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Means to an Ending: A Review of Iain Reid’s debut novel

By Brian Birnbaum.

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Iain Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Scout Press, 2016)

Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things walks like a trim Stephen King thriller but talks like a Wittgenstein thought bubble. Its opening lines reveal as much: “I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always. Jake once said, ‘Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.’”

Jake is our narrator’s conspicuous boyfriend, and the book opens with the two of them on a car ride to his parents’ farmhouse for dinner. The trip, which amounts to the novel’s first act, mostly serves to reveal our ingenuous narrator’s neurosis surrounding whether or not to end things with Jake. Despite feeling a connection to him, she’s also quite attached to her isolation. We can only truly be ourselves when alone, she thinks.

During the drive, the two sleuth aloud, investigating what at first seems to be an arbitrary set of philosophical, logical, and metaphysical problems. Nine times out of ten, Jake ultimately tells our narrator what’s what (some call this mansplaining now). The thriller genre erects the crosshatched cage we walk into. We’re immediately leery of Jake’s propensity to wax philosophical, as we’re made to inhabit our narrator’s naiveté: though introspective as well, she tends more toward black-and-white thinking, a somewhat glib plumbing of personal problems, and, especially, an impressive endurance for condescension.

The ride out is highlighted by Jake’s ruminations on intelligence, loneliness, and the paradoxes they generate. He is the voice of both empiricism and abstraction in our ear, two seemingly disparate sensibilities he reasons are actually one, symbol and allegory being our means of gaining cognitive purchase on our experiences. His thought experiments offset what would otherwise be a somewhat monotonous narrative, as Reid’s present-tense stream-of-consciousness sometimes bogs down in trifling or redundant perceptions.

Surprisingly, the most poignant thought along the drive comes from our narrator, when she relates a story about her driving instructor. He had claimed he’d met the best kisser in the world, but she’d demurred at this, noting that one person alone could not possibly be the best kisser in the world: “It’s like not playing the guitar or something, where you’re alone and you know you’re good at it. It’s not a solitary act. There needs two to be the best.” Here we’re given the symbolic meaning, the interplay between loneliness and companionship, embedded in a concrete, quotidian phenomenon. It’s this kind of philosophical dialogue that drives the first act, and sets up the novel’s overarching symbolism.

Act IIright on cue, per the thriller’s requirementsenlarges the aura of suspicion around Jake. We know he’s a sort of cloistered science kid. His social skills haven’t totally evolved a permeable membrane, so he proceeds in more or less a one-way manner, talking rather than listening. We’re not quite sure how the narrator, a socially capable former valedictorian, can be so enamored of—and yet so ready to end things with—Jake, whose best qualities seem to be his spindly boyish good looks. Her many obliviousnesses are a growing source of frustration for the reader, as they scan more like ad hoc devices than lapses arising naturally from her character.

When they arrive at the farmhouse, we soon discover that Jake’s parents are more than a little eccentric. His mother maniacally prattles off a host of ailments she’s suffering from, ranging from tinnitus to hair loss to the hearing of disembodied voices. At one point, Jake’s father corners our narrator, inquiring with barely bridled desperation whether Jake is okay, whether he’s still working the job he’s been assuring them he has. Soon after, the narrator meanders into the basement and comes upon a series of creepy paintings of the basement, all of them including a sort of straw-woman, depicted in what seem to be portentous postures. As she peruses the paintings, she can hear Jake’s parents beginning to argue upstairs—apparently about Jake’s leaving his job, and his dubious capacity to interact normally with others.

Back in the car, with the snow starting to pick up, our narrator presses Jake on his parents’ solicitous and secretive bickering. Quite implausibly, Jake passes it all off as being about a heretofore unmentioned brother of his (he’s apparently a social pariah and shut-in). At this point, we’re practically screaming at our narrator to wake up and smell the iron and blood. Though inherent to the thriller genre, she seems to have a too-convenient patience for looming problems before committing finally—almost arbitrarily—to action-as-recourse.

