Author: Noah Hawley
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: May 31, 2016
The setup for Before the Fall is simple. A chartered plane holding eleven souls plummets into the waters off Martha’s Vineyard. The only survivors are a four-year-old boy and a man who shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Everyone on board has a story, which is to say, everyone on board has secrets.
The setup is simple, but the execution is delightfully original. Noah Hawley—showrunner for both Fargo and Legion—breathes life into a genre known for its formulaic narratives and familiar caricatures. His characters don’t disarm bombs with seconds left on the clock, or decipher messages between shady Middle Eastern organizations. They don’t bring down kingpins or blow up cartels. Their struggles are smaller and more familiar—dissatisfaction, fear, addiction, lust—but any one of these refined sins, left unchecked, has the potential to bring about the fall.
After the initial crash—fifty gripping pages equal to James Patterson’s best novels—the story changes course, switching between the investigation and the backstories of everyone on board. Here Hawley shows his television background; reading Before the Fall feels a lot like watching a serial show. Similar to Lost, the main plot is broken up by lengthy interludes into the life of each character, teasing the reader with plausible motivations for the initial crash. Hawley takes his time on these flashbacks, allowing his love of character to really shine through. With the satirical shrewdness of Tom Wolfe, he analyzes the motivations that drive each person inexorably to that final boarding ramp.
Before the Fall is a philosophical thriller, pulling the reader towards the whodunit ending, but also pausing to grapple with questions of happenstance, the role of the media, and humanity’s bone-deep desire to spin stories that make sense of the world. Or, more correctly, to make stories which mesh with a group’s particular understanding of the world.
In fact, Hawley writes some of his most poignant passages when his characters struggle to understand their own lives in relation to the larger story. With a decidedly Buechner-eseque flair, Hawley reflects on the mysterious connectedness of the world. “Everyone is from someplace. We all have stories, our lives unfolding along crooked lines, colliding in unexpected ways” (134).
Scott, the lone adult survivor, grapples with the inscrutable nature of life early on in the story. When the investigators question his spotty recollection of the crash. He muses, “this is what memory is, a carefully calibrated story that we make up about our past….what happens when those details crumble? What happens when your life can’t be translated into a linear narrative?” (48).
One character in particular acts as a foil to Scott’s worldview. Gus, the rational NTSB investigator, sees the world as a solvable equation, the sum of multiple parts which, if assembled correctly, will form a clear picture every time. Yet by the end of the story, even Gus realizes that it’s impossible to make sense of everything, that the world is a messier place than he thought. “In the absence of facts,” Gus thinks, “we tell ourselves stories” (195).
Hawley pulls no punches when it comes to the media, particularly the conservative media, but his criticisms apply across the board. Character Bill Cunningham—an acerbic nod to Bill O’Reilly and the Fox News network—believes that people don’t want just the facts, ma’am; they want them interpreted. And he shoulders the role of commentator with a deceitful ferocity that has the reader begging Scott to take him down.
In the aftermath of the crash, Scott notes with almost detached interest how the media has relentlessly dissected his life and recreated him in wildly disparate ways: the hero, the villain, the shmuck. Ultimately, he is powerless to prevent others from forming these false narratives about his story. “It’s fascinating to him, as a man who concerns himself with image, to think of how his own is being fabricated—not in the sense of being faked, but how it’s being manufactured, piece by piece” (274).
But Scott isn’t really bothered by this manipulation. Such a lackadaisical attitude about reputation seems to have emerged during his nighttime swim away from the wreckage with the four-year-old boy on his back. In the midst of the waves and the impenetrable darkness, just as Scott is about to abandon hope, the clouds part, and he catches a glimpse of the North Star. From that star, he gains his bearings, as well as an existential revelation: “Even in planetary terms we are small—one man afloat in an entire ocean, a speck in the waves. We believe our capacity for reason makes us bigger than we are, our ability to understand the infinite vastness of celestial bodies. But the truth is, this sense of scale only shrinks us” (182).
Any story that spends so long leading up to a whodunit ending sets the reader’s expectations high, and the big reveal of the book was a bit of a disappointment. But Hawley seems less concerned with giving his readers a satisfying aha! moment, and more interested in reflecting on the stories of people who lived and died as quickly as a wave breaking.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the collision of the plane that kept me turning pages, but the collision of characters—both with each other and with the wildness of the world. Hawley paints an honest picture of our world, one full of fractured stories, of collisions that are puzzling and incomprehensible. Still, there are still those moments when the fabric of the world lifts slightly, when the North Star appears, and we catch a glimpse of the underlying cohesion. And by that light, we find our way.