Before the Fall - Noah Hawley *****
There's an ominous ring to the title of Noah Hawley's latest novel that perhaps has implications beyond the obvious. On a basic plot-driven level, the fall in question is that of a small luxury private aeroplane that plunges into the sea, resulting in the deaths of two very important businessmen and most of their families. The investigation of the event by the FBI, the press and by the author, examines the lives of each of the people on-board the flight in the days 'before the fall' and presents a fascinating view of character and circumstance in each of those chapters. In the process the novel also reveals much about society, the media and public attitudes in a wider world that seems oblivious that it is heading down a path to destruction, to an even greater fall.
The two very important people on board the private plane are David Bateman and Ben Kipling, both of them returning from a short holiday on Martha's Vineyard with their families. Bateman is the Chief Executive of a cable news network with a radical agenda and a controversy-prone lead anchor who likes to tell it like it is. He has made a lot of enemies in his time and may be in even greater trouble when he gets word of an investigation into accusations of phone hacking used by his reckless presenter. The net is also closing in on Ben Kipling, who just before the flight receives word of his imminent arrest on charges of illegally and irresponsibly laundering money for countries who are known to sponsor terrorism. The reason why their plane plunges into the Atlantic sixteen minutes after take-off is therefore of great interest to the authorities.
The authorities and the media however are also intrigued by the story of Scott Burroughs, an outsider to the families who was invited to take a lift on the plane at the last minute. Burroughs, who is significantly a painter of imagined disaster scenes, survives the crash and swims for eight hours in the midnight Atlantic with the Bateman's four-year old son on his back. Rather than being treated as a hero, Burroughs is regarded with suspicion by the media - not least Bateman's own network - and by the FBI. How did an unknown artist come to be on the same plane as two of America's most important and wealthiest men, and what is his agenda now with the young child who has inherited the family millions?
Money is a big issue in Before the Fall. Not unexpectedly, it's an eye-opening view at how the other half live, but when I say the other half, it doesn't just mean the wealthy elite. As soon becomes clear when Hawley explores the backgrounds of every individual on the flight, including the flight crew, there are two sides to every person - the one we see and a side that is kept hidden. Bateman and Kipling's secrets are about to come out in public, and they may well be wealthy and influential enough to ride the storm that is to come, but how do other individuals cope with reconciling their inner life with the version that is visible to the public? Showing that people are more vulnerable and fragile than they might appear, what happens when they are suddenly put under tremendous pressure? Put under tremendous scrutiny? Put in possession of tremendous wealth?
Well, in most cases, people don't cope well at all, at least in as far as Noah Hawley views the events in Before the Fall. And, behind it all in most cases is the pressure of money. Or even if it's not money, most people will assume it is anyway. If Scott Burroughs claims he isn't interested in riches, no one is going to believe that. As an artist, at the very least he wants exposure, respect and even acclaim for his work, and with that comes money and fame. Even the human act of saving a boy's life makes him attractive to those with money who suddenly want to be his friend. Every action regarded with suspicion. Everyone is looking for an angle, and usually - at least in western society - you'll find that money comes into it somewhere.
Hawley's writing remains largely focussed on story and character, and Before the Fall is first and foremost a terrific thriller. There's an intriguing investigation into the suspicious downing of a jet plane that continues to throw up clues as bodies are searched for, as the remains of the plane are examined, and as they try to recover and retrieve information from the black box recorders. But the author subtly contrasts the actions of the individual with that of the 'system' and highlights its incompatibility and its weakness. It's less subtle and convincing when it tries to show the little man standing up against the system at the conclusion, but that doesn't take away from the achievements elsewhere. Before the Fall is about how we live in this modern world, a world that is increasingly becoming dehumanised and less caring, suspicion cutting people off from their better nature, or perhaps revealing and fuelling their worst nature. We are all, it seems, heading for a fall.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
Before the Fall - Noah Hawley *****