The Screen and the Page

For premium-cable showrunners, novel-writing is the ultimate auteur experience.

Noah Hawley
Noah Hawley.

Leah Muse

If you haven’t yet heard someone proclaim that the TV series—specifically, the premium-cable drama—is “the new novel,” then you must be on a strict media diet prohibiting the consumption of cultural think pieces. Salman Rushdie said it to the Telegraph in 2011, the Chronicle of Higher Education studied it in 2012, the Los Angeles Times trumpeted it in 2013, and the New York Times was on it in 2014. The idea that the new golden age of TV has supplanted the novel has become a truism.

It may even be a truism that’s actually true, at least for tired information age workers who want to come home at the end of the day and curl up with a long, multithread narrative. But what about the people who make it? Do they consider themselves novelists by another name? TV, unlike film, is a medium where writers rule, and more than one showrunner started out as a novelist. Game of Thrones isn’t just based on a series of novels; the two men who co-created the HBO series, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, both published novels before becoming showrunners. (Benioff’s first book, The 25th Hour, was adapted to the big screen by Spike Lee.) Nic Pizzolatto, the auteur behind True Detective, published a novel, Galveston, in 2010, and Joe Weisberg published two before going on to write for television and create The Americans. But it’s notable that many of those showrunners aren’t going back to print now that they have TV hits—with one exception: Before the Fall, a thriller currently basking on national best-seller lists, written by the showrunner of the award-winning FX series Fargo, Noah Hawley.

Before the Fall, Hawley’s fifth published novel, is a strange beast. In the best possible light, Hawley seems to be aiming at a work resembling Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, an ingenious pop masterpiece that provides the satisfactions of a thriller while subjecting the genre’s hypocrisies to an acid bath. Before the Fall begins in the few hours leading up to the crash of a private jet into the ocean during a trip between Martha’s Vineyard and New York City. Only two people survive the crash: a painter and former competitive swimmer named Scott Burroughs and the 4-year-old son of David Bateman, CEO of the company to which the jet belongs. Also onboard are David’s wife and daughter, their Israeli bodyguard, a wealthy investment banker and his wife, and a crew of three. Scott, a last-minute addition to the passenger list, ends up towing the little boy across 10 miles of ocean to a Long Island beach.

The rest of the book alternates between flashbacks showing how each victim ended up on the plane and an account of what happens to Scott in the aftermath of the crash: media frenzy, the dubious overtures of assorted newfound “friends,” questions from a multiagency investigation into the cause of the tragedy, and a smear campaign by a blowhard cable news commentator who insists that both the crash and Scott’s survival look suspicious. All of it is at least a little bit familiar. The crash and the flashbacks recall Lost and Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Bridge Over San Luis Rey, and Scott’s travails are the lot of every hero in a conspiratorial thriller going back to The 39 Steps.

The truth about the crash, when it is revealed, has left a significant percentage of the novel’s readers feeling unsatisfied, to judge by both Amazon and Goodreads reviews. To explain why will require some spoilerish details, so consider yourself warned if you proceed from here.

Several grandiose malefactors are floated as the potential force behind the crash, but the truth turns out to be something far pettier and more universal. It’s at this moment that Hawley’s intent comes into focus: The novel is a catalog of toxic masculinity in its various types and flavors, from the cable news commentator (obviously based on Bill O’Reilly) to a weaselly husband who worries, when his wife adopts her orphaned nephew, whether she will still be able to tend to his needs. Even the novel’s more likable men neglect their families and chase after forms of power that poison the world. Bateman, a Roger Ailes figure, runs a Fox News–like network and is responsible for making the commentator a star. The investment banker launders money for repressive regimes and Russian gangsters.

Hawley clearly wants readers to recognize that each of these men suffers from a more or less magnified version of the petulant, destructive egotism that leads to the crash. But in illustrating this, he does too good a job of mimicking the most formulaic of commercial thrillers, books that are themselves designed to appeal to a pretty similar mindset. The genre as a rule panders so shamelessly to its readers’ yen for macho exploits that much of Before the Fall feels almost indistinguishable from the attitudes it aims to critique.

