Reading I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a tight psychological thriller by Iain Reid, feels frighteningly similar to the experience of living through a bad romance. This makes sense, since it’s a book that delves into the meaning and importance of human connection. If this was Reid’s intent — which is possible — he succeeded, maybe more than he meant to.
Aside from some very light splashes of dialogue, the novel is the running interior monologue of a woman on a road trip with her new boyfriend. They are on their way to meet his parents, who live on a farm a few hours outside an unnamed city. The woman, mostly still infatuated with her man, is, however, thinking of ending the relationship. Her internal debate is interesting enough, parsing the benefits of solitude, the meaning of memories, and whether the search for contentment should be an individual or a joint one.
But then things get weird, then unsettling, then stick-in-your-head creepy. The novel subtly becomes a ghost story without ghosts, an eerie existential tale of horror. If that doesn’t also describe the contours of an unhappy relationship, you’ve never been in an unhappy relationship.
The similarities to living through a bad romance extend beyond the plot. Because it’s written the way this narra- tor would think, complete with clipped syntax and declarative, present-tense descriptions of thoughts and actions, what starts out as engaging — a voice you’d like to get to know a little better — soon becomes overly-stylized and frustrating. You want to hear what she’s saying, but you can’t stand the way she’s saying it. It’s effective.
Reid has crafted a simple story that’s as propulsive and unrelenting as an affair heading for a crash. By the time his writing style begins to grate — which, admittedly, is a subjective experience — it’s too late. You notice it, but don’t care. You’re pulled along, confused and full of dread. If I’m Thinking of Ending Things were a woman, she’d be a bit unstable, a bit manipulative, but in that irresistible way.
She’d also be smart, though. While some thoughts the narrator has feel more like Reid philosophizing than actual, everyday thoughts (there’s a good reason for that, one realizes by the end), the book is full of unexpected wisdom and surprising views. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which is Reid’s first novel, he finds an impressive balance between ideas and plot; it’s a task some of the best authors (including Franzen, DeLillo, and anyone else who has crafted a “literary thriller”) often struggle with. It teases at the same idea Jean-Paul Sartre argued in No Exit, that Hell is other people, only Reid seems to come to an opposite conclusion: other people might be punishing, but a little Hell might just beat being alone.
A bad romance — twisted, maddening, destructive though it may be — is still a romance. And what’s the point of a life devoid of romance?