Warning: Spoilers ahead!
When even a private plane falls out of the sky, killing two world-famous billionaires, along with their wives and children — and even when there are miraculously two survivors, one by the sheer chance of unbuckling his seat belt to get a rogue pencil rolling away — the world has a funny way of still spinning, often as it previously was, as if the calamity was a mere blip in the reality (unreality?) bubble we’d concocted.
That’s how we make sense of tragedy, even large-scale, all-over-the-news, mass tragedy. That’s how Noah Hawley, who folks may know as the creator/writer behind the ongoing FX television series, Fargo, in his 2016 book, Before the Fall, has his characters deal with tragedy.
After all, as I type this while drinking green tea in my suburban Ohio home, for example, millions of people have fled Ukraine due to the bombardment by Russian invaders (odd, but related sidebar: in the book, Hawley refers to “Kiev,” a “Russian” city, which I found peculiar). If a plane crashed, as happened in the book, I would be glued to my scrolling machine known as Twitter, retweeting the sad news with Saved by the Bell re-runs on in the background, and then I would get up and go to work tomorrow like usual.
Because, that’s just how it is. The unreality bubble only pops for those experiencing it directly and the cascading indirect affects. But that’s the thing, Hawley in an Ask Me Anything back-and-forth on Reddit said while he does seem to have a preoccupation with disasters and calamities — similar to his main character, the adult survivor, Scott Burroughs, who paints disasters, including plane crashes — what his real obsession is is with the characters involved in such disasters. So, the book is formatted with alternating character stories, and alternating timelines before and after the crash, to not only dive deep into the lives of everyone on board that plane when it crashed, but to dive deep into why the plane dove into the Atlantic Ocean.
I must say, at first blush, Scott was an interesting character. He grew up idolizing the can-do, never-give-up attitude of Jack LaLanne after witnessing him pull a boat in San Francisco while handcuffed and at the age of 70 (which apparently is a true story!). That’s also what got him into swimming, and what would ultimately save Scott’s live in more ways than one. See, he turned out to be an alcoholic, a womanizer and a failed painter nearing his 50s. Then he remembered LaLanne, turned his life around, rediscovered his breaststroke and his brush stroke, and was prime to swim out of the Atlantic Ocean, not handcuffed and not pulling a boat, but with a four-year-old JJ on his back and from the wreckage of a plane crash he, and the boy, ought not to have survived.
The reason I caveat with “at first blush,” is because post-crash, Scott was kind of annoying, I must say! He was sweet to the boy, and seemingly the only person the boy wanted to talk to, still suffocating under the weight of a tragedy he couldn’t put words or concepts to. But otherwise, he came across quite weird. I don’t know if it was Hawley’s attempt to cast a red herring shadow over Scott — because the FBI begins suspecting him; after all, he was a last minute addition to the plane and a relative stranger to everyone at that, as well as the whole painting destruction deal — but his interactions with the FBI and other dialogue (including at the emergency room, where the nurse was for some reason doubting his story? Very weird, rather unbelievable interaction) made him not as likable. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m all about shutting the heck up and not talking to the FBI without a lawyer, so Scott ought to have gotten a lawyer before saying a peep, but still, he seemed unnecessarily cagey.
All of that said, I thought Hawley did a good job of building up the story around the crash, as if reassembling it, piece by piece, the way Gus Franklin, the engineer from the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the crash, might have.
See, at the macro level, we have a plane crash, which Gus, the FBI, those in the media (like Bill Cunningham, who anchors a Fox News-like 24/7 cable channel called ALC in the style of Bill O’Reilly, which I wonder if Hawley was familiar with Bill Cunningham, the radio host in Cincinnati, who could also resemble the Cunningham in this book?), Eleanor, the sister of Maggie Batman, who died and is taking care of JJ; and Scott, all trying to understand the crash and what happened (Scott doesn’t remember a whole lot).
But at the micro level, all of the characters involved directly and at the peripheral, are facing, as we all do, our inner plane crashes, nosediving out of the sky of our consciousness and appearing as debris in our subconsciousness; we become the Coast Guard divers and the Franklins of the world trying to find the elusive black box that will tell us everything.
