Before the Fall centers on a plane crash and examines the lives of the victims and survivors before and after the crash. It begins with the plane being readied for flight, the passengers arriving, settling in and then this stark ending of the first chapter, “none of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from now their plane will crash into the sea.”
The novel is cinematic in scope, with great visual scenes that will be perfect in a movie. That makes sense since the author Noah Hawley is the genius behind the TV Series “Fargo.” The most cinematic, of course, is the struggle to survive after the crash when Scott Burroughs, a down-at-the-heels artist swims several miles in open ocean, carrying a four-year-old boy, the son of the cable news magnate presumed dead in the crash. It is thrilling, the sight of this great wave coming toward them, the feel of a shark, possibly, swimming past his leg, the anxiety of waiting, holding still so as not to draw the shark’s attention, the exhaustion and terror of being so alone in the vast ocean. This is the best writing in the book. It is breathless with suspense.
Each person on the plane gets at least a chapter revealing how they came to be on the flight. Chief among them is David Bateman, loosely based on Roger Ailes of FOX News. I say loosely because David Bateman is happily married and loves his family and Roger Ailes is a sexual predator. However, Bateman has Ailes’ commitment to manufacturing news and outrage with a partisan agenda. Bateman discovered Bill Cunningham, an even better simulacrum of Bill O’Reilly, outrage-addicted and reckless. Cunningham has no more care for the people he harms than O’Reilly, who was palpably elated when Dr. Tiller was assassinated thanks in part to O’Reilly’s lies and propaganda against him. Cunningham’s disregard for human decency is a big part of the story.
With Bateman, there was his wife Margaret, their two children, and a bodyguard, Gil Baruch. Their need for a bodyguard was proven years earlier when Rachel, their oldest, was kidnapped for three days. Margaret is a warm, generous person and she invited the Kiplings, a wealthy couple, and Scott Burroughs along on the flight to the city. Ben Kipling has been laundering money from countries under sanctions and is facing an indictment. His wife Sarah is a darling, but flighty, woman. The crew include three people, the pilot, co-pilot, and the flight attendant.
Each of them get their story told. We learn about their character and what brought them to their place in the world and to that flight. These character sketches, though, are for the most part two-dimensional. Some are not quite credible. For example, Emma is hard-working, loves flying in part because her father was a pilot, is discriminating in her relationships, is relentlessly professional, avoiding the stereotypical pitfalls of her career, but then she is taking coke and drinking the night before a flight? That did not track. It seemed an action imposed by a storyline rather than coming from her character.
There is also the investigation into the crash. The investigator, Gus Franklin, from the National Transportation Safety Board, is a calming, reassuring presence. He will figure it out because that’s what he does. Of course there will be stupid, biased investigators who assume surviving a crash means planning a crash. There will be the standard agency jurisdiction fights and stupidity, because that’s more dramatic than competence.
Before the Fall leaves me feeling conflicted. It was suspenseful, a fast enjoyable read that was hard to put down. Obviously it is a success at what it sets out to do. On the other hand, it was full of stereotypes and simplistic characters. Scott, the most interesting character, sometimes seems to be the “holy fool” giving oblique and naive answers to media questions. Of course, he should not be obligated to open his life to the media, but answering a few questions right away could have made him seem less suspicious. After all, is there anything more suspicious in today’s fame-hungry world than avoiding celebrity?
Before the Fall is about more than who crashed the plane and why. We do learn that, but the central conflict is the obscene Cunningham’s disregard for decency in his pursuit of Scott Burroughs, his bugging and recording phone conversations illegally. While that would seem ridiculous, in fact Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World hacked the phone of a 13 year-old girl who was abducted and murdered, even giving her parents false hope she was alive by reading messages, so no, it is not ridiculous. The real life Murdoch paper’s actions are actually far worse than they fictional Cunningham, who after all was hacking living adults, not a dead child.
The contradiction that bothered me most about the book, though, was that Hawley’s central idea was that the media has no right to appropriate someone’s life for ratings, to be reckless with the truth. Cunningham is appropriating and exploiting facts in Burrough’s life to make him appear suspicious and immoral. This is wrong. Boo, Cunningham! But then, why is Hawley free to appropriate Kanye’s life to have him chasing our flight attendant trying to buy her affection with a diamond bracelet. Is it right for him to steal Angelina Jolie’s life to claim the bodyguard was the man who took her virginity? Seriously? Jolie and West are wealthy and famous and probably have more lies told about them daily than we can count, but if one of your central dynamics is a cable news entertainer damaging people recklessly and without regard for their humanity, don’t you think you should not do that to other people, no matter how famous they are? It is a hypocrisy that breaches the core of the book.