Tag Archives: conspiracy theories

Before the Fall: Noah Hawley

“Because what if instead of a story told in consecutive order, life is a cacophony of moments we never leave? What if the most traumatic or the most beautiful experiences we have trap us in a kind of feedback loop, where at least some part of our minds remains obsessed, even as our bodies move on?”

It’s evening in late August when a private plane leaves Martha’s Vineyard for New York with 3 crew members and 8 passengers aboard. It should be a simple, short journey, but sixteen minutes into the flight, the plane crashes into the sea. Miraculously, the last minute passenger, Scott Burroughs, a failed painter who’s managed to overcome his drinking problem and is finally producing good, although deeply disturbing work, survives the crash. He swims ashore with the only other survivor–a four-year-old boy.

Noah Hawley’s powerful novel, Before the Fall looks at the aftermath of the crash. The plane carried some important passengers: the head of ALC media, multi-millionaire David Bateman, his wife Maggie, and their two children, Rachel and JJ. Also aboard was Ben Kipling, a partner at one of the largest Wall Street investment firms, and his wife, Sarah. Bateman and Kipling are two of the most powerful, wealthiest figures in New York, and the fact that they both die in the same crash, with Kipling about to be arrested for illegal trading sends the media into a feeding frenzy.

before the fall

Leading the charge for the media is Bateman’s ALC News. Bateman formed the 24 hour news station with the intention of “shaping the events of the day to fit the message of the network.” Morally unscrupulous Bill Cunningham is ALC’s rabid watchdog “an angry white guy with a withering wit.” Cunningham is ready to do whatever it takes to dig up the dirt he’s convinced will be found as the cause of the accident. He’s ready to exploit his relationship with the four-year old who survives the crash, and he’s happy to stir trouble between the boy’s aunt and her money-grubbing loser of a husband. Soon conspiracy theories about the downed plane morph into a sex scandal as Cunningham pulls out all the stops to create the story of the plane crash he wants to hear.

Cunningham was David’s gift to the world, the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world, to rail against a system that robbed us of everything we felt we deserved–the third-world countries that were taking our jobs. The politicians who were raising our taxes. Bill Cunningham, Mr. Straight Talk, Mr.Divine Righteousness, who sat in our living rooms and shared our pain, who told us what we wanted to hear, which was that the reason we were losing out on 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.

Bill Cunningham was the voice of ALC News and he had gone insane. He was Kurtz in the jungle

Chapters go back and forth between the current investigation of the crash and the poignant back stories of the crew and passengers who died on the plane. Each chapter becomes part of the puzzle that will solve the mystery of the crash. No one is irrelevant here–from the pilot, to the security guard for the Bateman family, to the troubled, yet sadly-resolved Sarah Kipling–all these stores matter.

Scott Burroughs, whose Disaster Art labels him a suspect in the eyes of the media and the FBI works with Gus Franklin from the National Transportation Safety Board to try to piece together the mystery of just what went wrong on the flight. Scott, with shredded memories of the crash, emerges from the plane disaster as a hero, but instead of embracing this fame, Scott, still traumatized by the crash, makes the ‘error’ of disregarding the media. He becomes a ‘mystery man’ with something to hide, and once the media gets its teeth into his troubled private life, Scott’s  existence becomes a nightmare. In the eyes of the media, Scott morphs from hero to “notorious womanizer and recovering alcoholic, a struggling artist who’s never been able to keep a single lasting relationship.” And while that may all be true, it should be irrelevant. But when news is presented as a highly salacious gossip mag, sensation and speculation sell more seats than the truth.

Before the Fall is a sensitively written, beautifully constructed, moral powerhouse of a novel. The subject matter, grabbed from today’s headlines, is presented as a gripping story which examines fate, human nature and media hype. Scott Burroughs is an amazing, yet credible creation, and while the media viciously decries Scott and questions the crash, Scott’s backstory: inspiration by Jack LaLanne, reinvigoration for a damaged life through swimming, and the private tragedy that haunts his art, all piece together to place this man logically in the story. The scenes between the media, Cunningham and Scott are brilliant. Scott, an unlikely hero but a moral human being, comes across as a more intelligent, unstoned version of Jeff Bridges’s portrayal of ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowksi.

Author Noah Hawley is the creator of the television series Fargo. Someone rush and grab the film rights.

Review copy

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Game by Anders de la Motte

Game is the first book in a trilogy from Swedish author Anders de la Motte. The second volume, Buzz, is due to be released in January, and the third and final volume, Bubble, follows in February.  The author was a police officer and also worked as Director of Security for an IT company, and it’s easy to see how that background slots into the plot. This is the story of a marginally employed slacker, Henrik “HP” Pettersson just out of prison, who’s about to blow his “crap Mcjob.”  When the novel opens, he’s been partying, has a hangover, and is returning home on the train. He doesn’t give a toss about the job as he only took it so that he could claim unemployment in due course. HP is the sort of person who finds justification for all of his screw-ups; there’s no learning curve here, and in his mind, if he does something wrong, the fault is society’s.

GameA passenger leaves the nearly-empty train and HP notices that he’s left his phone behind. Checking for a lack of security cameras, HP switches seats and picks up the phone intending to sell it to a fence for “easy money.” The phone looks expensive but there’s no manufacturer’s name anywhere to be seen. There’s just a number: 128. While HP is looking at the phone, noting that it has a camera, the screen lights up with the words: Wanna play a game? At first HP ignores the prompt but when it appears repeatedly, and includes Henrik’s name, his curiosity, boredom combined with poor impulse control lead HP to accept the challenge. From that moment on, Henrik is in the Game and under the direction of the Game Master. Through the phone, HP is presented with a series of challenges for which he receives points and cash rewards even as he competes with other players for status and fans. For someone like HP, it’s the best of all possible worlds, and he thrives under the gratification of the Pavlovian system designed, it seems, to stroke his ego with instant feedback through the cyberworld, monetary compensation and the illusion that he’s some sort of rock star player.