Directly, we have characters like Ben Kipling, a billionaire on Wall Street, who was about to be indicted for laundering money through North Korea, Iran, and other countries — which turned out to be another red herring motive for the plane crash; his wife, Sarah, who, while admittedly dopey, is earnest and tries to belie her status as a rich wife; Emma Lightner, the flight attendant, who wants to do her job as a professional and also wants to belie the stereotype of the “hot stewardess” onboard rich peoples’ planes; David Bateman, who runs ALC like a workaholic, but seems to still love his family; and Margaret “Maggie” Bateman, who was previously a school teacher and is much younger than David, and who feels guilty about her lottery-like fortune in life; and Rachel Bateman, who was kidnapped three years earlier by a random nobody previously out of jail looking for a new score by kidnapping a rich person’s kid (hold on to this thought for a moment), but wants to prove to her mom she’s okay.
At the peripheral, there is Doug, Eleanor’s husband, who is a total dirt-bag, self-absorbed loser (which, I suppose, doesn’t put him far off of Ben), who only cares about the millions of dollars in JJ’s inheritance; Gil Baruch, who became head of security for the Bateman family after the kidnapping and has had many brushes with death; and James Melody, the pilot, who just wants to live out of his suitcase without anyone bothering him and is suffering from random nosebleeds (a small thing that leads to a big thing at the end of the book).
Everyone has a story to tell.
All of those stories eventually converged, in big ways and small, into them being on a plane on Aug. 23, 2015, that nosedived into the Atlantic, or at least, affected by it having happened.
Oh, and then there is Charlie Busch, the co-pilot and the nephew of a six-term United States Senator; ergo, he’s gotten everything in life, including being a pilot, thanks to such nepotism. He begins to resent that, especially when he thinks he can’t get the girl he wants, Emma, to love him back.
So, he crashes the plane. That’s right. And the only reason he was even alone in the cockpit to do so was because Melody had one of his random nosebleeds and needed to step away to clean up.
Often at the heart of most tragedies, big and small, you’ll find that the perpetrator is a womanizer, a misogynist and likely has assaulted women physically, emotionally and sexually in the past, as Charlie did with Emma (he choked her). At first, when that revelation came, I was like, really? We built up the plot for just about 400 pages, sidestepping that someone took down the plane to get back at David Bateman and his awful Fox News-like TV station, or Ben Kipling’s dealings with the North Koreans coming home to roost, or something else we hadn’t thought of (like perhaps Scott actually being bad?), only for it to be some loser who was sexually frustrated and denied by a woman, so he killed nine people, including a nine-year-old girl (and would have killed a four-year-old boy, had he not survived) by crashing a plane into the ocean?
But no, the more I sat with it, the more I think it makes all the sense in the world because of what I said above about at the heart of tragedies is often someone who hates women, and for the other thought I mentioned that I told you to hold onto (that the kidnapping was done by a random dude): Our brains need desperately for there to be intricate conspiracy plots to make sense out of tragedy, but in most cases, tragedy is the brain child of broken individuals thinking small. There doesn’t have to be something more to Before the Fall; because that’s life, and that’s tragedy, and that’s trying to stand back up again after something rightly considered senseless.
Well-done, Hawley, you won me over. The more that ending marinated with me, the more I bought into it, and now, I love it as totally befitting. That said, the one thing I do find missing here is, what came of Gil?! His is the only body never found (which, after reading Perfect Storm, and this was a great follow-up book to that one, it would be more uncommon, it seems, to find the bodies than not) from the wreckage. And he has the past of escaping death; could he have escaped even the Hand of God, as they say?
This might be the fastest book of fiction I’ve read this year because it does read easy, but like some of his characters, Hawley belies his nature as an TV writer by not writing something that feels like it’s waiting to be projected onto the screen, but rather something that wants to grapple with characters and the weighty, philosophical questions they think about, especially in the wake (and in the lead up) to a tragedy.
Perhaps the most interesting observation from Hawley comes in the form of his meditation on horror movies. That what most scares us is not from the “savagery of the unexpected, but from the corruption of everyday objects, spaces.” Like a children’s bedroom becoming the place of terror in a horror movie. In the context of the book, Hawley had Scott and Emma both toy with the idea of being objects. They decidedly did not want to be objects, Emma as it concerned her body as a flight attendant, and Scott as it concerned being an object of discussion to be batted around on 24-7 cable news stations. There is a certain horror in losing our identity in that way. And of course, the unreality that comes from being a nobody to somebody plastered on millions of screens and even under suspicion for wrongdoing.
As for space, well, there is the horror throughout the book, with all of the characters, of never quite knowing how best to occupy their own space and how to let others in on that space, if at all, whether rich and full of regrets, or middling and full of regrets.
Yet another tragedy among tragedies, with no ready answers waiting to drift to shore.