I’m Thinking of Ending Things does not want to be classified as a simple horror story. It is one. But it also isn’t. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a horror story, a romance novel, a psychological thriller, and a memoir all at the same time. It is an old man’s suicide note. Iain Reid’s debut novel is a powerful story about the trauma of loneliness, captivating readers from the first page on.
And, yet, it isn’t perfect. Most scenes come across as dismal and depressing. The storyline is predominantly upsetting. I’m Thinking of Ending Things will not resonate with all readers for that reason. You have to be willing to be sad, and confused, and curious alongside the rest of the characters. You have to want to ask yourself hard questions about yourself, your family, and the world around you.
Plus, some of the concepts are too specific to Jake’s situation to perfectly capture the situation of all people. Others are too broad and feel like they’re assigning personal blame to the reader. Why did we not help him? Why do we fail to see the pain in others? Have we ever isolated someone to the point that they end up like him?
The main character’s verbose way of communicating can also come across as pretentious to some readers. Other readers may also find the author’s constant creation of illusions to be a bore. They occur nonstop and can make the book confusing to read.
Personally, I believe that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a work of art. It isn’t meant to be enjoyed simply for what it is. Instead, you have to analyze and question everything you read. It isn’t a story so much as a puzzle. It will never make you feel safe or comfortable in your own life, but will instead force you to confront possibilities and problems that never occurred to you. Do we really care so little about each other? Are we all really alone?
BACK OF THE BOOK (Amazon.com)
Jake and his girlfriend are on a drive to visit his parents at their remote farm. After dinner at the family home, things begin to get worryingly strange. And when he leaves her stranded in a snowstorm at an abandoned high school later that night, what follows is a chilling exploration of psychological frailty and the limitations of reality.
Iain Reid’s intense, suspenseful debut novel will have readers’ nerves jangling. A series of tiny clues sprinkled through the relentlessly paced narrative culminate in a haunting twist on the final page.
Reminiscent of Michael Faber’s Under the Skin, Stephen King’s Misery and the novels of José Saramago, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an astonishing and highly original literary thriller that grabs you from the start—and never lets go.
MY THOUGHTS (SPOILERS INCLUDED)
Let’s start from the very beginning of this book: the movie. It’s sad to say that I watched the movie first, but I did. I honestly didn’t even realize that the new Netflix original was based off of a book until after I had already watched it. I didn’t look into I’m Thinking of Ending Things at all until after I watched the movie.
But in a manner of speaking, I’m kind of glad I watched the movie first. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the book to the same degree if I hadn’t understood what was really going on prior. I found myself constantly looking for clues that could help me better comprehend the ending. Without that endless search, I’m not sure if I could have gotten over the depressing nature of this story and dug deeper into the value of the content.
Would I have been able to enjoy the endless melodrama? Or would I have found it boring? I just don’t know. The book is so beautifully written it’s hard to imagine that I wouldn’t have been captivated by the end of the first page.
Similarly enough, the reviews I’ve read since then seem to be mixed. Some readers absolutely hate this book. They think it’s pretentious. It is slow. It is boring. It is trying too hard to seem deep and it misses the entire point it’s trying to make. Others believe it is worth endless acclaim. I had the chance to fall into either category and, instead, sit somewhere in between.
I love the concept behind I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I love the writing style. I love the characters, and the creepiness, and the never ending hard to answer questions. I love the vagueness. But it’s all so overwhelmingly sad. How can I love despair? How can I love loneliness? How can I find Jake’s sad, horrible story to be utterly enchanting?
And how can I not fear the fact that I strongly relate to Jake? The janitor’s story has a piece of everyone in it. It is just a dramatized version of our own loneliness. He is completely unable to connect or relate to others, but we have all experienced that in our lives to some degree. Jake just experiences it to the highest possible degree. Loneliness defines everything about him, but calls attention to something real in everyone. Sometimes it feels impossible to connect to the people around you. Sometimes you will feel entirely alone. That is a natural part of life. Jake giving into it is what makes I’m Thinking of Ending Things so scary to me. The idea of giving into your worst moments terrifies me.
However, that is probably one of the reasons why I don’t really mind the way that Jake communicates with the readers. Others think his big words and big ideas mean he is pretentious. I don’t think he is. I view Jake as empty. He has nothing. He has no one. He cannot find a reason to be alive. Jake uses big words to reinforce the fact that he is, at the very least, intelligent. His intelligence is the only real thing he has left. He may be all alone, but at least he is smart. He must be worth something because of his intelligence. He can’t be worth nothing at all. He tries to find meaning in his life throughout the entire book. Jake constantly asks himself if his life could have ever been worth living.
