Experience often earns its meaning when an end is in sight. Abandoning a relationship, a job, even a house – all of these things count towards change and advance within the stories we make of our lives. Conclusions are treasures (even the painful ones) that we can look back on and see ourselves framed on either side of. Iain Reid's smart debut novel, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, interrogates the promise of the grand finale, delivering a stark, cerebral thriller that crushes what (and who) you thought you knew under the weight of its own ending.
Spanning one afternoon and night, I'm Thinking of Ending Things lives in the first-person thoughts of a young, aggressively unnamed woman, riding shotgun as her boyfriend Jake ferries them to his family farm. "Ending things" is on her mind from the very first line, and the premise seems to grow in urgency even as she takes us backward and forward in time; from a childhood memory of a man staring into her bedroom window to her meet-cute six weeks earlier with Jake at a pub trivia night. Over beers and banter, he identifies himself as a cruciverbalist: a maker of crossword puzzles – a word she learns the meaning of once they've parted. She is, fascinatingly, a woman who seems to understand herself best outside the company of others. The question that Reid pursues isn't why, but rather, why not? "The idea that we are better off with one person for the rest of our lives is not an innate truth of existence. It's a belief we want to be true," she thinks. "We can still have lovers, short-term. But only when alone can we focus on ourselves, know ourselves." She wants to be alone, an idea that Reid jacks up to its most hyperbolic expression – true aloneness having no discernible endpoint.
The style is unerringly lucid, if also a little ordinary. Having published two works of non-fiction previously, One Bird's Choice and The Truth About Luck, Reid's ear for memoir reveals itself in the voices of the characters, whose thoughts and conversational style verge on essayistic. In spite of the occasionally rigid dialogue, Jake and the narrator are attention-gripping, their connection to each other both curious and consistently alarming. Interspersed between their chapters are fragments of unattributed dialogue, conversations between anonymous characters after what sounds like a grisly event. As a tactic, it's inappreciably diverting. The real sense of mystery plays out in the mind game between Jake and the narrator.
From the outset, Reid kindles the uncomfortable feeling that we are being initiated into a puzzle that won't be so easily uncrossed. Ever the cruciverbalist, Jake is cryptic to a fault, or is at least presented as such while "she" assesses his character on a macro scale. Yet even in her profound state of doubt, she remains captivated by Jake – not just his thoughts and opinions, but by the way he chews, the way he drives, the way he wraps up two headache tablets in a tiny Kleenex-and-tape sachet. She creates a vivid portrait of Jake to the exclusion of revealing much about herself beyond a few brief anecdotes, which add up primarily to unsettling encounters with men. Within the car, the mental and emotional chasm between the couple is enormous. In that space, fears – both rational and not – begin to bleed in.
"How do we know when something is menacing," she asks, her mind wandering to-and-from thoughts of her impending breakup. "What cues us that something is not innocent?" In these questions, Reid deftly projects a miasma of threat onto nearly every thought that passes through the narrator's head. We see the mise-en-scène through her eyes, and over the course of the novel, the gaze skews progressively scarier. Reid is particularly good at capturing the danger that often shadows female identity. "The man is always there," notes the narrator, projecting the memory of a childhood Peeping Tom onto strangers and non-strangers alike, including Jake. Paranoia informs all of her observations; she is dogged by it. Perhaps this is the feature of Reid's storytelling that stuck with me the most. Here is a woman who has been frightened of men – however innocuously – since she was a girl. Now she is an adult, resisting and desiring intimacy with this man she seems suspicious of right from page one. In these descriptions, Reid's authorial empathy is remarkable. Doubly interesting is the way that the narrator's gaze is turned upon the male, who, through her eyes, seems both shady and grotesque. Even as Jake leads her on a tour of his family farm – where she sees dead sheep stacked like old newspapers – she continues to follow him. It calls to mind Gavin de Becker's book, The Gift of Fear, which discusses the way people, particularly women, often resist their fear instinct, acting in spite of it to their disadvantage. Reid's narrator back-burners her momentary misgivings about Jake, going deeper into his ominous world, imagining that she'll end it when the right moment presents itself. Endure terror until appropriate and in the meantime, follow Jake … where? As per Louis CK – to her death, statistically.
The psychological thriller exists as much in a character's mind as it does in the novel's alleged reality. So what does happen in I'm Thinking of Ending Things? Truthfully, not all that much until the final 30 pages, a pacing choice that pays off intellectually if not emotionally. The story is strongest in its periods of slow burn, and the explosive conclusion rewrites the majority of the book to ambivalent effect. Things that had previously resonated – Reid's intuition on behalf of his female lead, the depth of her thoughts (pussyfooting around spoilers here) – looked more like means to an end, rather than ends in themselves.
Swift and sharply rendered, I'm Thinking of Ending Things contains psychic traces of Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo) and Margaret Atwood (Surfacing) for the way that Reid massages facts through the filter of extreme anxiety. While it is admirable, ambitious, and interesting in concept, the conclusion disappoints in its subversion of a previous – if unstable – truth. "We depend on symbols for meaning," says Jake as he drives, something the narrator later quotes to herself. Symbols abound and multiply, Jake describing her as a "compressed" Uma Thurman. "That was the word. His word," she recalls, tone flatly illegible. Strategic compression turns out to be her defining feature, even more so than her desire for solitude.
Ultimately, she, the narrator exists as "Jake's girlfriend," subject to his word right to the dizzying end. The earned meaning in this context then is that a woman is a narrative device; a symbol depended on for meaning. Compression is inevitable as a novel moves towards its conclusion, but why does it have to be the woman who gets flattened in the course of telling a man's story?
Naomi Skwarna is a writer and artist. She lives in Toronto.