Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Wednesday, April 13, 2016: Maximum Shelf: Before the Fall


Grand Central: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Grand Central: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley Grand Central: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley Grand Central: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall

by Noah Hawley

Scott Burroughs is feeling fortunate when he arrives at the Martha's Vineyard airport just in time to catch a private jet. A friend, Maggie Bateman, has invited Scott to join her and her family on their flight back to New York City where Scott--a struggling painter--has meetings scheduled for a potential art show.

Maggie is married to David Bateman, a television news executive. They have two children and a bodyguard, who are also on the plane, along with another couple, Ben and Sarah Kipling. For the Batemans and the Kiplings, the company jet is commonplace. Still, Maggie expresses some concern about the weather. So when Maggie's nine-year-old daughter, Rachel, tells her mother, "It'll be fine, Mom.... It's not like they need to see to fly a plane," the stage is set for something not fine to happen. And Noah Hawley (The Good Father) doesn't disappoint. Two short chapters later, the plush jet has crashed spectacularly into the Atlantic and Scott is swimming for safety with four-year-old JJ Bateman clinging to him--the only two survivors.

"A plane crash is not simply the sum total of time line + mechanical elements + human elements. It is an incalculable tragedy, one that shows us the ultimate finiteness of human control over the universe, and the humbling power of collective death."

Hawley's skill as a screenwriter has undoubtedly spilled over into his novel writing. The breathtaking post-crash scene he crafts directs readers' imaginations in constructing a chilling scene of chaos, panic and frenzy.

"The waves are quilted with froth, not the hard triangles of children's drawings, but fractals of water, tiny waves stacking into larger ones. Out in the open water they come at [Scott] from all directions, like a pack of wolves testing his defenses. The dying fire animates them, gives them faces of sinister intent."

Then Hawley builds a psychological stage for his protagonist--"the data stream of memory is clogged with indecipherable fragments, pictures with no order, and right now [Scott] has no time to clarify anything."

Scott may not have been so lucky in his transportation choice, but his childhood interest in swimming serves him well. Against the odds, in the dead of night, he and the child make their way miles through the cold Atlantic water, reaching shore only to discover that the nightmarish odyssey Hawley has in store for them has only just begun.

As the title insinuates, Before the Fall focuses largely on the lives of all the plane's passengers prior to the fateful night. The plot alternates between backstories, the present fallout from the crash, and art. Theories about why the jet went down circulate; David Bateman's news station ignites a conspiracy theory; and Scott is dragged through the mud of a media circus because the subjects of his paintings are disasters: car collisions, train wrecks... plane crashes.

The various layers and directions of this rich plot reflect a complex story that doesn't follow a neat path. Hawley experiments with timeline or, as Scott contemplates, "what if instead of a story told in consecutive order, life is a cacophony of moments we never leave?"

Hawley's creative approach enables him to flesh out his dynamic characters and strong themes. Scott and JJ develop a special bond through their shared experience; both desperately desire to hide from a world that is determined to shine a spotlight on them. JJ's lack of speech--he stops talking after the crash--is as telling a characteristic as Scott's prickly wit. Both defense mechanisms are protecting the fragile innocence underneath.

The theme of what constitutes a hero is reflected in this relationship as well. Scott regularly reminds JJ that he is Scott's hero. But when the crash inspector refers to Scott as a hero for saving JJ, Scott responds doubtfully, "So because I was on the high school swim team I'm some kind of hero?" Hawley adds a more sinister and elitist twist to this theme through the highly narcissistic news anchor from David Bateman's Fox-like partisan news station--a venal amalgam of the worst of tabloid journalists. In reference to Scott he says,

"He's a fraud, I'm saying. A nobody. Muscling his way into the spotlight, playing the humble knight, when the actual heroes, the great men, are dead at the bottom of the deep blue bullsh#t. And if that's what we call a hero in two thousand fifteen, then, buddy, we're f*#ked." 

Hawley thickens this unsavory stew with Ben Kipling's impending indictment for money laundering, government surveillance that leads to outlandishly false assumptions, and income inequality that drives desperate people to desperate measures.

Profound and often humorous dialogue complements the intricate workings of a psychologically insightful examination of tragedy; the story continually builds in suspense, populated by authentic characters treading the waters of life. Before the Fall is Hawley at his best. --Jen Forbus

Grand Central Publishing, $26, hardcover, 9781455561780

Grand Central: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Noah Hawley: Claiming His Identity

photo: Leah Muse

Noah Hawley is an Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody Award-winning author, screenwriter and producer. He has published four novels and penned the script for the feature film Lies and Alibis. He created, executive produced and served as showrunner for ABC's My Generation and The Unusuals and was a writer and producer on the hit series Bones. Hawley created and is currently executive producer, writer and showrunner on FX's award-winning series Fargo. His novel Before the Fall will be released in May.

You decided to give up music and try your hand at writing.

Well, writing music is also writing, but in popular music the target audience is around 14 years old. I found myself attracted to telling more complex stories for adult audiences. I had always dabbled. Both my mother and grandmother were writers. Neither had a college education, so I just assumed one claimed the identity of being a writer by declaring oneself a writer. Which I did.

What drew you to crime and thrillers?

Like a lot of young men, I started as a literary snob. But then, as even Don DeLillo has written, "all plots lead deathward." What happened to me is I started writing a novel about a professor of conspiracies whose wife is killed, and realized that for the story to earn a novel there needed to be an actual conspiracy, which required planning and plot. And then I realized how much harder it is to be a literary novelist who writes books that have a dramatic story drive. That said, in later years I had to figure out how to give these books "plot" without becoming a slave to it, otherwise in your last act your characters become agents of the plot, pulled in by its gravitational force. Instead, I found my way to writing what I call "emotional thrillers" where the most important drive in the last act is to resolve a character mystery or problem, rather than save the world.

You've written feature film scripts, television scripts, novels and music. How do the mediums compare?

Each medium is unique. For the most part, a feature film is the most linear. The clock works against you. There is less room for diversion or distraction, less room to explore character. TV, at least the 10-hour movie version I've been lucky enough to make, is a medium of exploration. You need a strong central story, but you can improvise around it, experiment with structure. A novel is similar. It is the most flexible of the mediums, because the reader does half the work, imaginations engaged. Much of the time we spend in books we spend inside a character's mind. Time can be compressed or unpacked.

Writing for television is a demanding job; where do you fit in the time to write novels?

Well, before I had kids, I was definitely a morning guy. I liked to roll out of bed and get started before I felt like my real life intruded. Now that I have kids, I don't really have that luxury. But writing for TV has trained me to write whenever, wherever, because obviously when you're running a show and they say, "Okay, from four to six you can rewrite episode five," that's when you rewrite episode five. So it's good. I wrote my last book in a restaurant, basically, on my off hours. It's a business, and it's a skill--so it's not about waiting for the muse to strike. It's about getting it done.

The idea of "hero" comes up subtly and from different perspectives throughout Before the Fall. How does Noah Hawley--son, brother, father, husband--define a hero?

There is the moral spectrum where you have a very good character on one end and a very bad character on the other. Then in the middle, there's someone who is on the fence--a sort of ordinary person who shows us that they're capable of even greater evil than the villain, on some level. That's the interesting moral dynamic, to take a character that's sort of a combination of those two people to see, well, what if we turn this paradigm into a relationship with a give and take, you know. Would they still come out? Will they do the right thing or the wrong thing? Where will they all come out? --Jen Forbus


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