessed with the cellular structure of blood, and Pike, portrayed as the stereotype of the unworldly boffin. They’re trying out something wacky in the loch, training a sea-lion to search for mines. How we laughed – but we know Pike is somehow important because in the narrative that frames this one, set in the early 1980s, Meadows is sailing an ice-ship – as in, a ship made of ice – designed to Pike’s specifications in order to take ice and super-cooled water from the Antarctic to the Arabian Gulf. We don’t know what that’s all about, because Meadows hasn’t mentioned it since about Chapter 1. Fair enough.

8 June
Chapters 14-32
Did I say Foden was aiming for plausibility? Not any more: despite having one of his characters plead that we often underestimate how random things can be – by which I took him to mean that, yes, the weirdest coincidences really can happen – these chapters are about as plausible as a James Bond movie. Besides, the man who made that point about randomness has just got killed at the end of one of the most improbable chains of coincidence in the book so far. It’s Ryman, who just happens to be walking near Meadows’ array of balloon-bombs when Meadows also happens to be there, and the spy-plane that occasionally passes happens to fly over. So, when our man releases the balloons, well, it’s only to be expected that one trailing wire should happen to find itself getting caught round Ryman’s neck….

But the real keynote of these chapters isn’t chance, it’s weirdness. This Scottish backwater might not have many people in it, but not a single one of them is ordinary. We know about the mad (or obsessive-compulsive) scientists and the lady artists. Ok. We’ve also got the wife of the local farmer McKellar, who can read tealeaves and, generally, do a passing impression of a crazy witch. We’ve got the man in charge of the lesbians, also Meadows’ nominal boss, whose party-piece is to work himself up into a frenzy about Meadows’ lackadaisical attitude. And we get Jill, Ryman’s wife, who literally falls on to Meadows then seems deliberately to get him to cut his hand. (He thinks it’s a failed seduction, but the truth is weirder: Meadows later finds out she wants a blood sample so that she and her husband can check on his blood group. They need a sperm donor, so to speak.)

What else? Jill has told Meadows of Ryman’s fantasy of an Albert Hall-sized building full of human mathematicians who could be marshalled into making the kind of interconnected calculations that accurate weather-forecasting needs. It’s a kind of human version of the computers we readers know is necessary for weather forecasting, and Foden confirms the point by having her tell us that the 1940s word for the people doing the computations is ‘computers’. All it does is to add another layer of weirdness to the story. (It also takes us into Enigma-land again: Ryman’s co-ordinated arrays of maths boffins sound like a 3-dimensional version of Bletchley Park. I’m trying to remember if Harris’s book featured human ‘computers’ as well.) Elsewhere in the novel Ryman has already invented a kind of valve-filled steampunk computer in an attempt to bring his calculations up to speed. Poor bloke: we know it will take decades for computational power to catch up with these ideas.

What have I missed? Some musings about Africa – there’s one riff somewhere around Chapter 15 in which the catastrophic seismic shifts that can be found in parts of Africa become a blurry metaphor of the political changes in the continent in the lifetime of this 1980s narrator. It features some more of Meadows’ unconvincingly high-flown language, and it sounds to me like Foden’s own experience getting in the way. (He spent some of his childhood in Malawi.) And, inevitably, we get more of Meadows’ rather tiresome libido, which is evident enough for his boss to complain about – he goes around after the gay women with his tongue hanging out – and which makes him quite fancy the idea of sharing body fluids with Jill Ryman long before he hears of the couple’s cunning plan for him.

Enough. It’s April now – the wartime narrative began in January – and everybody knows D-Day was in June. All Meadows has to show for months of effort is the death of the only man who could have helped, and the scientist’s unhelpful insistence shortly before his death that the Ryman Number is no magic key anyway. Now our man has been hauled back to London and he’s at a crossroads: is he going to carry on with Stagg, his former colleague, and work on the D-Day forecasts? Or is he going to work with Pike, now in Canada, doing interesting things with ice? And what’s he going to do about Jill? He hasn’t even got an address for her, now living as a widow with her family on the Isle of Wight as she waits to see whether her eighth pregnancy will be any more successful than the previous seven….