Act III opens with a stop at Dairy Queen, one that Jake all but decrees must happen. Here, a diffident employee tells her literally and almost randomly that danger is imminent. Back in the car, armed only with lemonade (quite a nonconforming Dairy Queen selection), our narrator submits to yet another diversion from the course home; they wend their way deep into the woods, to a seemingly abandoned school, just to throw away the cups, whose melting threatens to dampen not only the car’s cup holders, but our narrator’s heretofore impressively buoyed mood. Yet in an interesting turn for the intimate, nearing coitus in the car, they’re questionably spied on by the school’s nighttime janitor, who then recedes back into the school they’d assumed was vacant. Jake’s reaction to the potential peeping tom is nothing short of clinical; he goes gruffly in search of the janitor, to have words with him. Our narrator’s sudden isolation frightens her into some inkling of the danger. She slinks around the school only to find the janitor staring at her ominously through a window. She finally seems fully impressed with the danger, despite her damsel’s attitude of following breadcrumbs toward the wolf’s house.

These problems notwithstanding, the novel’s ending, which I can’t disclose without diminishing the enjoyment the book offers, does in fact deliver, and deliver in a way that’s organized and considered, the novel’s very title bleeding like wet print into a series of literary entendre. What appeared at first to be entropic threads of considered dialogue and disembodied interpolation now synthesize into something not entirely effable, the genuine mystery that is the mark of success for a literary work—and this book absolutely does intend to be literary. We feel the repellent yet inextricable connection between the binary poles of loneliness and companionship, the truth of thought versus action, being versus not-being, and the end complicates those dichotomies, alluding to the vast spectrum between the poles and to their ultimate irreconcilability.

We’re also finally able to empathize with the warped mindset that could lead to all the pain revealed, the kind of pain that leads one to end things with a partner, to abandon hope. The only thing truly cemented by the book’s ending is our uncertainty, our cosmic aimlessness, perhaps the sine qua non of a literary work. It is also simply heartbreaking.

All of this is to Reid’s credit. But do the means justify the end? Yes and no. As with any novel, it depends on what you intend to get out of it. I’m Thinking of Ending Things can be enjoyed during the flight from New York to LA, the epiphanic climax ramping up just as your bipedal faculties are kicking back in; the book is fast-paced but charged with the author’s obvious intelligence, which calls out for a parallel intelligence in the reader. At the same time, the book is wanting of development, of nuance in its narrator, and of integrity in its dynamic—all qualities that take more drafts, more time.

The novel also suffers at the level of prose. Plain writing does not a Raymond Carver make. We sleepwalk through too much of the language, which leverages stream-of-consciousness style against a lack of thoughtful sentence construction. For instance, in an attempt to make a metaphor out of time’s frequent perceptual warping, the narrator observes, “Everything passes by faster in a car.” There’s an affected profundity here that doesn’t resonate with the savvy reader. And though they are textual highlights, the frame narratives delivered by Jake and the narrator are often stilted and gawkily placed, particularly in the way the teller tags the dialogue as if writing a story.

After finishing the novel, these jagged edges—for instance, those very frame-narrative dialogue tags—should have smoothed themselves into a meaningful narrative and thematic structure. But the book does not come together, certainly not in quite the right way. If this book were to have succeeded on terms greater than its haymaker ending—an ending which indeed lays us flat on the mat, empathetically dazed and emotionally confused in the best of ways—it would have needed to throw better punches throughout. Soporific wordsmithing and credulous dramatic transition cannot be justified by the crude consciousness of the narrator, since it’s the author’s job to render the narrator in a congruent and compelling way, even when the narrator is herself neither overtly compelling nor congruent.

So, for this book to work its magic, you’ll have to decide to buy into the fiction, when Reid ideally ought to make you believe it. This is how an unreliable narrator becomes an unreliable author. The novel’s ending, which lays out its great conceit, intends to transfigure the landscape of what you’ve just read and bring a meaningful shape to things. Unfortunately, it does so in a way that shatters the narrative dream John Gardner compellingly advocated: the themes and tropes used to support the novel’s ending are, though worthy of applause, simply not fleshed out enough to instill lasting rapture. A higher math is necessary to harmonize these dynamics, which, had they been more thoroughly developed, would have themselves provided the solutions to the problems presented by the novel’s premise. This is what prevents I’m Thinking of Ending Things from inducing a bona fide fictive dream in the reader. Though it certainly has its pleasures, the book remains a thought experiment.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author Photo

Brian Birnbaum received his MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. He’s been working on his novel, Emerald City, for nearly four years, from which he had an excerpt published in Potluck Mag. In addition to the Trumpet reading series at KGB Bar, he’s read alongside Sergio De La Pava at the Dead Rabbits reading series. He lives in Sugar Hill, Harlem.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 1st, 2016.