Some folks want everything to be black or white; others are comfortable with varying shades of gray. If you fall into the former category, Iain Reid’s first novel, just out this month, will drive you nuts.
If you are among the latter group, you’ll be captivated.
But no matter where you fall on ambiguity tolerance scale, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” presents a psychological mystery so compelling you won’t be able to stop reading.
Fortunately, since the book is just over 200 pages, you can get through it in a day. That’s a good thing because you may want to re-read it almost immediately, the better to find all Mr. Reid’s sly little clues that, in retrospect, may make everything clear.
In a recent interview with National Public Radio, the author said that after writing two “comforting” nonfiction books, he wanted to write something that would make readers feel “unsettled.” Unsettled is far too mild a word for what you will feel because Reid proves to be a master at creating a vague sense of unease and then ratcheting up the tension until the hairs on the nape of your neck stand at attention. The shift from normalcy to nightmare is gradual, much the way a dream begins pleasantly enough and then becomes so menacing that you wake up in a cold sweat.
Except for the fact that the unnamed young woman who narrates the story says “I’m thinking of ending things” right off the bat, the novel begins normally enough. She’s on a road trip with her fairly new boyfriend, Jake, to meet his parents, who live on a farm far from the beaten path.
Why she is contemplating “ending things” is unclear, since she’s genuinely attracted to her brainy, shy and funny lover. In fact, they seem like a perfect match, since she’s also a loner and a thinker, and enjoys their philosophical discussions about the nature of reality, truth, and memory. And both are somewhat secretive. Jake avoids her questions about his life and family, and she has not told him about a series of disturbing telephone messages and texts she’s been getting from a mysterious man she refers to as “The Caller.” Despite feeling that she might want to end her relationship with Jake, our narrator is clearly ambivalent, but as the oddities pile up, you’ll find yourself wanting to scream at her: “Get out! Get out now,” just as one wants to do while watching a horror movie.
It would be unfair and unkind of me to go into detail about what transpires. I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun as you try desperately to piece together the seemingly unrelated and often contradictory clues as they gradually emerge. I will tell you that there are three wonderfully written scenes that escalate one’s sense of malaise: the evening with Jake’s strange parents; a stop (in the middle of a snowstorm yet!) at a Dairy Queen, where the teenaged waitress tells the narrator that she’s scared for her; and the harrowing ending, which takes place at a deserted high school, where the narrator is stalked by an unknown presence as she searches the halls for Jake.
The thrust of most novels becomes clearer the more we read, but that is not the case with “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” The story just gets stranger and stranger. I felt as if I’d never resolve its inconsistencies nor solve the mystery of what’s really happening. While I think I have a fairly high tolerance for ambiguity, the more I read, the more frustrated I felt.
A series of conversations between unknown individuals, inserted periodically between chapters, at first, only added to my confusion. These little one-page dialogues recount the discovery of a body and the speakers’ attempts to piece together what happened and why. I didn’t know whether there’d been a murder or a suicide, nor was I able to figure out how the dead man related to the larger story until the very end.
Even now, I’m only semi-confident that I finally discovered the book’s basic premise – and I am a very careful reader. But you know, a little ambiguity keeps you on your toes, exercises the old brain a bit. Ultimately, I found myself admiring Mr. Reid’s ingenuity and the way he messed with my head. Which is why, as soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to go back and read “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” again.