Plus, Jake’s intelligence is also meant to reinforce one of Reid’s main questions for the reader. Is it worth being smart if it makes you feel more alone? Intelligent individuals have a hard time making the same connections as less intelligent people. They aren’t usually as emotionally intelligent. Their skills lie elsewhere. Jake’s life may be so lonely and empty because he spent too long relying on his intelligence and avoided learning valuable social skills. He is awkward and stunted and anxious. He uses his intelligence to hide from the sad reality of his own life. It is a masquerade and a distraction.
And is it his intelligence that allows him to live in a dream world? I wonder how lake Jake has been imagining a different life for himself. While his imaginary world throughout I’m Thinking of Ending Things is riddled with sadness and despair, maybe he had once been able to imagine better lives for himself with healthy relationships, family, and a happy farm. Perhaps his imaginary relationships helped to prevent him from creating real ones.
Assuredly, his fantasies do prevent him from interacting with the world around him now that he is older. Jake wasn’t fully present in the final years of his life. He barely spoke. He didn’t seem to take good care of himself. The side notes between chapters all seemed to be conversations about Jake following his suicide. Every single one mentioned how disconnected and lonely Jake seemed. The people around him thought he was creepy and weird. He paid more attention to what was in his head than what was in front of him. He was unable to converse even to small degrees.
However, part of me did wonder if those side sections were real depictions of how Jake the janitor acted. It was disclosed at the very end of the book that much of the story was a departure from reality. Jake was imagining his life as it would have been if he had actually talked to a girl in a bar one night. Then, it was disclosed that this story was one he had written down in a notebook before killing himself. It was more than a dreamworld and had entered into the formal stage of being a story. What if those conversations were also imagined? It is hard to believe that people would be as cruel and dismissive towards Jake’s death as the people conversing were. What if their interactions were just how Jake imagined people reacting to his death?
I wouldn’t be surprised, especially considering that most of his fictitious universe was tainted with hints towards his loneliness, his anxiety, and his overall lack of self esteem. Jake doesn’t value himself very much so it’s understandable that he doesn’t think others would value him either. Even his own imaginary girlfriend, a figure who developed into a separate persona for himself, doesn’t value him. She doesn’t love him. She wants to end their relationship. I could see his self hatred bleeding into his perception of how others perceive him.
What’s interesting about his relationship with the young woman, however, is that she views Jake as an amazing conversationalist. Young Jake is wonderful to talk to and can discuss a wide variety of topics with ease. In reality, Jake the janitor is mute. He refuses to speak to the people around him. Perhaps this was just meant to indicate the depth of his internal dialogue, but it may just be that Jake was trying to develop the person he wishes he could have been. In his dream world, he was capable of talking to others. He has a separate persona as someone interesting and dynamic, someone worth speaking to.
Rolling that idea around in my head, it seemed to seep into other sections of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Jake seems to have developed a wide variety of separate personas. He views himself as both himself, the janitor, as well as his own imaginary girlfriend, young Jake, and a fictitious brother that he blames for his own short-comings in life. They all have unique characteristics that Jake the janitor assigns to them. They are all pieces of himself that have developed into something separate.
In reality, Jake, the janitor, is unsociable. As mentioned prior, he doesn’t speak to others and spends far too much time alone. He seems to have an element of mystery to his life because few people know his background story. All they know is that he lives alone. He has no family. He makes people feel uncomfortable because they can’t figure out how to interact with him. Jake the janitor has few to no connections with the real world. He drowns out reality with loud music, books, and the creation of an imaginary world where life might be better.
Jake’s persona as his own fictitious girlfriend is quite different from that. The young woman is slightly reserved, but is capable of navigating complicated social scenarios. Even when Jake’s parents make her feel uncomfortable, she can hold a conversation with them. She doesn’t have a very deep connection to Jake and, instead, views him as an outside figure. cial scenarios. She doesn’t have any deep connection to Jake and instead views him as an outsider. I’m Thinking of Ending Things often implies that she doesn’t completely understand Jake. Much of his behaviorism and attitudes are foreign to her. She may be somewhat intelligent, but not the extent that Jake is and not in a way that prevents her from connecting to the world around her. In a manner of speaking, she might be more of an ideal version of what Jake would like to be like than even young Jake is. She is what the janitor can’t imagine having in real life.
