There are no spoilers here. (Disagree? Tell me!)
I love Charlie Kaufman’s new movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I love its external references: puzzling, abrupt, seamless, perfectly oriented; I thank the spot-on cast for bringing to vivid life the wonderful and (I bet) difficult script; I love the look, sound, pacing (flew by: could have gone longer), the small details that made us watching say, “Did I just see what I think I saw?”
And I love the queasy unease and vague disquiet of the thing, its shifty, low-hum brand of scary; no jump scares: this is psychological stuff. You have to pay attention. Which makes you complicit. The way a hypnotized subject on a magician’s stage (in some sense) self-inflicts the absurdities they endure there.
I paid attention, rewinding occasionally, squinting at the screen, relishing. Afterwards, I wasn’t sure of what I’d just seen. That didn’t matter. But when I learned from the closing credits, and to my surprise, that it was first a book, I knew I had to read the book. Maybe it would have some answers and would enrich what I’d just undergone (it did, on both counts).
Kaufman wrote and directed the movie. The book is by Iain Reid. The two things are, as far as I’m now concerned, companion experiences. Kaufman made the film his own. He also stayed, in crucial ways, true to the book. I adore both, but for different reasons.
This is hard to explain with spoilers, harder without. I’ll only say that the book penetrates more deeply under the skin (wink, wink Mr. Reid), the psychological squirminess amplified. And it helped me much better understand Kaufman’s adaptation, whose aforementioned loyalty to the book is, in fact, in hyperdrive. Kaufman splashes us around in the book’s purified essence, to intoxicating effect and in ways that, as one would hope, play better on a moving picture screen than they would on the written page.
As for the page—unlike with a film, where so much is seen (if only fleetingly)—Reid’s writing leaves gaps to the reader’s imagination, more so than in most novels (filling in the nuances of a face is one thing, filling in whether there even is a face is quite another). How one fills in the gaps will depend on one’s tastes and fears and constitution, but it seems to me that into these little vacuums seeps imagination like batter into a mold; different batters may seep slow, fast, be sticky or bubbly, but it all gets cooked into roughly the same shape in the end. In other words, there is a destination and, with Reid’s guidance, we’re all pulled towards it.
So here, again, attention is needed, the result a kind of self-afflicted mesmerism. It’s something like waking up with an eerie nostalgia that must be due to a dream you’ve forgotten; and you think that you’ll uncover something important if only you can piece the dream back together working backwards from its creepy residue.
No spoilers! But there is something to piece together, something important, and it’s more easily discerned in the book than in the film.
I’m struggling to describe the feeling of the book (which I took in with the movie’s low hum still vibrating through me). Better just to read and watch for yourself, or watch and read. I can’t know if the order matters. They are distinct experiences (though I do expect they’ll be more distinct if you see the movie first), and also complementary ones. That’s my core message here.
For instance, it’s not just the movie’s basic premise that the book illuminates. There are subtleties. In one case, a repeating theme in the film can be connected to an allusion in the book that snaps the theme into sharper focus (say no more!).
Undoubtedly, part of my enjoyment here is in solving such mysteries. This enhances both the film and book for me. But I also understand that it may not be what is intended or hoped for by either author.
Someone—Kaufman, even (though I bet he wouldn’t, or at any rate wouldn’t care)—might say that, while the basic premise is shared, the aforementioned allusion simply doesn’t apply to the film, even when the exact content of that allusion is shared: it’s not the same world. Even the final destinations might differ. Fair enough. I like that, too. But I can’t help but see those worlds as close branches within a single multiverse. That makes me happy.
Actually, if I pursued that last metaphor, I’d be tempted to say Kaufman’s vision explores multiple branches, while Reid’s follows one. But no. Kaufman’s path is straight enough. A better way to put it is that the book helped me relate to the film at a slightly more personal, rather than a more cultural one.
If it seems like I’m overselling what comes down to a very personal experience, don’t think of it that way. What I’m selling is the enthrallment of finding oneself spellbound by a work of art. A profoundly human condition.
(What distinguishes humans from other animals? Humans can’t shut up about what distinguishes them from other animals.)
After reading I’m Thinking of Ending Things (actually, I listened to and enthusiastically endorse the audiobook; it gave me literal chills), I read (with my eyes) Reid’s next novel, Foe. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Two brief thoughts.
First, these two novels—Reid’s only ones published to date—play well together, inhabiting different but overlapping regions of the same idea space; the space is plenty expansive enough for this.
Second, you might see reviews saying, “I predicted Foe‘s plot twist, but it was still good.” I never got the impression that Reid intends a plot twist or wants to trick us. It seems to me that the best bet for enjoying the book is to take things as they come, pondering when so moved. Besides, what people are referring to in those reviews, I’m certain, is not what the ending is really about. (Say no more!)
Finally, as someone passionate about reading and writing nonfiction, but who also has a festering jones for fiction and chronically collects story ideas (one day, one day), I was intrigued to read Reid’s 2014 National Post essay “Iain Reid: Making up Distinctions,” in which he contemplates—while at work on I’m Thinking of Ending Things—his move from nonfiction to fiction and the difference between the two, along with wise words shared from his personal exchanges with Deborah Treisman (whose excellent podcast I wrote about last April) and Chuck Klosterman (whose essays I admire; though, I must admit, whose fiction I’ve yet to visit).
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