It’s all great fun, until suddenly it isn’t. HP’s tasks becoming increasingly more serious and then they turn deadly….

In this age of virtual realities where some of us spend more time on the internet than we do with real live people, Game makes a statement about crossing the boundaries between the real and the virtual worlds. While HP is the main character, the book introduces many computer geeks, hackers, IT specialists and conspiracy theory whackos as HP tries to unlock the secrets of the Game. There’s also HP’s sister, Rebecca, a woman with a dark past who’s molded fear into toughness. As a member of the Security Police, she’s dedicated and focused–the opposite of her brother, but they are both connected by their pasts and a secret that landed HP in prison.

Game is a fast-paced read. No argument there, and this trilogy will no doubt make a great film, so move over The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. On the positive side, the author shows HP’s moral decline as he becomes fixated on the Game, and his addiction sucks all of his negative character traits to the surface. There are problems with the book, however, some of which may an issue of the formatting of my kindle edition. The action between characters shifts with no indication that we’re leaving one set of characters and moving to another with the result that I was confused several times as to who ‘he or she’ was.  I’d go back a page or two and re-read and it would still not be clear. There was a scene in which HP is having enthusiastic sex with an unnamed woman, and he refers to three sex partners in two hours which seemed so bizarrely out-of-place with the rest of the novel. At one point, I thought perhaps it was Rebecca who had sex with her brother, (WTF) so I went back and reread but nothing was clearer. So I kept reading and later finally realized that Rebecca had had sex with another male character whose name wasn’t mentioned at the time, so we have two separate sex scenes which seem to be the same scene with just two characters named: Rebecca and HP. Back to that confusing shift in perspective. I wonder if I’m the only one who was mixed up about this. Initially the writing seems clumsy and then it appears to improve, or perhaps I was swept away by the action.  

Translated by Neil Smith

Review copy

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Bloodland by Alan Glynn

“Someone else’s perception of the truth–however outlandish or irrational–is a valid starting point for any investigation.” 

After seeing the film Limitless, based on the pharmaceutical thriller The Dark Fields by author Alan Glynn, I knew I wanted to read his latest book, Bloodland. Bloodland is a thriller and it starts off very strongly with a couple of employees of Gideon Global, a private security firm, accompanying the “package,” Senator John Rundle, a politician who is also a strong contender for the next presidential race. They’re in the Congo about to meet with Colonel Kimbela, the sadistic maniac who has a weakness for fake Louis Quinze style furniture and also controls mining rights for the region. It’s a tense situation, and the pampered Washington politician isn’t used to dealing directly with psychotic leaders. The convoy, gets stuck in a village. Here’s former Iraq vet, now Gideon employee Ray Kroner:

They’re both former servicemen, he and this other guy, and are virtual clones to look at–the buzz cuts, the pumped-up muscles, the armored vests, the mirrored shades–but Ray Kroner is prepared to lay even money that whereas he is ramped up to the max, his dial straining at eleven, Tom Szymanski here is barely a notch or two above clinically dead.

Ok, Ray has got 600 milligrams of Provigil in his system, but that’s not what this is. Big in the military, and even bigger now in the PMCs, Provigil will keep you awake for days on end, but it’s not speed, it’s not even coffee, it’s just an off switch right next to the sleep option in your brain–press it and one thing you won’t have to worry about anymore is getting tired.

The novel introduces a lot of characters in the first few chapters, and since we don’t yet know the significance of who’s who, it’s not easy to keep them all straight. That’s about the only complaint I have about this fast-paced tale that should definitely be made into a film. While Glynn introduces all his characters and sub plots early, a main thread soon develops, and that thread concerns unemployed Irish journalist, Jimmy Gilroy who’s working, desperately on a bio of dead actress, Susie Monaghan, one of those celebrity walking disasters who created news wherever she went and who was killed in a helicopter crash after leaving Drumcoolie Castle. Gilroy, who’s living on the book advance, is warned off the book by his father’s former business partner, Phil Sweeney:

PR guru, media advisor, strategist, fixer, bagman, God knows what else? Someone for whom talking to people was–and presumably still is–nothing less than the primary operating system of the universe?

Jimmy wonders why Sweeney would want to squash a celebrity bio of Susie a “tabloid celebrity, a bottom-feeding soap-star socialite.” But then again, Susie send a series of cryptic text messages right before she died….

It’s so obvious now that Phil Sweeney is covering for someone, a friend or a client, some balding, paunchy fuck who was maybe having an affair with Susie at the time and doesn’t want the whole thing dredged up again now, doesn’t want his name associated with her, doesn’t want his reputation or his marriage put in jeopardy.

Jimmy lifts his glass.

Could it really be as banal as that, and as predictable? Unprepossessing rich bloke, gorgeous girl on a fast-ticking career clock? Then this grubby, undignified attempt a few years later to pretend it never happened?

Jimmy can’t see what connection exists between Sweeney and Susie as they seem to live in different worlds. There is, of course, a connection, and it’s a global one that stretches from the compound of a psychopathic Congo dictator to the highest reaches of corporate America and those oh-so invisible, grubby strings that operate the marionettes in Washington. Once Glynn sets down all the initial threads of this tale, then the book becomes a page-turner, and Jimmy finds out the hard way that conspiracy theories often pack a punch. What’s particularly enjoyable about the book is the way Glynn shows a definite hierarchy of corruption and how various characters are committed to a cover-up no matter what it takes while others jump ship when the moral consequences are more than they can live with.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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