Before The Fall: Fargo creator Noah Hawley gives a lesson in suspense writing in new book
Before the Fall is Noah Hawley’s fifth novel, and the Fargo showrunner may well have a masterpiece with this one
If his reputation as the showrunner behind the hit TV series Fargo is anything to go by, Noah Hawley is already on a pedestal. It is the age of television, but unsurprisingly, creative directors, screenwriters and even producers are trying their hand at fiction. The likes of Nic Pizzolatto — the man behind True Detective — have been down the road, one which isn’t new to Hawley at all.
Before the Fall is Noah Hawley’s fifth novel and he is among the rare group of auteurs whose oeuvre goes beyond a particular medium. In Hawley's writing, mystery, taut narratives, and memorable characters dovetail neatly. Hawley is a virtuoso of character, and in Before the Fall, he may well have delivered a masterpiece — Fargo notwithstanding.
The novel begins on a foggy evening: A private jet is set to take off, with 11 passengers on board. Among these 11 are four members of the Bateman family. David Bateman is a media mogul overseeing a vast fortune; he is accompanied by his wife and two children. The Kiplings, a couple (the husband Ben is another Wall-Street hotshot, with morals that can't match up to his million-dollar fortune), two pilots, a flight attendant, David Bateman’s bodyguard, and an artist Scott Burroughs, make up the rest of the party. Burroughs is the one man who happens to be on board by sheer happenstance; he is last to arrive and makes it just in time before the jet is about to take off. Eighteen minutes in, the airplane crashes into the sea. Burroughs miraculously survives, as does the Batemans' four-year-old son who the former rescues — for which act, he is feted as a hero.
Fargo-esquely, Hawley introduces the reader to the characters, at least most of them, straightaway. We get fleeting glances at first, of who they are and what they do. Once Burroughs makes it to shore, the inquest begins. What seems like a straightforward tragedy escalates into a mystery, in which Burroughs finds himself unwittingly embroiled. Enter FBI agents, investigations, theories, scoops and what not. Hawley depicts an innate sense of time, and character. To him both are the unfinished account of the other. There is not a point in the novel, where the gravitas of character abandons the narrative for a motif, skewed to suit the suspense. The title of the book is indicative of Hawley’s approach. A plane has crashed. Two people have survived, their lives unimaginably altered. Questions are being asked, and on the way to finding the answers, is a journey through the mind of every person involved in the story.
Hawley’s ability to assign depth to personality, irrespective of the frivolity of his or her vocation is exemplary. He can chisel a stewardess out of the same stone as his much more complicated, a-lot-riding-on-their-lives characters. There is also slick prose to boot, in no way skimming the surface of writing from which great conversations begin. It is, perhaps, creditable of Hawley’s masterful control of character and psychology that his people, his personalities, rise above the fog of suspense, and create for themselves a space from where an arc can be drawn to shadow whatever little loose writing may be left. The novel meanders from character to character and goes back, through their heart and minds, to their lives. David Bateman is the good, rich guy, the most likeable and likeliest of targets. His wife Maggie, in contrast, is plain, a finding-the-little-things-in-life homemaker. Ben Kipling is the rich, maybe-bad guy, the man who is a walking banana skin waiting to happen and has dreams that last longer than the time he considers his moral sidings. There are then the pilots, each with a back-story, an accidental bodyguard of sorts, an insecure flight attendant, and the odd one out, the artist Scott Burroughs. Burroughs is the semi-righteous, self-pitying, almost depressingly low-file anarchy-artist. He paints tragedies, and has experienced a few himself, an idea that he believes evolves, and that which all lives take the shape of. A self-designated loser, Scott is the clearest sight of anything close to a light in this novel of souls troubled by the very ordinary. But this is the post-truth, post-Snowden world we now live in. Even a hero isn’t a hero unless proven. And Burroughs learns this the hard way. So does the reader.
Hawley’s sense of age and politics is part Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror) and part Coen Brothers. He doesn’t shy away from politics, or undercut the ethereal nature of pop culture. He deposits himself, almost riskily at places where other writers would rather not. In unraveling a mystery, born more out of character than circumstance — a whodunit that turns into a whydunit — the writer also makes a few important statements along the way. There are references to Robin Williams, Andy Warhol, sexist Republicans (where have we heard that before, right?) and illegal phone-taps. There is also a garrulous and self-righteous (perhaps an Arnab-Goswami-type) media anchor thrown in for good measure. The prose is top-notch, luxuriating over minor details where it is necessary, and cutting to the chase where foreplay might feed boredom.
Before the Fall is a significant achievement, and has deservedly been a bestseller in the US this year. From describing Burroughs’ paintings as intertextual references to his existential — maybe even suicidal — nature, to relating time with event, with delightful ease as when connecting the fatal flight to the number of pitches thrown at a baseball game, Hawley exemplifies the risen levels of modern, popular (if you like) writing, quoting loss of life within the marks of moments, memory and morality. By the end, through the force of the characters alone, Hawley fits readers' portmanteau(s) with equal measures of grief, adrenaline, sympathy and disgust; a bag worth carrying around for our times, then, surely.
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