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BEFORE THE FALL and the ‘Worst Story in the Whole World’

before the fall by noah hawleyOn a foggy summer night, eleven people — ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter — depart Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs — the painter — and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family. With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers’ intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work?

After alluding to it a bit in my Sunday post, I decided that today I want write a little bit more about my feelings on Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, a book I really enjoyed right up until the ending pretty much wrecked it for me.

Fair warning, this post is going to talk about the ending of Before the Fall – including the reason for the plane crash – in some detail. If you don’t like spoilers, just stop reading now!

Ok, with that out of the way, some context… I got started thinking about the idea of toxic masculinity in fiction after reading a post from Jenny (Reading the End) about male violence in The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan. The post is so full of intelligent rage that I want you to just go read the whole thing. But here are a couple parts in particular that are relevant (bold emphasis mine): 

The helpless anger that women live with every day because that’s the price of admission for us to live in this world, and what else? Because if there’s nothing else — if it’s just another man who decided to hurt people because he couldn’t figure out what to do with his feelings — then don’t come asking me to understand his motives for doing violence. I understood already and I decided it wasn’t enough. …

I am fed up with being asked to imaginatively identify with the men who commit violence while the barest of lip service is paid to the interiority of the women in their orbit. You know how sometimes there are tropes that have lasted so long and been so damaging that you kinda have to retire them for a while? Like how we just need to place a ten-year moratorium on killing TV lesbians? I’d like a break from the glass-shattering fury that consumes my heart every time I read any iteration of the worst story in the whole world, i.e., Once upon a time, a man turned to violence because a woman he wanted to fuck wouldn’t fuck him.

With that for context, on to the book!

For the most part, I loved the way that Before the Fall didn’t feel like a thriller or a mystery, even though it’s marketed that way. The central mystery of the book — why did the plane crash? — feels secondary to exploring the stories of the victims in the crash. And for the most part, it isn’t really much of a mystery to solve — the crash investigators do their work, but “solving” the crash just comes down to finding the flight recorder and listening to the tape which basically explains what happened. The book is very much about characters and the ways in which we interact with each other. 

But that’s precisely why the ending is so unsatisfying. The story is all about complex characters, but the person who actually crashed the plane was so predictably bad, it just felt like a cop-out. The flight recorder reveals the plane was taken down deliberately by the co-pilot, a man who tricked his way on to the flight so he could harass the flight attendant. She broke up with him earlier because he was abusive and unpredictable, but he just wouldn’t accept no. He brought the plane down deliberately in his rage over rejection from a beautiful woman.

And as Jenny said… that’s the worst story in the world: Once upon a time, a man turned to violence because a woman he wanted to fuck wouldn’t fuck him.

Certainly, I don’t think the book is suggesting that the co-pilot’s rage is an excuse for his actions, or even a reason to emphasize with him. But it’s also just so incredibly boring. In a world where convicted rapists are serving fewer than six months in jail and men repeatedly perpetrate mass shootings, another story where another man — for whatever reason — chooses violence and rage in a moment of frustration just left me feeling disappointed and annoyed.  

That story is boring. That story is common. And that conclusion doesn’t serve the complexity and interest in creative storytelling that’s so wonderful in the rest of the book. 

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.
{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf June 23, 2016, 11:02 am

    I was compelled to keep reading your review despite the spoiler warning. I’m glad I did because honestly, it does sound “meh.” I’m pretty sure I’d have had the same reaction you did.

    • Kim June 25, 2016, 6:55 pm

      In addition to making me mad, it just felt so obvious. I think there were more creative outcomes for this story.

  • Sarah's Book Shelves June 23, 2016, 1:48 pm

    I totally agree with you! In my mini review, I said the ending fizzled for me, but didn’t go into detail. I just found myself saying “seriously?”. This idiot crashed an entire plane because he was mad about a girl? It didn’t sound the least bit believable to me…I agree with your “cop-out” assessment.

    But, I did really like the rest of the book and how it had much more layers to it than a traditional thriller.

    • Kim June 25, 2016, 6:54 pm

      I’m glad someone is on the same page — I was feeling like such a weirdo not liking the ending of this one!

  • Lisa June 23, 2016, 9:25 pm

    I was on the fence about this one and decided to plunge in and read your review. So not on the fence any more. I can’t even be bothered with the great part of the book to have it end like that.

    • Kim June 25, 2016, 6:53 pm

      I really liked the early parts. His commentary on media and our response to tragedy was interesting, and the character sketches of other people on the plane were good. The ending was just lame.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End June 24, 2016, 3:00 pm

    It’s just SO boring, this story! I am still interested in reading Before the Fall, but I’m glad to know in advance that this is going to be the ending. Just — I know there’s a finite number of resolutions a mystery can have, but this one, this particular one, I am very very tired of reading. It’s like “oh you thought you were just reading a fun book? Nah you were reading AS A LADY ENJOY LIVING IN FEAR.” :/

    • Kim June 25, 2016, 6:52 pm

      Right? There are lots of more interesting ways this story could have ended… this one just bummed me out, especially on the heels of your post where I had that issue in my head.