However, her lack of understanding in regards to young Jake was surprising to me, particularly after watching the movie. The Netflix version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things often implies that she perfectly understands young Jake, and he perfectly understands her. They are unsettingly similar, even as her identity changes again and again. The connection isn’t made that they’re the same person until the very end. The book calls attention to their differences. They come across as completely separate identities with a strained connection to one another. Similarly to the movie, she has little chemistry with young Jake.
In regards to young Jake, his personality is more erratic than the other two. In the beginning of the book, he comes across as calm and collected. The young woman often complains that their relationship is missing something. Later in the book, he acts out of anger and frustration more often than not. He is childlike and distances himself during dinner with his parents. He complains and acts out because of his dislike for the lemonade at Dairy Queen. When he sees the janitor watching the two of them, he is enraged.
Young Jake’s personality seems to fluctuate with each page. He is all over the place and hard to pin down. Where the young woman sees one trait, I see dozens. It’s almost as if the janitor couldn’t fully picture himself as a fully realized, healthy adult with normal relationships. He didn’t know what he would look like as that type of person. So, instead, he creates young Jake who is
And that might make you think that it would be possible for young Jake to connect with the young woman at some point in the story, but it never does. They both change to varying degrees as the story progresses, but never in ways that compliment each other. The young woman and young Jake are always at odds with each other, possibly for the same reason of Jake the janitor being unable to imagine a healthy relationship between himself and someone else.
This tension of young Jake versus the young woman only built as the story went on. An overall sense of anxiety built up with each page. In the movie I thought that all of this drama was nonsensical. It was just the young woman’s anxiety over meeting her boyfriend’s parents that caused everything to feel eerie and unsettling. It was a figment of her imagination, nothing more. There had been nothing to worry about. This story was a non-story. Of course, that’s not what the movie was about. The book never made me feel like that would be the ending.
Throughout the book, the feeling of anxiety came across as more insidious. The anxiety was inside of her, a part of her. But it wasn’t only hers. It felt too foreign for that. It also belonged to the farm and the road trip and Jake and his parents. It bled into everyone. It defined everything. Of course, having watched the movie first, I knew that all of this was because it wasn’t just her anxiety. It was Jake the janitor’s anxiety spilling over into his narrative of a better life. He struggled to find traits that anyone would connect to in himself. He couldn’t find any reasons for another person to love him. He knew any attempt at a relationship would have ended in failure. He knew he would never be able to survive alone if he truly knew what being with another person was like. Jake the janitor’s debilitating social anxiety made everything seem anxious and nerve wracking.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes across as a thought experiment in loneliness for that reason. It is similar to the oroborus, the snake that eats itself. It will cycle on forever, feeding on itself. The more lonely you are, the more daunting relationships will seem to you. You don’t want to give someone too much power over yourself if you’ve spent so much time alone. If you give someone importance or sway over your heart, what will happen to you if they leave? Instead of risking losing someone, you just spend your entire life alone.
In a way, it comes across that loneliness is its own type of trauma. Jake the janitor seemed to have few to no traumatic experiences in his life. The event with the maggot-filled pigs seems to be his only traumatic memory he has and it has a large impact on his perception of self. He believes his life is filled with maggots, metaphorically obviously. It does not seem horrible enough to impede his ability to interact.
So why did he spend his entire life alone? Because the anxiety and nervousness regarding his social interactions caused him to separate himself from society. That in turn, led to loneliness and more apprehension about interacting with others. As the years went by, he became less and less likely to branch out. Similarly to the scene where he describes the candle he never burned for want of a better reason to burn it, Jake the janitor never had a reason to risk the dread of socializing. There was never a good enough reason. He could take care of himself just fine all alone. He didn’t need anyone else and didn’t want to risk caring about anyone else lest they leave him.
I feel like that concept played a role in many of the scenes throughout the book. Young Jake mentions previous relationships that held little importance with him. He was able to meet with ex-girlfriends because they didn’t matter to him. He assigned little value to other people so it wouldn’t bother him when he inevitably lost them. He didn’t want to even imagine the pain of losing someone let alone run the risk of actually having someone to lose. He didn’t want to risk loving someone.
Another scene that stands out is Jake’s refusal to have vaginal intercourse with the young woman. He uses his fingers instead. Is part of that due to janitor Jake’s inexperience with love? Did he never have a chance to be sexually intimate with a woman? Is that why he can’t even imagine it? After living for so long in a fantasy world, perhaps Jake the janitor thinks he won’t mind his lack of experience if he just ignores it. Similar to his refusal to imagine past loves, he may be unwilling to imagine a life where he had the chance to enjoy his own sexuality. Or perhaps he feels it would be invasive and cruel to imagine something he will never experience.
