Thursday, March 19, 2020

Talking Books With Craig & Howie

A Beginning At the End - Mike Chen
MIRA Books
400 Pages

Last year, Howie and Craig both read the same book and jointly reviewed it HERE. Today, they do that again with this author's second effort, A Beginning at the End, and the appeal isn't as universal. 

 Howie: Where to begin is a tough one here, since I know we both really enjoyed Mike Chen's first book, Here and Now and Then, and our opinion on this one isn't as similar. I think it makes sense to start with the general storyline, and we must point out this story was something the author started - and shelved - in 2011. That is important to keep in mind because a main plot point is how the world recovers from a global pandemic. Given the news about Coronavirus, someone might question the timing of the publication. Even then, the book was released in January. So there shouldn't be anyone wondering, "What was he thinking?"

Although, if I'm asked that last question, my immediate response is to say, "He was thinking that he would tell another story about the power of family. And that story would illustrate how we do anything for our family, even if it is the family that we have ultimately chosen rather than the family into which we were borne."

Craig: I've taken a couple of days since receiving Howie's initial start to the review. In those couple of days, the world has been turned on its head and life is a lot different than it was before. As Covid-19 changes everyday life, more and more of Chen's book seems to be coming to fruition. The panic and mayhem written about in this story reflect so neatly what is happening today, that I have wondered if Mike Chen is a time traveler or a Time Lord. Interestingly, as we move further into this outbreak in real life, every sniffle is evaluated and evaluated again. Could it be the mind playing tricks on us? Ironically, another book, The Stand by Stephen King, had that very effect upon me when I read it for the first time back in the 1980s. As the flu ravaged society and new power factions formed, I was eagerly reading the book when suddenly I realized I had the sniffles. I was so engrossed in the book, I gave myself the sniffles. It can actually happen. I looked it up.

Now, the timing of this book is very ironic. As a pandemic has rewritten modern life in America, the characters must negotiate the new twists and turns of everyday life. The government has taken the opportunity of the pandemic in the book to erase freedoms and inject their rule. In one of the scariest parts of the book, a governmental agency decides to remove a child from a parent over the parent's inability to tell his daughter that her mother has died. Keep in mind that the child is seven, and the bureaucrats believe that this withholding has done irreparable damage to the psyche of the child. Once the powers that be realized that fear would allow them to take greater control of the populace, they never looked back. It was once said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Chen's book beautifully explores that very adage.

Howie: Well, your "couple of days" was more than a week. But who's counting, right? Actually, waiting as long as you did, I'm wondering if your reaction to this book has changed in any way as the news continues to break and the story we're living continues to develop? On second thought, never mind. We're talking about a book here. Sorry.

I completely agree with your take on the corruption of power. It can be found in our own backyards if one looks hard enough. While this story has that as a main plot line, I chose to focus on the familial aspect of the narrative. Basically, Chen is able to give us a story with characters who have very little in common but each other, and over the course of the book they become family. That, to me, is one of the most impressive feats here - the ability to write about how the family we're born into is not necessarily the family we choose as we get older. Furthermore, the part of the book you specifically mention - in which the father, Rob, is deemed an unfit parent and is told he'll be losing his daughter by government edict - is seen coming a mile away, and it still provided an emotional gut punch when I read it. I knew it was going to happen, and I still felt for the characters involved. To me, that's the mark of a good storyteller. 

I think we differ a bit in how we looked at this, though. There's an aspect of government overreach, for sure, but I found myself asking how much of that is a mirror for what we're currently dealing with in society in which everyone has a camera on their phone and can't wait to go viral (pardon the term) for recording a fight or a disaster. Parenting in 2020 is so much different than it was for your parents and my parents in the 70s through the 90s, as everything is under a microscope and people have seemingly stopped talking to each other and being neighborly. As you mentioned, Rob was obviously doing what he thought was best for his daughter. How many other cases have been in the news about people who, at least on the surface, were also doing their best only to see someone criticize them for it, leading to more dire consequences down the road?

