Rich Marcello’s The Beauty of the Fall is a novel of loss, despair, redemption, with a round of loss and despair and redemption again. Dan Underlight is a tech genius whose company RadioRadio is a huge success, but he’s the idea man, not the CEO, and when grief dries up his effectiveness, he is fired from the company he founded. He has good reason to grieve. He’s lost quite a bit, his marriage and his son, for whose death he feels guilt and responsibility.
He has an idea, though, for a new company, and if he can figure it out, he will be back better than ever–and he won’t just be making a big success; he will be literally saving the world. He envisions a social media platform that fosters conversations, consensus, and change unlike the modern megaphones of obstinacy and misanthropy.
I feel like a heel for being so disappointed in this book. After all, Underlight’s new technology passes the ERA, proposes solutions to reduce domestic violence, and to move us past inertia on climate change. He creates a company code that makes me go “awwwww.” He likes poetry, does games with his therapist and is just such a cool guy. But I don’t really like him much and I don’t really care much about him.
There are several reasons, but the primary one is that every other character in the book has no role, no agency, no substance other than as foils for Underlight. There’s a cardboard villain Olivia who gets a brief shining moment right at the end. The rest of the women, and there are several woman are variations on the manic pixie dream girl, especially Nessa, his therapist and Willow, his love. Tessa and Willow, you know they’re pixie dream girls before they open their mouths. And there’s a Zooey, too.
They are all slightly quirky, absolutely perfect and come along to do and say the right things to move Underlight along his path to enlightenment. They don’t really matter as people, only as catalysts. The men, other than his son, are the money men, an investor, the financial manager, because men = money, of course. Worse, it turns out his son was a catalyst, too. He even has his son, as an technologically aged avatar, assure him that he would not have wanted to live because his death brought good old dad to where he is today.
Oh my gawwwwwd, Everything Happens for a Reason! I hate that phrase and the ugly selfish sentiment behind it. Take it apart for a moment, take it to its conclusion. That child did not live his life to be himself, to have agency, to be a distinct self. Nope, his purpose was to die and teach his dad some valuable lesson. Willow’s hopes and dreams are immaterial, she exists to climb that damn tree. Everyone’s life is just grist for the grand narcissist whose maturation, emotional development, psycho-social integration, and financial success is their crowning achievement. It is such a selfish, egoistic sentiment and my skin crawls every time I hear it and I was dismayed to see it as one the central “lessons” of the book. I would be happy if I never heard this idea again.
Also, in some ways, Underlight is a closet creep. For all his feminism, he does some very unreconstructed hero of the patriarchy stuff. It keeps coming out in rare moments, inappropriate behaviors that damage his relationships and his life. Behaviors that reveal a sense of entitlement, of self-centeredness.
The book is full of lessons. Underlight has ideas for a better way to organize a corporation, a Code to govern their decisions that is excellent and would be lovely. He also wants to tackle some of the intractable problems, violence against women, climate change, and so much more, and thinks we can change the world with better technology.
As someone who was president of a state grassroots community organization with thousands of members, I thought his idea that we could solve the world’s problems if we only had a better platform a bit glib about the difficulty of the work. He is absolutely right, we are falsely polarized by politicians who present issues as false choices, by media who obfuscates more than it clarifies and a culture where people think they can have their own facts. Here’s the thing, a computer program substantiating facts ignores that people do not accept authority if it conflicts with the conclusions they want. People can hold some intellectually indefensible opinions if their income depends on it and they do it with bravado. He ignores that legislatures are often gerrymandered to the point of total impunity, with no one to hold them accountable other than extremists and lobbyists. There are issues we have nearly universal agreement on – such as background checks which 96% of Americans support – and which die in Congress again and again. It’s not the agreements that we lack, it’s the accountability.
I love Marcello’s ambitions, his desire for a better world, his ideas of another way to run a corporation, but to borrow from Augustus in Lonesome Dove, The Beauty of the Fall is “too leaky a vessel to hold so much hope.”
I think many people will like this book. People who liked Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder or Ishmael by Daniel Quinn will adore The Beauty of the Fall. I loathed those books, but most of the world loved them. So, I am contrary, I guess. They are all three ambitious in the effect they want in the world while lacking the kind of rigor that effect requires. The other two, though, sparked discussion in thousands of book forums and book clubs. I think this book could as well because it is, I think a love it or hate it book.