Every few months I take a weekend and attend a writer’s conference. These conferences almost always have swag bags filled with the goodies we authors appreciate most books and pens. These backpacks full of books are often filled with works that are not up my particular alley. (So much romance, so little interest.) I was pleasantly surprised when in one of these swag bags I found I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid’s debut novel, amongst my freebies. The novel came highly praised and I placed it on my to-read shelf with great excitement and anticipation. Time passed, life happened and over a year later I still hadn’t cracked this short novel open; then Netflix announced it was making a movie adaptation starring Jesse Plemons (a personal favorite) and I decided it was time to get reading. So, for this edition of On the Shelf, I give you I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
The large majority of the novel amounts to little more than conversations that occur between a couple while they are on a road trip to see the boyfriends parents (although to be clear I’m from California where two hours is not a road trip, it’s your morning commute. But I digress.) The conversations are meditations on existence, the nature of consciousness, and free will. They have moments but by in large come across as the things a super pretentious grad student would say at a house party to impress people. Which is in line with the narrative and the characters but that doesn’t keep it from becoming annoying. If you want to wax poetic about philosophy great, but in a work of fiction their needs to be some forward narrative momentum. Creepy atmosphere and existential angst only go so far.
But perhaps I’m being unfair and a little crabby. The book is incredibly well written in terms of prose. The writing is both hypnotic and unsettling. You are meant to read the entire text with a sense of foreboding unease which culminates in full-on horror at the very end of the novel. Unfortunately, this is only effective if the reader hasn’t figured out the central mystery. I did. On page ten. I then had almost two hundred pages waiting to see if I was right, and I was. This isn’t meant to be a brag on how clever I am but goes to the central issue I have with this novel. Once you guess the ending the rest of the book is a slog to get through. Fretful apprehension becomes an urge just to get on with it already. The journey is just not all that interesting once you know the destination. However, if you can shut off your brain and try not to think ahead, I’m sure that you’ll be properly shocked and impressed by where this book takes you.
The truth is that there is just not enough story here to justify a whole novel, even the short novel that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is. The story gets stretched too thin, and this is true of the characters as well, whose listlessness would be more tolerable in shorter doses. Again, there are textual reasons for the characters to be written this way and I understand and appreciate these reasons but in the end, a good reason for flat characters still leaves you with flat characters, something that would be less noticeable in a more condensed narrative.
Basically, it comes down to this, if you’re the kind of person who guesses the ending of a story thirty pages in, this is not for you. If you are not that kind of person you are going to love this book. Iain Reid is a tremendous talent and I look forward to reading his next work but I’m Thinking of Ending Things turned into a pretty unenjoyable read for me. It will not be finding a prominent place On the Shelf.