I can’t quite determine exactly where the narrative tension in Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall comes from, but it’s certainly there–I found the book very hard to put down, even when it was hard to figure out if anything was really happening.
While there are multiple stories in Before the Fall, one back-story for each of the passengers on a small, private jet that crashes into the water just off of the Atlantic coast, there are really two plot lines one of the events leading up to the crash, and one about what happens afterwards. The book jumps between these two which could be a source of tension but…
There are no big reveals. In spite of the news “reporter” who is convinces someone deliberately crashed the plane to assassinate his boss, a Roger Ailes/Fox News type, both the back stories and the survivors stories seem mundane overall. Most are nothing special, even the ones who are special–the rich, the famous–are not people who would be connected to anything that might cause a plane crash. I expected Mr. Hawley to throw out a few McGuffins, plausible theories to distract the reader away from what really happened. But the “reporter” and his clearly wrong-headed theory remained the only one.
The investigation into the crash is interesting reading, as you might guess it would be, but it’s not presented in a way intended to build narrative tension. The F.B.I. agent, the N.T.S.B. agents, the other agents all go about their jobs like professionals. If the F.B.I. agents goes a bit overboard towards the end the reader is certain that he is on the wrong track anyway so this is not a cause for worry. The only tension here is waiting for the flight recorder, the black box, to turn up.
The survivors, there are two, quietly try to put things back together, to move one with things in spite of the media storm that surrounds them. But the reader knows they will be safe from the beginning. One is a failed painter in his 30’s; the other is the little four-year-old boy he rescues. But the book opens with the failed painter swimming to shore, carrying the little boy on his back. This is a 15 mile swim in the dark. While it’s an intense scene, no writer ever would open a novel with a failed rescue attempt featuring a grown man trying to save the life of a four-year-old boy. The reader knows they will survive. To have them fail to make it safely to the end of the novel would end the career of any writer except maybe George R.R. Martin who famously kills everyone. Though even he tends to keep the good kids alive. So far.
But somehow, Noah Hawley makes it all work so well that Before the Fall becomes a thriller of sorts, a book that made me want to keep reading well into the night…
…well past my bedtime.