Before the Fall contains plenty of de rigueur loving descriptions of glass-walled bedrooms overlooking the East River, extensive personal staff, closets that look “like a Prada showroom,” knowing references to secret billion-dollar deals, and a boss’s luxurious prerogative to send one-word emails reading “Bullshit or Weak or More”. Hawley doesn’t succeed at simultaneously obeying and transcending the typical thriller formula (the way Flynn did), but he clearly understands this stuff to be a symptom of our inability to disentangle manhood from the exercise of power. Scott, meanwhile, serves as the soulful counterpoint to this folly. Hawley gives the painter a dash of darkness by making him a recovering alcoholic who squandered his early promise (he’s 47), but even that’s a cliché. The sober Scott has his head screwed on so straight it doesn’t get even a little bit turned by all the attention he receives for his genuinely heroic feat. Having sequestered himself with his work for the past several years, he’s on the verge of a gallery show that could relaunch his career, but never for a moment does he consider that it could get a boost from his new fame. A gorgeous heiress crawls naked into his bed, and yet he remains unmoved. He’s just too good to be either believable or interesting. Likewise, Before the Fall’s most loathsome characters—the blowhard commentator and the bearded, microbrew-swilling husband—are amusing, but cartoonish.

By contrast, the flawed, struggling, conflicted male characters in both seasons of Fargo register as real people, despite the darkly farcical tone the series takes from the Coen brothers film that inspired it. Emily Nussbaum, reviewing it in the New Yorker, complained that the first season glamorized “intelligent evil” in the form of Lorne Malvo, a philosophical hitman played by Billy Bob Thornton, whose spectacular violence indulges “naughty fantasies in the guise of subversiveness.” Before the Fall shows Hawley to be far from oblivious to such concerns, but also so tangled up in his own ambivalence about the mastery and heartlessness of traditional masculinity that a lot of his readers seem to be missing his message. Those most likely to get it probably bail out within a few chapters, turned off by the workmanlike prose and the flattened characters. Those who stick around—and, granted, there have been a lot of them—see nothing wrong with the typical thriller formula to begin with. For them, the novel’s lack of a grandiose resolution is a bug, not the feature Hawley intends it to be.

This is not the first time Hawley has contended with such themes. His previous novel, 2012’s The Good Father, is narrated by a middle-age rheumatologist whose 20-year-old son has been charged with assassinating a Kennedy-esque presidential candidate. A somber, often wrenching work, it deftly captures the way a human mind allows itself to believe one thing (that the son is innocent, or the pawn of a sinister conspiracy) while slowly adapting itself to accept the unbearable opposite. The father’s first-person chapters alternate with passages that might be his attempt to imagine his son’s frame of mind during the long, meandering cross-country journey that leads up to the killing, a path he calls “the dark wet road of the male mind.” Both of these books ask: How is it possible to be heroic, to make a mark on the world, without dominating or using others? Before the Fall answers with the example of Scott’s boyhood hero, Jack LaLanne, a fitness guru who conquered his own body, and Scott himself beats the ocean. But The Good Father finds no easy outlet for a young man seeking to exert his will in an indifferent world.

The second season of Fargo doesn’t abandon this question, but it features a lot less claustrophobic rumination on the nature of evil and strength. Instead of Season 1’s henpecked husband making a pent-up bid to assert himself against small-town bullies and his shrewish wife, the second season makes a comedy out of a suburban marriage in which husband and wife keep telling each other radically different stories about their shared life. He wants to buy the butcher shop where he works and settle in to raise a family; she’s dead set on pursuing a blurry mirage of self-actualization. (It’s the ’70s.) Meanwhile, a German clan that has long dominated organized crime in the area faces a crisis of succession while fighting off the incursion of a rival gang from Kansas City. There’s no satanic übermensch like Malvo to preach his alpha-male gospel. Everything worth having—forget that, everything you can have at all—is a product of negotiation.

What distinguishes the second, superior season of Fargo from the first? Well, one difference is that a team of writers scripted Season 2 rather than Hawley going it alone, auteur-style, as he did for Season 1. Television is inherently collaborative, but a lively writers’ room makes it more so, and this one let a lot of fresh air into Fargo. (The female characters, never a strong suit of Hawley’s, have improved a lot.) The novelist, by contrast, gets to run his imaginary world like a dictator, benevolent or otherwise; he can do whatever he wants, but he also has only his own resources to call upon. For some authors, this is just what they need to do their best work, but not all artists are alike. The novel, as a form, lends its creator just the sort of God-like power that Hawley, for whatever reasons, finds simultaneously alluring and troubling. He wrangles this demon better when he has company, as a leader rather than a lone wolf. For him, TV isn’t the new novel; it’s an opportunity to make something even better.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. Grand Central Publishing.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.