Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley

This is a superb piece of literature, superlative writing, great plotting, wonderful characterisation. Written by Noah Hawley, the man who adapted the Coen Brothers' Fargo into a smash hit television series, that all might come as little surprise. Just as that series defies easy genre characterisation, so does Before the Fall.

Scott Burroughs is an artist just emerging from a lost decade of alcoholism and womanising. Perhaps he's rediscovered his mojo, he's not altogether certain, but he's kicked the booze, started swimming again (he won numerous medals in his youth) and his new work is drawing the interest of agents and galleries.

Burroughs has rented a fisherman's cottage in Martha's Vineyard where he lives a simple existence, painting, looking after his three-legged dog, visiting the farmers' market. It's there that he befriends Maggie Bateman, wife of David Bateman, the CEO of a populist and right wing television network (obviously based on Fox News). She invites Scott to fly back to New York, where he is scheduled to meet with gallery representatives, on the Bateman family jet. He accepts, the plane crashes into the sea, killing all aboard with the exception of Scott and the Bateman's young son, JJ.

The plot of Before the Fall follows from there (the crash occurs in the first few chapters) and explores events leading up to the tragedy, and the repercussions afterward. As mentioned above this novel belies genre. In part it is a thriller: was the plane brought down by mechanical failure? pilot error? a bomb or act of sabotage? But it is also a meditation into the nature of the media, wealth, celebrity and society, Scott and to a lesser extent JJ, struggling to cope with their new found infamy as the only survivors.

Hawley is excoriating in his depiction of the press, not just of the Fox-like network (though they come off worst) but of the whole insatiable, 24/7, edifice that the modern world has designed for itself. Scott Boroughs is a throwback, a man who eschews social media, who has minimal digital footprint, and he struggles to navigate the landscape of inanities and easy answers that he is suddenly exposed to.

The author spins his yarn from the perspective of a large cast of characters, ensuring that his world is nuanced and three dimensional. While Scott Burroughs is the closest we have to a central character, Maggie and David Batemen and their friends Ben and Sarah Kipling are also central. Maggie is a former teacher and has never been completely comfortable with the lifestyle her husband's money has brought them. Ben Kipling is a financier who has helped launder money for brutal regimes (North Korea and Sudan amongst their number) and is facing indictment. Sarah is unaware of her husband's troubles, and while more comfortable than Maggie with the trappings of wealth, wishes her husband wasn't so dismissive of those with less than them.

If I have one criticism it is how easily Noah Hawley wraps up his tale at the end, but whereas a small number of reviewers have expressed disappointment in this, I feel it misses the point. In a sense the plot of the novel is an aside. The real strength of Before the Fall is as an introspective of modern society and in that it does its job admirably. Almost all the characters are sympathetic and invoke the reader's empathy and the author avoids the preachiness a lesser writer might have brought to such a story.

Powerful, compelling, and with a real emotional punch, Before The Fall is one not to miss.

5 out of 5 stars 

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