Serious Book Club // Before The Fall

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley

This month’s book club was a great discussion (read last month’s here). After about 90 minutes we moved onto current events (ahem politics, Trump, abortion, immigration, etc.), and luckily we are able to have a perfectly healthy discussion about politics. Then we moved on to more books we were all reading or loved, and TV shows we loved.

Let’s quickly discuss the TV — shows that were brought up were Westworld, Black Mirror, The Night Of, This Is Us, The Affair, The Night Manager, The Wire, Victoria (on PBS), and The Crown. I’ve literally only seen The Crown and loved every second, so clearly I have some catching up to do. The rest came recommended in different forms.

I bring this up because part of this book relates to TV and 24/7 media and we all agreed that TV (shows not news) has gotten really good lately. It used to be good on primetime network channels. Remember the days of ER, Seinfeld, Friends, Law & Order, etc. Then it got a little too reality TV and still is. There aren’t many network shows that are that good anymore, they all moved to HBO, AMC, Netflix. Any TV shows you are loving right now not mentioned above? Please share in the comments.

The book we read this month was Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. I’m saying SPOILER ALERT now so stop reading if you haven’t read the book unless you are OK with knowing everything about it.

We jumped right into discussing the book. Generally we all liked it, but we all felt there were a few huge flaws. One person immediately brought up that the author is a film and TV producer and screenwriter and felt like the book read like a screenplay. Another girl felt that it was too cinematic. She pointed out that some of the “scenes” in the book felt written for a movie. The scene where he paints on the wall with food in Layla’s house? Come on. The scene where he goes into the gas station and runs off and leaves his friend there? No.

The second flaw is that we all felt like most of the characters were underdeveloped. The entire book was all about why the plane crashed, and then the reason it ended up crashing felt so underwhelming. As a reader, we barely knew the co-pilot, Charlie, and the reason he took the plane down felt like a letdown. A shallow story plot.

There were enough interesting characters to make the reason the plane went down a much more twisted and complex story and I wish Hawley would have gone there. We all agreed it would have been more interesting if it had involved something with Mr. Kipling in some way.

I still felt like the book was a page-turner. There was action and multiple plots and enough for interest. If Hawley would have had to have added to 200 pages to the book to develop all the characters I would have read them. I’d rather watch a 6-part mini series than a 2-hour movie with undeveloped characters, ya know.

Someone in my group said they felt like he was on a deadline, like the author spent so much time on the first half of the book and then had to finish it to meet a deadline. I thought that was an interesting way to put it.

So while I felt like it was a letdown, I was entertained for the entire book and I can definitely see it being made into a movie — but I hope that if it does get made into a movie that the characters are developed enough to either make the ending more interesting or just completely change the ending as a surprise in the theater!

There were some parts of the book I noted that I thought were well-written or brought up an interesting subject. Passages from the book are in bold, my thoughts are below.

That summer he [Scott] rented a small house on Martha’s Vineyard and holed up. Once again the only thing that mattered was the work, except now he realized that the work was him. There is no separating yourself from the things you make, he thought. If you are a cesspool, what else can your work be except shit? (p. 80)

First of all, I would LOVE to rent a space somewhere and hole up for a month and just focus on creating work. That’s a dream. But being an artist, I think I was additionally interested in the book (and maybe not as letdown as others were) because art was a mini topic in the book and that always has my interest. Here Scott, the artist, is talking about his work. We discussed this passage because I didn’t agree with it. Sometimes when you are (or feel like) a cesspool you might create amazing work that came from that dark terrible place. Writers always talk about how if they came from a broken or messed-up childhood they have so much more to write about. When you have experiences that feel like a cesspool then you probably have a lot to express. Good artwork can come from that.

Layla draws on her electronic cigarette. This is what the future looks like, Scott thinks. We smoke technology now. (p. 121)

I just liked this line. I thought it was dark funny.

You stay home and raise daughters, who grow up and get jobs and then feel pity for you, their stay-at-home mothers. (p. 139)

I also thought this was interesting. I’m curious if this will happen with all of the obsessive helicopter moms out there. Now it’s much more normal to be a working mom, even if financially you don’t need to work, you just do because you want to. It isn’t something that is looked down upon as it once was.

Scott eats cereal for dinner, still dressed in his borrowed suit, tie askew. It feels disrespectful to take it off somehow. Death, so permanent for the dead, should be more than just an afternoon activity for the mourners. So he sits and shovels and chews in all black, like a breakfast undertaker. (p. 190)

I thought this was interesting. I don’t think I would have even thought about it this way. I’ve lost a lot of friends when they were young, mostly to car accidents or freak accidents, and even almost lost my husband. So I think I look at death a little differently than most, and have for over half of my life. To me, it’s always a possibility that today is my last day alive. You can mourn people for a while (and some forever, I mean if my husband died I would be a complete mess for a long long time), but you also have to make sure you live the precious moments you have left of your own life.

