I’m Thinking of Ending Things Is the Unvarnished Exploration of What It Means to Be Alone, And The Inherent Meaninglessness of Life When You Are

Thinking about it now, there was probably no one else in the world besides Charlie Kaufman who could have adapted Iain Reid’s surreal 2016 novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. No one with the same outlook on life or ability to manifest the psychological with such aesthetic deftness. With renewed interest in the source material thanks to the recent release of its film version, it bears noting that there has perhaps never been a more apropos book to the times we’re living in. A period that encourages isolation at the cost of what it has been known to do to the human psyche. And yet, there are some people who both choose to be in isolation in normal circumstances and also couldn’t get out of it even if they wanted to, suffering the existential catch-22 of both despising humanity but also needing it in order to find meaning in their own life. There are some people on this earth inherently born to be alone. To endure the suffering of existence on an even more profound scale as a result of living out their days without the company of others. This is what’s at the core of Reid’s manifesto on not just loneliness, but the philosophical question Shakespeare posited long ago: to be or not to be? 

The way Reid poses it, however, is a long game, asked from a mysterious Caller that keeps leaving messages on the voicemail of our Narrator, a woman who is journeying to her boyfriend’s parents’ farmhouse to meet them for the first time (even though such a step is not very logical considering she is, you guessed it, thinking of ending things with him). The Caller keeps saying the same thing over and over again: “There’s only one question to resolve… Just one question. One question to answer.” As a reader, it doesn’t dawn on you fully until the narrative progresses that it was always obvious what the question was. It’s a question we try to subdue within the deep recesses of our consciousness every day: should I keep living or should I use the unspoken get out of jail (for life is a prison, of this there can be no denial) free card that is committing suicide? The thing is, Jake’s ultimate fear is that the pain doesn’t really end in death. That the suffering can continue for eternity. Some might call this hell. But Jake seems to think it doesn’t matter how “good” or “bad” you are in life. The suffering can go on regardless. There’s just no way of really knowing for sure. And maybe that’s a major part of why people stick out this life thing. It’s what they know. It’s a pain that they’re used to. A familiar agony can become bearable, numbingly pleasant, even (for human beings are obviously the biggest masochists on Earth). Death is not a guarantee that things will end, try as atheists would like to believe that. Wielding the analogy of the pigs our Narrator asks her boyfriend, Jake, about when he gives her a tour of the farm, she later remembers the harrowing climax of the tale he told regarding their fate, leading her to wonder, “What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape? What if the maggots continue to feed and feed and feed and continue to be felt?”

The biggest affront is to exist at all. Many people would like to put that notion out of their minds in order to function and be a “useful” product of the machine. A machine manufactured by the societal dictums that govern us (better known all-encompassingly as capitalism). But Jake has never been able to put this thought aside, choosing work that requires minimal interaction with others in order for his stream of consciousness to run as wild as it wants to without interruption. As he so succinctly phrases it, “We always have the choice. Every day. We all do. For as long as we live, we always have the choice. Everyone we meet in our life has the same choice to consider, over and over. We can try to ignore it, but there’s only one question for us all.” 

Jake’s girlfriend, too, is a lone wolf and so in their togetherness, they sort of make sense. Two halves of a whole, and all that rot. Yet the Narrator doesn’t see it that way, not in her heart, or in the thoughts that keep swirling in her head. And as Jake told her, “A thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action.” Part of The Narrator/Jake’s predilection for being alone is a total lack of trust in people stemming from a seemingly “harmless” incident that occurred when they were younger. Causing them to realize, “We can’t and don’t know what others are thinking. We can’t and don’t know what motivations people have for doing the things they do. Ever. Not entirely. This was my terrifying, youthful epiphany. We just never really know anyone. I don’t. Neither do you. It’s amazing that relationships can form and last under the constraints of never fully knowing. Never knowing for sure what the other person is thinking. Never knowing for sure who a person is. We can’t do whatever we want. There are ways we have to act. There are things we have to say. But we can think whatever we want.” To interject briefly, that is to say, until the Thought Police become genuinely real (which is honestly only a matter of time if Elon has anything to say about it), and not just a horrifying Orwellian projection. They continue, “Anyone can think anything. Thoughts are the only reality. It’s true. I’m sure of it now. Thoughts are never faked or bluffed. This simple realization has stayed with me. It has bothered me for years and years. It still does.”

When the thought of suicide creeps in, beyond only moments of extreme sadness, perhaps it is because of a person feeling always so cripplingly alone. That they will never encounter anyone to identify with–for despite the Earth’s population, it’s all mostly riffraff. At one point, The Narrator, a Tyler Durden-esque foil for Jake, finds herself trapped in the remote school where he works as a janitor. Afraid he’ll find her (or rather, himself), he thinks, “I’ve lost track of time. Of course you lose track of time when you’re alone. Time always passes… We’re mad at these limits and needs. You can’t only be alone. Everything’s both ethereal and clunky. So much to depend on, and so much to fear. So many requirements.”

A person “finding someone” to spend their life with, someone who might come as close to knowing the real them as possible, is one of the great achievements of a human, yet is so rare. Which is often why people settle for less when it comes to relationships. Jake and The Narrator were never willing to settle. That’s part of where the state of loneliness became perpetuated. And yet, isn’t it always said that it is better to be alone than to be with someone who makes you feel alone? Maybe he’s made a mistake, closing himself off the way he has. Being too smart for “his own good,” as though to say that stupidity is the only thing that will spare you from total ostracism in this life. Our solipsistic nature is drawn out in the company of others, or someone we love. Without that proverbial “other,” the thoughts–the “person” that is you–stays locked inside, bottled in. Are we even real without another being to validate our existence (the old “tree falling in the forest” conundrum)?

Adding to that sentiment, Jake remarks, “People talk about the ability to endure. To endure anything and everything, to keep going, to be strong. But you can do that only if you’re not alone. That’s always the infrastructure life’s built on. A closeness with others. Alone it all becomes a struggle of mere endurance. What can we do when there’s no one else? When we’ve tried to sustain fully on our own? What do we do when we’re always alone? When there’s no one else, ever? What does life mean then? Does it mean anything? What is a day then? A week? A year? A lifetime? What is a lifetime? It all means something else. We have to try another way, another option. The only other option.” 

Being both fastidious and timid is also a lethal combination for a person who struggles already with the idea of being in a relationship despite never being able to truly know someone. Jake adds, “It’s not that we can’t accept and acknowledge love, and empathy, not that we can’t experience it. But with whom? When there is no one? So we come back to the decision, the question. It’s the same one. In the end, it’s up to us all. What do we decide to do? Continue or not. Go on? Or?” Or end the suffering. Unless, that is, it all turns out to be the maggots persisting in feeding on us even in our newfound status of “non-being.” Wouldn’t that be the cruelest irony? 

Having reached a calm sort of acceptance by the end–finally deciding to answer the question, once and for all–Jake ponders, “I know people talk about the opposite of truth and the opposite of love. What is the opposite of fear?” One could argue: indifference. To be totally indifferent, one would have to be dead. If not physically, then at least spiritually. The sure path to that is to live a life in isolation (rather humorous, when you think that so many monks are held to that standard). 

While there have been many famously brilliant recluses–Emily Dickinson, J.D. Salinger, Howard Hughes–they all seemed, ultimately, to succumb to the madness that their aloneness fortified. So yes, maybe that old chestnut about not really being anyone until somebody loves you is truer than we thought (even if it doesn’t adhere very well to the tenets of feminism). Or maybe some of us simply have to kill ourselves because there’s no job on this planet that will pay us to live our lives with any modicum of happiness.

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