Many months ago, my Twitter feed was awash with raves and praises for Charlie Kaufman’s newest film I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I watched the trailer out of sheer curiosity and was immediately convinced to see the film.
I went on Netflix, found the movie right on the front page, and noticed that its runtime was over two hours. Ang haba naman, I thought. I might as well just read the book.
So that’s exactly what I did. I read the book instead.
I write this post for people who, a) have already read the book or, b) have no plans of reading the book at all. I write this post to help me streamline my thoughts, and I write this post with absolute disregard for potentially “ruining your experience” — whatever the hell that means — if you haven’t read the book yet.
In other words, spoiler alert. #damingsinabi
In the book How To Read Literature, critic Terry Eagleton sheds light on the inextricability of literary form and content. Eagleton asserts that when reading a work of literature, it is imperative that we pay close attention not only to what is said (content) but also to how the message is delivered (form).
What stands out to me in Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is precisely the formal workings of its language. The story’s psychological horror is underpinned by its monotonous narration, and this is evident right from the get-go:
I’m thinking of ending things.
Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It dominates. There’s not much I can do about it. Trust me. It doesn’t go away. It’s there whether I like it or not. It’s there when I eat. When I go to bed. It’s there when I sleep. It’s there when I wake up. It’s always there. Always.
The opening lines consist of curt sentences that are roughly of similar lengths. I find it annoying. Writers are often advised to vary the lengths of their clauses to make a paragraph more readable, yet Reid here does the opposite. In effect, the book’s opening salvo sounds like a series of terse anaphora with a fragment in the middle that lends a subtle lilt to the otherwise dry humdrum of words.
This jarring singsong rhythm is sustained all throughout the text. It is apparent even in heated moments, even when the plot rises to its climax. Notice, for example, how Reid structures the scene in which the narrator is being chased by a mysterious stranger in an abandoned school in the dead of night:
I can get back to the stairwell. It’s just across the hall. I can get up to the third floor. Maybe Jake is there. I squeeze my eyes shut. I make fists with my hands. My heart is thumping. I hear the boots again. It’s him. He’s looking for me.
The monotony becomes very difficult to ignore at this point. The sentences read like a play-by-play account presented in bullet form, which, in my admittedly worthless opinion, does not make for elegant prose at all.
Still, I breezed through the entire book. I wasn’t particularly invested in the characters, and clearly I wasn’t impressed by the language — I simply wanted to know the ending. The story had numerous nonsensical threads and I was genuinely curious how the author would tie all the yarns together. (Sometimes this is all it takes, ‘no?)
In the end, the female narrator is revealed to be just a figment of her boyfriend Jake’s imagination. The meat of the story is told/written from Jake’s perspective. Everything is all made up, a sort of “what-if” scenario that Jake has conjured in his head had he pursued that one girl in the bar and had he confronted his deep-seated issues with his parents. It is a sad ending, I must say. The title is no longer a simple musing about breaking up with a significant other; it deals with something more serious, something heavier.
And because I was mildly shookt by the ending, I felt the need to reconcile the dryness of the text’s language with the story itself. Why was I moved despite my earlier misgivings about the boring narration?
One way to describe the text’s rhythm is to call it “robotic” — it is stiff and machine-like, but it also suggests an aura of artificiality that perfectly aligns with the narrative’s twist. I think this is why the ending got to me. The twist is not too different from other cop-out literary endings (i.e. everything is just a dream, everyone dies, etc.) but I somehow perceived this forged — forced? — unity between form and content, and so everything made sense.
At the end of the day, however, this book is still one of the many works of fiction that zeroes in on the individual with little recognition of the external (read: social, political, economic) conditions that birth, or at least mold, their problems. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; I just personally prefer my fiction to not revolve around a purely post-politics space.
Of course this isn’t to say that I’m Thinking of Ending Things has no grander ambitions beyond portraying the woes of a sick boy. It poses interesting insights on loneliness and regret, and if I had to pick a takeaway, it would be this: we are the stories we tell ourselves. Aren’t we?
Okay, maybe not. I don’t really know.
I wrote the bulk of this post a long time ago. I haven’t revisited the book since then, but I still agree with most of what I said here.
Featured photo from Amazon.