Thursday, December 15, 2016

Plane Spoken

I haven't taken to the blog before to praise the TV series Fargo, but I enjoyed the first two seasons a great deal. (And far more than I expected.) One of the ways I've filled the time waiting for season three was to follow the show runner, Noah Hawley, into a different medium. This year, he published a novel titled Before the Fall, and my enthusiasm for his Fargo was enough to get me to take a look.

Before the Fall centers around a luxury jet that crashes in the Atlantic Ocean on a short East Coast flight. The novel is a character study of the roughly dozen people aboard the plane, particularly the two survivors: an unsuccessful artist on the brink of a mid-life crisis, and the four-year-old boy he saves by swimming to shore after the crash. Casting a shadow over the entire tale is the big question, why did the plane crash?

There's interesting writing technique on display in this novel. Switching from television to the written word, Noah Hawley clearly changes in some ways, and clearly doesn't in others.

On the one hand, Hawley really seizes on the chance to turn a clever phrase outside of spoken dialogue. A character's inner monologue can be laid bear in a novel, and that's exactly what this one does. Every few chapters, we're given a new flashback centered on a different passenger on the plane, and the lives we see are very different. There's a rich media mogul, a shifty friend about to be indicted, a by-the-book pilot, a worldly and street-wise flight attendant, a calculating head of personal security, and more. Each character study is as interesting and detailed as the next.

On the other hand, the narrative moves choppily at times. Scenes often end sharply and with little warning; I occasionally found myself stopping suddenly as I realized the last few paragraphs had abruptly transitioned from one scene to another. And the mystery itself, the "how" of the plane crash, ultimately seemed like a tacked-on and unimportant element for as much as focus as the novel gives it.

Ultimately, I liked the book well enough. But my recommendation would depend on knowing the reader: which is more important to you in a book, strong characters or a strong plot? If the former, then Before the Fall is worth a read. If the latter, you'll probably want to pass. I'd call it a grade B myself. There are things to like here, though I'm not sure it's a novel that's going to stay with me for a long time to come. It's neither helped nor hurt the wait for season three of Fargo.

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