Reid, Iain (2016), I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Text Publishing
So this is a weird book. Not weird as in weird fiction, or weird as in unusual. Iain Reid’s novel is a fairly straightforward psychological (horror) thriller. If you have ever read a book or seen a movie or played a video game in the genre, you’ll not be surprised by the book’s twists and turns. Everything is very clearly telegraphed, to such an extent that I was, at some point, wondering whether the effect was intentional but I couldn’t figure out the goal of such a tactic, because apart from the pleasures of genre, there is nothing else to the book. Well, one thing, but I’ll return to that. The book is fairly short, short on pages, but also short on characterizations and linguistic inventiveness. If I wasn’t reading a genuinely terrible book as I am writing this review, I’d say that it has been a while since I have read a book so thin on language and character. The author clearly wrote this book with the genre tools in mind, hurrying through the early bits to get to the meatier final confrontations. He draws on a vast canon of horror literature, but without the joy and delight that those writers display in writing those kinds of books. When you read, say, a good Stephen King novel (or even a bad one), what you get is an author who is profoundly interested in his material, who is convinced of the necessity and inherent worthiness of telling these stories and who tells these stories from the ground up. King took up the 19th century concept of the uncanny and implanted it in the dull lives of small town Maine, telling stories of lives upended by the supernatural. These books work because we are aware of the stakes. Reid uses many of the same tropes, and his execution of them in the book’s last third is almost flawless, but there is nothing at stake. There is no story here, but also no language that would make up for that. And it’s not as if that was intentional either – because the first half of the novel is clearly trying to tell a story. The author is clearly aware that he needs to invest his readers in the story for the final twists to have any payoffs, but all that is just awful. I considered getting rid of the book multiple times while dragging myself through the book’s dull first half. The excellent execution of the last third and the capable injection of what felt like genuine despair barely makes up for that. I will say this. If you love the genre, you won’t hate this book, but I cannot possibly come up with a reason why you’d read this book rather than one of the many excellent other entries in the genre.
It is entirely possible to read much of what I said in a much more positive light. The signposting of plot elements could be viewed as drawing the reader in, as suggestiveness. Yet given that part of the book’s mechanics uses and relies on twists, I doubt that this is part of the book’s function – because no matter what, the result is a less powerful reveal. I suspect, rather, that the signposting is a symptom of the author’s attempt to get his sea legs in this book, his first attempt at imaginative fiction, after writing two memoirs (I think). It reads as if he had opened a guide on how to write a psychological thriller and started to work through its prompts bit by bit. This would also explain the skeletal nature of the book which contains the absolute bare minimum of story. It is hard to tell you what the book is about because almost any detail I can give you about plot developments will spoil you, because everything has a purpose. It’s like an inept inversion of Chekhov’s pistol: there are no pistols that will not get shot later. No room or patience for characterization is the result. The book’s set up is a car trip undertaken by a couple to visit the man’s parents. Strange calls and signs accompany the trip until the catastrophe upends everything. The book is written from the girlfriend’s point of view, but the author is never really interested in her actual point of view; I will say, having read Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything just before reading this book has not helped, since Abbott, in her recent string of novels, has absolutely mastered the art of telling a thriller from a believable and rich female point of view. Other authors with similar plots have managed this part of the story with much more aplomb. The car ride is full of the most dull and banal dialogue, and while, yes, much of this has a purpose, as the end of the book reveals, it still requires us to slog through 100 pages of dull writing. And it is mystifying. If this was a first book, I’d understand. If this was a book by a misanthrope who never gets out and is now somehow forced to imagine how two people talk to each other, I’d understand, as well. But the author has written two memoirs – two prizewinning, well reviewed memoirs to boot. He is clearly able to figure out how to write characters that are full of life and depth. What has happened to the poor man? Did he get fleeced by the MFA equivalent of Trump university before he set out to write his third book and first novel? I am absolutely confused.
But even if we grant him the characterizations and dialogue and view them as another Chekhovian pistol – nothing explains the paucity of the novel’s style. I haven’t read Iain Reid’s other books, but he gets his prose regularly published in the New Yorker – he knows how to write well. What happened here? At its best the novel is filled with unremarkable, dull prose. At its worst, Reid goes for the odd short sentence prose rhythm used by high school boys who try to write interior monologue. With no teacher on hand to rap his knuckles, Reid unsystematically moves from one register to the next, from dull to bad and back to dull again. There is no obvious attempt to console his readers for the dearth of characters by giving us language that is enjoyable to read. So many sentences without verbs. Or sentences consisting of only one word, and that one’s a verb. Writing. How can you write like this? Write like that. Like this. If anything, these antics get worse as the book comes to an end, but at that point, we are excited, along for the genre ride and don’t care as much. I think style in horror gets a bad rep, and too little consideration. Read Stephen King and you’ll find he has a very specific way of shaping language that makes him a much more visceral writer than, say, Koontz, who is more interested in effects. I think, especially among ‘literary’ people there are two ways of dealing with genre. Either we are offered books that do not deliver on the promises of genre (excitement, fun, fear), because the authors are too far up their own backside to tell a proper story and offer some literary pap instead that works on no level. The exception to this rule is of course Gertrude Stein, whose Blood on the Dining Room Floor does not work as a mystery, but it is, as everything by Ms. Stein, a brilliant masterpiece of writing so nobody cares. The other direction, and that is where Iain Reid went, is the one of thinking of genre as being bad, but rule-bound writing, and offering, then, bad writing because it’s what you do. There is a whole host of examples of both categories in contemporary German fiction where something has convinced virtually all major writers to write some kind of science fiction recently, to sometimes deeply saddening results. So this is what I suspect happened here. Reid is convinced or was convinced that writing a thriller means writing in pared-down language. Nobody told him that writing simple prose is not a free pass to dullness (we had this before, see here, here and here).
And yet. And yet I cannot bring myself to hate the novel. In part because I am right now reading the worst book I have read in a few years, and I sort of try to review on a curve. So it could be worse. But more than that, the main character’s deep despair, which the last pages of the book circle in on (no spoiler, don’t worry) is, at the end, very believable. We know from page 13 of the book that part of the book’s discourse will involve suicide and the despair that pushes people to that point. And as I earlier suggested that I may be biased against parts of the book, I need to add here, that, were I not biased in favor of it, as a person who himself sometimes thinks of ending things, I might be even harsher on the book, because this discourse, it absolutely worked for me, personally. Potentially hokey sentences like “What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape?” gave me a bit of personal anxiety, which is obviously not a bad thing in the context of a thriller. This may not work for everyone. If you read those two sentences and rolled your eyes – stay away from this book. For everybody else, I think the book, once finished, does offer an interestingly creepy look at how it feels to be alienated, alone and scared. Nothing in the book feels original, really, and all the details of it also point to the genre, to such an extent that I am sure it is intentional. As a writing exercise, and cut to story size, this would be quite a nice riff on the genre. As a published novel, not so much. This could have been (and should have been) much better than it is. A shame.
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