Over the last few years, Iain Reid has become known as a memoirist of the kind the CBC likes to draw on for a weekend afternoon: self-deprecating and mildly anxious, comic and unthreatening, he is like a millennial Stuart McLean, sharing the stories of his occasionally bumpy but ultimately heartwarming ride toward maturity. His first book, One Bird’s Choice, cast him as “an overeducated, underemployed twenty-something” who moves back in with his “lovable but eccentric” parents on their rural hobby farm. The Truth About Luck chronicled a vacation with his grandmother that unexpectedly becomes a five-day stay in his basement apartment in Kingston. Long-forgotten family memories come back to the surface to be shared; long-held perceptions are re-evaluated. These comic memoirs, fun and moving and smart as they are, are really no preparation at all for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Reid’s ambitious, literary, somewhat terrifying, in many ways brilliant debut novel.
It begins, as many stories do, as a journey. A young, unnamed, female narrator is taking a first road trip out into the countryside with her boyfriend to meet his parents on the family farm. She seems overtly normal, maybe a little bit too normal, and as a protagonist she is somewhat underdeveloped. She and her boyfriend, Jake, have been together for six or seven weeks, but now she is thinking of ending things, the first line of the novel tells us. Perhaps the only thing that is unusual about her is the somewhat threatening anonymous phone calls she has started getting, calls that she has not told Jake about yet.
They drive; they talk. Spare, short sentences in the present tense neatly describe what is going on. We hear a little about her past, which fills her out—her shyness, her doubts. But we learn much more about Jake, who develops into a more rounded, prickly and intellectually interesting character. A postdoctoral researcher, he is somewhat isolated and awkward. He shares his opinions about the nature of memory and reality, the importance of solitude, the basic cruelty of the natural world. His thoughts and theories charm and sometimes irk the narrator.
As they drive, their conversation stops and starts, trails off and starts up again, veers off into unexpected and memorable philosophical and personal areas. Reid moves easily between the road trip and the narrator’s daydreams and memories; it is important to her ambivalence that some of these are shared with Jake, while others remain private. The phrase “I’m thinking of ending things” becomes a motif, with its various shades of meaning coming slowly to the surface. The main action is occasionally interspersed with a separate, italicized, past-tense dialogue between two other characters describing a terrible crime. It seems to be coming closer and closer, but we can only half-connect it to Jake and the narrator.
Adding to the unsettling mood created by the romantic doubts, Jake’s slight abruptness, the anonymous calls that keep coming in and those italicized sections, Reid expertly raises the tension once the couple reaches Jake’s family home, a run-down and isolated farmhouse. For 50 pages, I’m Thinking of Ending Things becomes a festival of uncomfortably funny, eerie weirdness. Family eccentricity is a rich source here for Reid, as in his other books, but this time the details are not comic and harmless so much as discomfiting. Jake’s mother is wearing a formal dress and no shoes. She says she hears voices. Jake’s father has a Band-Aid on his forehead. He tells the narrator how happy they are to “finally” meet her. The basement is full of disturbing, androgynous paintings. The details stick in the mind because they do not fit and we are not sure what is going on, not because they pleasantly echo our own lives. After the visit, when Jake insists on stopping at an isolated school on the way back to the city, the book shifts again, achieving horror-movie levels of suspense and even horror-movie “duh” moments: Don’t get out of the car! Don’t open that door!
Although it occasionally slips toward something a bit trite and cheap, it is incredibly effective. Reid writes great slow scenes of foreboding and creates powerful moods. The style is deceptively unadorned. The book’s effects come more from orchestration and rhythm rather than from the seductions of voice or any startlingly beautiful quality of phrasing. Reid possesses the sharp, anthropological, insomniac gift of observation certain novelists have, so that at times I’m Thinking of Ending Things sounds like the notes of an alien looking at our world through a microscope. He slows down the process of ordering at Dairy Queen (and the temperature, texture and taste of the lemonade sold there) until that momentary banal activity looks, as perhaps it should, deeply strange, even as it is rendered in the most straightforward terms.
The dedicated precision of the narration comes to suggest a voice that is not all it seems to be. There is something askew within it, a story slightly different from itself, as the italicized snippets of terrifying foreshadowing also suggest. As the action comes to its peak, Reid brilliantly and unpredictably combines the essential literary question that makes narratives tick—what happened next?—with the slightly more sophisticated questions they provoke—who is telling this story? Why? You long to jump forward, you think you have it all figured out as both horror story and literary conceit, but all along Reid is spooling rope out for you. When the inevitable twist comes, it melds genres and modes to shatter and remake the story perfectly. And it is not just a trick, but a genuine transformation with a haunting emotional resonance. As one of the characters says, the only way to really come to grips with what is happened is to start over again.
After you have turned the book and the conceit around in your head a few times, perhaps it seems not to work so perfectly. But that does not make the reading experience any less enlivening. It is good and heartening that someone is thinking this way about the novel and its possibilities. There is much more to I’m Thinking of Ending Things than there seems to be at first, just as there is much more to Iain Reid than he has previously revealed.