I’m Thinking of Ending Things as Lit-Fic, Philosophical Tract, and Thriller
Iain Reid’s debut novel is a psychological thriller like none other
Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Scout Press, June 14) is about questions. Notably, the question “What are you waiting for?” which arrives late in the novel, the context of which I won’t discuss for fear of spoiling anything. This is a novel you want to read without it being spoiled. At all.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is being marketed as “The Psychological Thriller of the Summer” — this is wonderful in terms of getting the book a wider readership than it may have gotten if it were marketed some other way, but the fact is that the book’s thriller aspects are almost a kind of gloss to the deeper, far more uncomfortable positions to which it places the reader. Of course, thrillers can also be serious and disturbing and literary: The best of them often deal with deep social issues of one kind or another through the lens of a fast-paced story. However, this is not an accurate description of this book. It has thriller elements for certain, but they don’t mask the questions the novel poses. On the contrary, they serve as enhancements.
On the surface, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about a nameless narrator and a new boyfriend, Jake, driving to Jake’s parents’ farm house and then driving back, when they stop at a school in a snowstorm in order to throw away the cups of lemonade they’d gotten from Dairy Queen. That’s it. That’s all the novel is “about.” That’s the problem with trying to describe plot when discussing complex novels, and it’s also why plot is often sneakily the secondary nature of good books. Plot, in this novel, serves as the railroad track along which the reader walks while actually being mesmerized by the scenery around them, so much so that, even though they feel the heat rising from the metal rails and the rumbling making the stones jump between the wooden slats, they don’t hear the train chugging along behind them at a dangerous speed.
Before I read the book, its title resonated with me as a suicidal thought, while for others (I asked around) the phrase made them think of a breakup. Indeed, the novel’s first line is, “I’m thinking of ending things,” and it refers, at least in the most obvious sense, not to suicide but to the narrator’s possible decision, one they struggle with throughout the narrative, about whether or not to end things with Jake. I write “they” rather than “he” or “she” because the narrator is extremely carefully ungendered throughout the book — rather, more specifically, the narrator never refers to themselves in a certain gender, which, as the novel comes to a close, becomes increasingly significant though not in the ways you may expect. The closest the narrator’s gender comes to being apparent is when they discuss Jake’s “last girlfriend” or when they describe Jake referring to them as a compact and young Uma Thurman, “in a good way,” which again leaves room for ambiguity. Although later in the novel it’s (sort of) revealed that the narrator is, or would be, a she, it still feels disingenuous to the carefully worded narration to identify them as such. An example of this careful wording comes whenever sex is described — there are never identifying bodily features to make us assume the narrator’s gender based on their body parts. In one scene, when the narrator and Jake are making out in a car, for instance: “I lean my head back as he starts kissing my chest.” Chest — not breasts, but chest, which makes the narrator’s body far more ambiguous.
This ungendered narrator, then, carries most of the novel through their musings, their conversations with Jake, and descriptions of the disconcerting things they remember or see. The mind of the narrator is not a safe place. It is incredibly intelligent, and incredibly lonely. Read with capital-C-worthy Caution. For example, one scene that hit me particularly hard — I couldn’t sleep and was reading late into the night — was this:
Two nights ago, I couldn’t sleep. Yet again. I’ve been thinking too much for weeks…
I think what I want is for someone to know me. Really know me. Know me better than anyone else and maybe even me. Isn’t that why we commit to another? It’s not for sex. If it were for sex, we wouldn’t marry one person. We’d just keep finding new partners. We commit for many reasons, I know, but the more I think about it, the more I think long-term relationships are for getting to know someone. I want someone to know me, really know me, almost like that person could get into my head. What would that feel like? To have access, to know what it’s like in someone else’s head. To rely on someone else, have him rely on you. That’s not a biological connection like the one between parents and children. This kind of relationship would be chosen. It would be something cooler, harder to achieve than one built on biology and shared genetics.
I think that’s it. Maybe that’s how we know when a relationship is real. When someone else previously unconnected to us knows us in a way we never thought or believed possible.
I like that.
(NB: This long excerpt caused a bit of a crisis in the way I thought about relationships and, as a result, caused a bit of a crisis in mine for a couple days. So I repeat, Caution.)
This is what I mean when I say that Iain Reid’s book is somewhat of a philosophical tract as well as a novel. The narrator often muses over big life-and-death ideas such as the one above, but in a disarming way that renders these thoughts to feel like a seamless part of the narrative. It’s an incredibly hard thing to achieve, and Reid has done it to perfection: introducing ideas to the reader without taking them out of the narrative.
It also doesn’t cause detachment from the narrator as some books of this nature do — think existentialist novels like The Stranger. It is, in fact, the opposite. By blending together the narrator’s memories, thoughts, and present-tense scenes, we get so caught up in the narrator that we almost forget to breathe.
Except, of course, when the narrator is shunted off to the side in small italicized scenes between unmarked chapters. These scenes are dialogues between two or more people about something that’s happened, or will happen — it isn’t clear until you finish the book where in the timeline these conversations sit — and it’s these that start off what is the most powerful element of the book: its eeriness.
— Was he depressed or sick? Do we know if he was depressed?
— Apparently he wasn’t on any antidepressants. He was keeping secrets, though. I’m sure there were more.
— If we’d only known how serious it was. If only there’d been some sighs. There are always signs. People don’t just do that.
— This wasn’t a rational person.
— That’s true, that’s a good point.
— He’s not like us.
The rational response to these scenes is: what on earth are they talking about? As you read, you may have theories — about who, what, when, why, etc. — but it’s doubtful that you’ll guess or understand the full extent, especially as these conversations are often misleading. But what they achieve is the beginning of a menacing feeling that starts to overlay the entire book as you continue reading.
The narrator has some spooky memories that help with this sense too, but it’s often what’s happening in the present that leads to an increasingly surreal feeling of fear: a description of pigs having maggots eating them alive from the inside out; a small room with a whirring fan and a mysterious painting; two parents who seem to be out of time; all these are contributing factors to the shivers that escalate as the novel progresses.
While the ending of the novel was somewhat disappointing, the journey was ultimately more than worth it, and the ending is almost an afterthought when I think of the book now, after finishing it. The ending barely matters in the grand scheme of the novel, which is worth every minute spent on it.
But, and I must repeat it again, Caution.