15 June
Chapter 33 to the end
Meadows chooses a career with the ice-man. He goes to see him, not in Canada at all but in a huge refrigerated building behind Smithfield Market. Maybe it used to be a giant cold-store. Whatever, Pike is now transformed into Q from the James Bond movies and spends a morning demonstrating how wonderful his new Pikecrete is. Meadows is so convinced he thinks nothing of helping to sail a Pikecrete ship nearly four decades later… but, bizarrely, this next branch of the story is suddenly lopped off. Pike’s funding is cut, the giant fridge is turned off – and Meadows is looking for another job. (Pike, who’s always been presented as the personification of eccentric blue-sky thinking, later kills himself. Another genius bites the dust.) Fortunately, whenever Foden lobs a crisis at our man it always turns out to be no such thing: the weather job with Stagg is still open and Meadows jumps at it.

Does it sound a bit plot-bound? That’s how it feels. It also feels increasingly far-fetched – but maybe that’s because I always find it hard to be won over by the science in novels: occasionally you get a convincing-sounding morsel, but most of the time you have to take the author’s word for it. The character of Meadows doesn’t help: there’s one weekend a few days before D-Day (tell you later) when he has to lock himself away doing some things with numbers that sound like a kind of mathematical alchemy. Yeh, sure. And I’m also not particularly convinced in this final third of the book by the way we never meet anybody who we haven’t at least already heard of, and probably met. But I shouldn’t keep complaining: some of it is quite engaging.

For instance, before Super-weatherman flies in to the rescue, we get a well imagined reconstruction of what it must have been like to work in the Met Office (or its military equivalent) with Churchill and Eisenhower breathing down your neck. Stagg is now in charge, and he finds it almost impossibly stressful to reconcile the dissenting voices of the American and European experts who share conference-calls every day. The American, whom we’ve met, uses analogous research – looking for near-identical weather-patterns from the past and projecting from there – whereas the Brit and the Scandinavian, er, use other methods. Unfortunately, they almost never agree – and any forecast Stagg cobbles together is rarely accurate beyond 24 hours, and is practically guesswork beyond 48. Ike and Winnie need better predictions than that, so what’s poor Stagg to do?

He doesn’t know he’s in a novel, so he doesn’t realise that what he needs is a McGuffin. He gets one in the form of anomalous readings from a weather-ship near Iceland. (Be still, my beating heart.) Several pages, spread over several chapters, are devoted to Meadows’ determination to get to the bottom of this. Are the instruments wrong? In order to find out, his requirements are (and just count the links in the chain here): a plane like the one he flew to Scotland in to go and pick up the instruments; a wind-tunnel to test them in like you might find, for instance, in the plane factory on the Isle of Wight near where he is now based, and where he’s recently sent a letter c/o Jill’s dad, who works there; somebody, such as Jill, to be at the factory to give him the last pieces he needs in the Ryman Number puzzle – sets of precision-made metal digits in the shell-cases he stumbled upon in Argyll; somebody, like Jill, expert enough to tell him about the arcane methodology Ryman used to use in order to find his way through the fog of information weather-data always contains; and for the data to have enough significance for a heroic weekend of number-crunching to turn it into success for the Allies.

This is what happens. Meadows discovers a thin corridor of fine weather between low-pressure systems, and somebody later tells him he would have got a medal if such things were ever awarded for meteorology. (They aren’t, obviously.) It’s an action-movie plot transposed out of its comfort-zone, and it’s as though Foden realises this: he decides to get Meadows to participate in the actual landings. Not only will it provide some Saving Private Ryan footage of the horrors, it will also provide Meadows with a tragic, or ironic (or something) injury. A sharpened pole rips through the glider he’s being transported in and ends up in his groin.

It’s the end of the war for him – and how ironic that the man who was going to provide the Rymans with children can now no longer father children of his own. But in the old-fashioned epilogue – spoken at a kind of memorial event, in one of this novel’s provocatively far-fetched twists, by the German meteorologist he managed to bring down with the balloon-bombs that killed Ryman – we hear how respected he later became. And how, for no reason I can fathom, Foden allows him, once he’s got the ice-ship to the Arabian Gulf (or wherever), to disappear back into Africa never to be seen again.

Y’see, Meadows never does get over Africa. Whatever happens in his life, churning inside him is an awful – wait for it – turbulence. Foden does what he can to make this man’s interior life interesting in its own right, and he piles a lot of metaphorical baggage into Meadows’ descriptions of his own restless soul. When we get inside his head as he loses consciousness in the glider, we find a seething mass of confusion in general and memories of Africa in particular. It’s unfortunate that this self-consciously literary quest for some kind of emotional equilibrium sits so uneasily with the credibility-stretching plot that’s going on all around our man. Instead of giving a roundness to an unlikely – and often unlikeable – hero, the two things fight against one another, as if this book can’t decide what it wants to be. But there you are.

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