Here's another scary aspect of this book: social normalcy audits. By the time what we're living through has run its course, I believe there will be a new normal. However, I also think "normal" is a relative term in its broadest sense. Having the government tell us what normal is, when we've been conditioned to question almost everything coming from the government, is a terrifying thought.

Craig: When I first read this book, I thought the characters were not as well developed as they were in Here and Now and Then. Frankly, I thought they were mostly unlikable and I didn't have much sympathy for any of them. When Rob is going to lose his daughter, there was a bit of a twinge there, but he still didn't really grab me. Most of the characters seemed indecisive for most of the book, like they were afraid to make a move. It drove me crazy. However, after seeing how the real world has reacted to this pandemic, I realized that Chen actually perfectly captured how we would react in this situation. We've never dealt with a situation like this before, and we are not sure what we should or should not do. Many people are hesitant of what they can do already, in the early days of the crisis. This novel takes place after a pandemic has unraveled modern society, and these people are used to indecision. In fact, for the most part that's all they've ever known. It is a warning to all of us of what could happen if we become apathetic to our plight. 

An important lesson that this novel drives home is the importance of finding your family, friends, and neighbors. Banding together will bring out the best, especially when working towards a noble goal. And in those relationships, you may just find the thing you didn't know you were looking for. Sometimes, those happenstance relationships can end up being the strongest and deepest. For me, that was the main focus of this novel.

Howie: Relationships between people are a huge theme in this story. Rob and his daughter, Sunny; Rob and Krista; Rob and Moira; Krista and Moira; Krista and her uncle; Moira and her father; and a handful of others all take center stage at some point. (And for what it's worth, I love how Chen noted in his acknowledgements that he imagined Krista and Moira as two of the lead actresses from Legends of Tomorrow, which is a great example of a properly used ensemble.) The indecisiveness you mention, though, is mostly in the public's actions and it plays a role in the mob mentality that shows up near the end of the book. The public questions everything already because almost everything is interpreted through a political prism. Meanwhile, I know the other day we agreed that one of the key voices in real life right now is Dr. Anthony Fauci, and there are people who are questioning him. If anything, this book should illustrate that there is an enormous difference between elected officials and experts. The human body is the human body, and there's really no logical reason to be questioning medical experts dealing with things like what are in Chen's book or what we're dealing with now.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this book is set six years after a global pandemic. People's homes have been lost and cities destroyed. If we're careful and listen to the right people, we'll avoid that fate. However, what this story does is make the reader take stock of what one would do in such a crisis. It really makes someone think about what you can take with you on a moment's notice. This was touched more than once when a few characters discussed how memories "have an expiration date" because they are "meant to fade" over time. I thought this was especially poignant, as unless something is unbearably terrible, we tend to remember the good stuff more than the bad.

Craig: The more that I look back on this book, the more I have enjoyed it. I still think that Here and Now and Then is my more favored book, but A Beginning at the End will definitely keep me eagerly anticipating the next novel by Mike Chen. He probably has a lot of ideas that he’s collected from his time as a Time Lord. I can’t wait. Keep them coming, Mike!

Howie: Yes! He’s a Time Lord! With that in mind though, I think I’ll ask our readers one last question as we wrap this up:

The past decade has brought with it a plethora of post-apocalyptic, dystopian sci-fi on both page and screen. It’s almost as if we’re living in bits and pieces of several different storylines, sort of like a multiverse. For instance, The Hunger Games Trilogy and the Maze Runner series looked at things through a real-life consequence lens. The 100 - with its final season approaching - has warned us about the worst-case extremes of real-life bad decisions. Ready Player One showed us how apathy leads us down a path of non-spacebound WALL-E. And going back a bit further, Twelve Monkeys just might be the evil doppelganger of the book we just spent time dissecting. Now, with all that said, humanity is said to have gone really dark before Zefram Cochrane made his first flight.

If we find out, after all of this, that a child has entered the world with that name, I think we should protect that kid at all costs because it means all roads lead to a Star Trek future. 

I can live with that!