  • phantasteek August 22, 2016, 12:39 pm

    Thanks for this post! I’m about 1/3 the way through the book and it’s just awful. I couldn’t care less about these horrible rich people and their lives. It’s just empty and gross. Even the artist seems devoid of anything that makes me care about him. I’ve been looking for a plot summary so I can just quit reading (I’m listening to an audio book on loan from the library, so I can’t easily skip around and figure things out). So much talk about money and luxuries and so much swearing and trash talk about women and sex. Yes, it is the worst story in the world. I guess I haven’t even made it far enough to see the complexity of the characters–they just seem flat and totally uninteresting to me.

  • Olivia September 2, 2016, 7:36 am

    I totally loved the – until the ending!! It was like the author had done such a great job of crafting the twists and turns and developing the back stories… and then was just too damn tired so went with the angry boyfriend. Super bummed with the ending but did like the book a lot overall.

  • Michele September 20, 2016, 10:58 am

    ugh. I couldn’t agree more. I was so incredibly disappointed. I wished I had read your review first because I can never get the time I spend reading back!

  • Meme November 9, 2016, 3:54 am

    I can not agree more with your review, the book was so good until that ending…by the way you are spot on in this trend…

  • Holly December 23, 2016, 9:54 pm

    Fine beginning but then the book drifted out to sea. The changes of point of view within a scene annoyed me and I noticed this occurring frequently. (Writing-101, duh.) Stopping the book’s progression to go into backstory throughout gave me a case of readis-interruptis. Toward the end, a character stands and then stands again without ever having sat down. That’s sloppy writing and editing. The ending was such a disappointment. I wanted to like this book but it failed on too many levels. Sigh.

  • Chris December 24, 2016, 12:55 am

    I disagree with most of the comments here. As it started to dawn on me that the co-pilot I was taken back to the Swiss pilot ramming his passenger aircraft into the alps 3 years ago. Since that happened I’ve often wondered about the psyche of someone who could end up doing such a thing and this book went some way tonexokoring that. In Before the Fall, the co-pilot’s back story is so much more than being jilted. The dangers of expectation and susbsequent protection of someone’s failings measured against that expectation are revealed in the story. His susbsequent failings in his relationships obviously magnify, and the way he learned over time to polish his external appearance counter his self loathing. Who is to say what a good ending is, but I really enjoyed this book all the way through including the ending. I particularly enjoyed Scott’s narrative and the way his life has lead him to take on the TV network anchor. Great book

  • Bina N January 14, 2017, 1:57 am

    I loved this book. I think there’s a reason the copilot is given the least amount of “screen time” and you don’t hear from him until the end: he’s not important. His reasons for crashing the plane are certainly petty (she wouldn’t fuck him) and psychopathic (reacting violently because of it) but NOTHING like what everyone in the book expects; they think it’s far-reaching, conspiratorial and international because of the ultra-rich on board. And while it seems both absurd and criminally dismissive to his victims to say Busch’s actions “don’t matter” because of course they do, what the author instead chooses to highlight masterfully is the rest of the world’s knee-jerk reaction to inexplicable* tragedy: turning on the survivor(s). How dare you miraculously survive, and not have a reason.

    *even with the explanation, inexplicable maybe in the way we can’t comprehend- shouldn’t, as a society, comprehend- the actions of spree or serial killers.

    Noah Hawley has hit the nail on the head in this regard. He has written out with devastating precision how people turn rotten in shock and grief. How they pollute the story, a tragic story and its facts, deaths and trauma and (hopefully) recovery, with their own egos and agendas and failings. Everybody does this. In stages and on a spectrum, sure- it’s not always out loud, it’s not always disruptive to others’ healing. And most importantly- MOST IMPORTANTLY- in a divisive political environment, how neither side has the “good guys.” We hate Bill Cunningham (well I did), but Doug is a sniveling, self-obsessed shit as well. Grief and horror and forced apathy in the face of world-narrowing, life-altering mortality, making everybody stupid. Everybody.

    What Hawley nails also is how we don’t exist or choose our fates “in a vacuum” as the saying goes, what we do and say is stretched and weaved across a global loom. Our decisions are put in perspective with the narrative, and yet two people will tell two very different stories. And we do this all shamelessly. I mean, where’s the shame, really? Except- in the case of The Worst Possible Scenario: death, not when you reach old age and have lived a full life, but death with no warning and no meaning. And then the shame sneaks in, because we’re still weaving stories, our manners gone, overtaken by greedy curiosity.

    There are also subtler themes like, Emma doesn’t tell anyone about Charles, he’s “somebody’s nephew,” she doesn’t want to lose her job. Doesn’t want to seem unprofessional. How Charles coasts through life into full-blown narcissism. How nobody can really look for a bomb they don’t know exists, except we still *should*- somehow! What this all adds up to, at the end, is a thriller woven from perfectly conceivable portraiture, things we hear about everyday on the news, just maybe not from the wreckage (actual and personal) of a sabotaged plane.

    Great book.

  • Danielle P January 28, 2017, 7:19 pm

    I think if you look at the ending as just a guy mad about a girl, you’re missing the deeper picture. The co-pilot wasn’t simply mad, he was deeply entrenched in the cycle of abuse. It’s not often you see abuse from the viewpoint of the abuser, as he cycles through the 4 stages of abuse. I also think the co-pilot is probably going through the cycle faster and more intensely since he has alcohol and heroin in his system. I found the ending to be tragic, but not unrealistic. If a woman leaves her abusive partner, he will sometimes seek her out, kill her and sometimes even kill those around her. It’s a sad reality. I wouldn’t call it “the worst story in the world”. I would say it’s the most tragic story, one that continues to happen daily throughout the world.

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