Curiously enough were the characters that felt more realistic. Young Jake and the young woman had an element of fiction to them. They were constantly changing illusions. Their character traits fluctuated. The young woman wasn’t even given a name. But other characters were more concrete. The mother and father, in particular, were well fleshed out. Jake the janitor seemed to be remembering exactly as they were. Many of his memories of them were negative.
What made me curious about this entire book is that only one young woman was given a name and it was Steph. Who is she? Was she the only woman that Jake the janitor had ever allowed himself to care for? Did he eventually lose track of the fiction and let his reality blur the lines? I’ve been very curious to learn more about that slip up. It came across as a crack in his facade. Was that the reason why Jake lost it and felt like the janitor was watching him?
There is a remarkableness to the fact that scenes like that make little logical sense, but have such a powerful impact on the reader. Even as scenes make less and less sense, they become more emotionally powerful. Jake’s reaction and the name Steph hold little meaning to the reader, but have a strong impact on the story. They bring out real human emotion: anger, loss, pain. I find that to be particularly well done and well received.
In part, I feel like the success of the emotions during I’m Thinking of Ending Things are due to its poetic nature. I’ve always thought of prose as telling a story and perhaps relaying some emotion throughout the story and poetry as describing an emotion and perhaps sometimes telling a story. For that reason, I almost believe that this book is more poem than prose. It goes beyond the plot to explore the heart of memory, loneliness, and Jake’s emotions.
Shockingly enough, Jake’s exploration of self ends with the realization that he should follow through with killing himself. He should go beyond thinking of ending things and actually do it. He has nothing to live for. All of his different personas agree that suicide is the best option for him. Jake the janitor will always be alone and was always destined to be alone. He was destined to commit suicide. His life was never going to be worth living – even if he had spoken to the woman in the bar that night. All of his personas agree that, no matter what, he would end up alone.
How depressing is that? To feel that your life was predestined to be spent alone? To feel like living is meaningless? I’m Thinking of Ending Things presents the trauma of loneliness as something without hope. There is no means to recover from the suffering that is Jake’s life. It’s a very real and upsetting issue that real-world people face, not just people in works of fiction. Reid’s take on it is incredibly dismal and perhaps unrealistic. I don’t believe that people who have spent the majority of their life alone should be without hope. While socializing may be scary, it can save you.
Of course, finding your reason to live sometimes feels impossible. Connecting with others can seem like a mountain you just can’t climb. People live lives as lonely and stagnant and tiring as Jake’s every day and we all just ignore it. At what point do we help others? Are we all really just passing judgement on them? I don’t personally think so.
For this reason, many of the scenes throughout I’m Thinking of Ending Things really made my stomach turn. They were so desolate. Many of the characters were without any hope. Jake the janitor was obviously suffering from his overwhelming loneliness and suicidal ideation, but other characters were also suffering. The pigs and their maggots. The mother and her inability to hear. The father and his fear for the mother. The young woman and her apprehension towards ending things. The entire book is based on being creepy, suspenseful, and vague.
That sense of creepiness and vagueness is furthered by the creation of Jake the janitor’s fourth persona, his brother. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, young Jake describes his brother to the young woman. He is exactly like Jake the janitor. He refuses to socialize, had difficulty developing relationships which caused him to step away from his academic career, and even wore Jake’s clothes at times. He followed young Jake around for years, constantly watching him from the shadows.
But, the entire time, Jake the janitor and the brother were the same person just as Jake the janitor is also the young woman and young Jake. Jake the janitor imagined a brother that he could pin all of his worldly problems on. It wasn’t him that suffered from debilitating social anxiety; it was his brother. It wasn’t him that ruined his academic career; it was his brother. Jake wasn’t troubled. He could pin any of his problems on his fictitious brother.
I almost enjoyed the movie more for having left out the brother. It came across as superfluous to me. I already understood the extent of Jake’s insanity and depression. I didn’t need him to imagine a fictitious brother to explain away his personal issues. However, I do respect what the author was going for in separating the traits he would like to have (young Jake) from the traits he hates in himself (the brother.) It felt unnecessary and made Jake come across as more insane than depressed.
All in all, I particularly enjoyed this book. It was beautifully written and I felt a strong sense of connection to all of Jake’s personas. However, I wouldn’t recommend I’m Thinking of Ending Things to all readers. It was hard to read at times and challenged my perception of other people. How many people suffer from debilitating loneliness? It was difficult to accept the fact that many of us feel alone most of the time. I’m still asking myself if we’re all really alone at the end of the day. While I would like to say no, this book made me doubt that.