There was no such thing as hardship anymore, certainly nothing more than a fleeting inconvenience, and yet when she reflected on it late at night Maggie was amazed by how her sense of life’s difficulties ebbed and adapted to fit her new circumstances. Whereas, before David, she would have to bike home in the rain some days through gridlock traffic and scour her apartment for pennies to do laundry (and even that couldn’t truly be considered hardship in a world where children went to bed hungry), now she found herself exasperated by foolish things—misplacing the keys to her Lexus, or being told by the clerk at D’Agostino that he didn’t have the change for a hundred. When she realized this, how soft she was becoming, how privileged, Maggie felt a wave of self-loathing. They should give all their money away, she told David, raise their kids hand-to-mouth with proper values. (p. 222)

I feel like many of us experience this at one point or another. Something happens or we meet someone or we travel and see something that moves us. That puts things into perspective. I mentioned at book club that I felt like everything I ever tweet could have the hashtag #firstworldproblems. It also reminds me of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

It’s also like how you always adapt to the money you start making. If you get a raise, you alter your life to live within that amount and up and up. And it also made me think about the book Breaking Night. How Liz Murray had nothing and became something. How people will just do whatever they have to do regardless of what they do or don’t have if they are truly motivated.

Is there anything in particular in your life that makes you feel a similar self-loathing to Maggie? I honestly always think about it a little when I tweet something that is very first world. Usually I just think it’s funny. But then I think to myself, I have it so so good. Also a lot of times I think about this concept when I’m taking a shower. Stay with me here … because I take really hot showers and I know that running water is such a luxury, and running hot water is even more of a luxury. I just enjoy my steaming hot showers a lot and I can’t imagine having to take a cold shower all the time. I won’t even get into a pool if it’s not bathwater warm.

He thinks of Andy Warhol, who used to make up different stories for different journalists—I was born in Akron. I was born in Pittsburgh—so when he spoke to people he would know which interviews they’d read. Warhol, who understood the idea that the self was just a story we told. Reinvention used to be a tool of the artist. He thinks of Duchamp’s urinal, of Claes Oldenburg’s giant ashtray. To take reality and repurpose it, bend it to an idea, this was the kingdom of make-believe. (p. 274)

I don’t know if this is true but I thought it was SO SMART of Warhol if it was. It made me think of the Van Halen rider where they requested M&Ms but there were to be no brown ones. Most thought this was just a ridiculous rocker request, but really they did it to see if the promoters actually read the rider. And if they didn’t they felt like they obviously didn’t pay attention to detail, and in that case, what other details did they miss?

All he [Scott] wants is to be left alone. Why should he be forced to clarify, to wade into the swamp of lies and try to correct these poisoned thoughts? Isn’t that what they want? For him to engage? To escalate the story? When Bill Cunningham invites him on the air, it is not to set the story straight so the story ends. It is to add a new chapter, a new twist that propels the narrative forward into another week of ratings cycles.

A trap, in other words. They are setting a trap. And if he is smart he will continue to ignore them, move forward, live his life.

As long as he doesn’t mind the fact that nobody on earth will ever see him as he sees himself. (p. 274-275)

As a character I thought it was actually strong of Scott to be able to avoid and hide from the media for so long. I can only imagine being in a similar position and wanting to set the story straight.

Someone had once said to him, It’s hard to be sad when you’re being useful. And he liked that idea. That service to others brought happiness. It was self-involvement that led to depression, to spiraling questions about the meaning of things. (p. 306)

I really liked the saying it’s hard to be sad when you’re being useful. I feel like it’s so true.

The Batemans’ cappuccino machine alone is worth relocating for. And, yes, he knows that’s shallow—but isn’t that what the whole artisanal return-to-simplicity movement is all about—making sure that every single thing we do is thoughtful and perfect? That every bite of every meal, every step of every day, everything from our hemp throw pillows to our handcrafted bicycles is like a koan from the Dalai Lama.

We are the enemies of industrialization, killers of the mass market. No more “10 billion served.” Now it’s one meal at a time, eggs cooked form your own chickens. Seltzer infused by your own CO2 tank. This is the revolution. Back to the soil, the loom, the still. And yet the struggle is hard, the way each man has to claw his way into some kind of future. To overcome the obstacle of youth and establish himself without getting lost along the way. (p. 335)

This was Doug, Eleanor’s slimy husband, and actually even though we all hated his character I thought this was funny and true about the hipster/artisan movement. Although I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with making something thoughtful or wanting it to be handmade versus mass market. To me it goes back to you never know how long your life will be so you should try to live each moment how you want to. I wish I had fresh eggs from chickens! My family back in Missouri has chickens and fresh eggs!

And clawing seems like a pretty harsh word, he just seems lazy from how Eleanor describes him in the book. Like he felt entitled to success. Like he feels like you shouldn’t get lost at some point if you are trying to start a business. Sorry dude, that’s just part of it.

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So there you have it! My thoughts on the book, plus some insights from my awesome little book club. If you’ve read the book and want to join my digital book club, please share your thoughts in the comments!

Next month we are reading Swing Time by Zadie Smith.

See my 2017 Reading List here! And 24 Books I Read in 2016 here!

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The Serious Book Club is called serious not because we only read serious books (we don’t) but because we seriously discuss the books for at least an hour of our club. I thought it would be fun to have a unique name versus just “book club” — also, I’d love for you to join digitally! All that means is you read the book too and pipe in with your thoughts in the comments!