It seems that almost every modern day US based book and TV programme or film I watch at the moment is speaking to me about Trump’s America, and BEFORE THE FALL is no exception, featuring as it does a news channel established to make news rather than report it and an outspoken host Bill Milligan that specialises in fake news and in telling us “what we wanted to hear, which was that the reason we were losing out in life was not that we were losers but that someone was reaching into our pockets, our companies, our country and taking what was rightfully ours”.
The book opens with a private jet crashing into the sea a few miles from Martha’s Vineyard. On board were media mogul and David Bateman, his wife Maggie and their 2 children, his security detail, a small crew, a Wall Street financier, Ben Kipling, and his wife, and a painter, Scott Burroughs, who Maggie knows from the farmers market. Only Scott and the Bateman’s 4 year old son JJ survive, thanks to a daring rescue which sees Scott heroically swim for several hours to shore, JJ in tow.
From this action packed start, the novel evolves into something much subtler than the thriller I first expected. It alternates between looking forward and the aftermath of the crash, and looking back at the every day and not so every day events that preceded each passenger stepping on board the plane. Driving everything is the the unresolved question of whether the crash was an accident or not, as investigators hunt for the bodies and wreckage to try to piece together what happened. What they’ll never discover is the same level of privileged access into each individual’s state of mind that Hawley allows his readers, yet this knowledge doesn’t give us any extra insight into what caused the crash – that happens in real time as the investigating team firstly see the wreck though camera’s strapped to divers’ helmets, then study the readings from the black box, and finally hear a voice recording of the co-pilot as the plane goes down. The penny drops for everyone simultaneously.
Who knows what and how is a recurrent theme of the book, with Milligan hacking Scott’s phone and using his TV show to reveal all kinds of “secrets”. Its runs parallel with another theme about watching and being watched, with Hawley posing a series of questions about the relationship between camera and individual, how we are affected by it and what it looks like when the media crosses a line and reporting becomes intrusion. “Does the television exist for us to watch…or do we exist to watch television?” His treatment of corporate America and the wealthy that inhabit it is scathing. Some of the most memorable scenes are those involving Kipling’s aggressive lawyer, the saddest those in which JJ’s aunt comes to terms with the greedy entitlement of her waster husband’s response to the boy’s inheritance.
BEFORE THE FALL is a smart and insightful book that is a particular kind of success because it captures the space between the selves we choose to project, the ones we seek to define – “the unemployed mother of a toddler or, more precisely, the pampered wife of a millionaire” is Maggie’s variation – and the ones our actions may or may not reveal. Family features strongly, as does the idea of life as one long lesson, that sometimes “the only way to learn not to play with fire is to go up in flames”. And as Hawley explores both what constitutes the truth and what makes someone a survivor, I really like that in a messy, morally challenged world he grants his characters control of these very simple things. It’s this that raises a cracking good story to another level and what kept me turning page after page long after I should have been asleep. It’s this that I want to hear about Trump’s America.