Ian Reid’s book is something that people have both loved and despised. You see, the ending is going to be polarizing. Talking about the book is a challenge because the last twenty pages or so is quite different from what came before it, and really changes how the book is experienced. Some people love the exciting twist and are blown away by it. Others, and I fall into this camp, are exasperated and sigh with a world-weary sigh as a subgroup of people who are easy to demonize are once again demonized, and this very easy fix to the challenge of the setup wraps everything in a too-tidy blanket. Until that point, it is a slow burn of creep that was interesting. I was interested in this book, and then it is as if the ideas ran dry and everything collapsed into the aforementioned too-convenient plot blanket. It’s not to say that “It was all a dream” but it isn’t much more than that. Anyway, the book is strange enough until then that it’s almost worth reading. And, now there is a Charlie Kaufman film based on the book. The great auteur saw something in this, saw a way to artistically make a statement about life, consciousness, etc. The film is certainly better than the book in that the events as they play out swiftly abandon horror tropes for unsettling and paranoid imagery and scenes that set up a more arthouse, psychological denouement that telegraphs the sudden shift in content with much more clear intent. It isn’t a twist in the film so much as the payoff of a long, slow decline. The film is certainly more arthouse and experimental than blockbuster. It is confusing and delirious and signifiers shift left and right. Still, there is one moment in the film and in the book that remains a keystone, a centered thing upon which the whole episodic declensions persist: Lucy sees a picture of herself as a child in her boyfriend’s home, confused, and her boyfriend insists it is a picture of himself.
Are you thoroughly confused, yet? In both cases, of book and of film, things begin to break down a lot from the otherwise unsettling but just-normal-enough scenarios that we begin to wonder what tricks the author and auteur have been playing on us. The plot, if it even matters, is a very simple thing. Lucy and Jake, girlfriend and boyfriend, are taking a quick road trip from their New England-looking college town to have dinner with Jake’s parents at their farm in the country. Lucy is our point-of-view character and begins both book and film with this monologue that begins, “I’m thinking of ending things.” She isn’t sure if she should stay with Jake, or leave him. He is an odd fellow with strong opinions whose intelligence has become something akin to a scalpel, dissecting reality before him, and in intense conversation with his lady dissects a diverse range of topics. One could see both the appeal of his intelligence, I guess. One can also sense the edges of it, where it is a focused light that would burn out all others. In context of the book, it’s a slow, rising creep of dread that could be the narrator’s deadpan frame of mine or could be the boyfriend’s controlling nature. Still, driving off into the frozen wilderness to an old farmhouse is not something to be done casually with someone one has only known six weeks. They arrive at the farm, and do a quick tour of the animals. There’s a hideous story about why there are no pigs in the barn. There are sheep living and dead. Then, they enter the house and wait for the parents to come down. There is a dinner with awkward conversation. Then, things get stranger. Lucy is alone wandering the house for a bit, searching the basement, her boyfriend’s old room. The film diverges significantly here, embracing surreality and arthouse impulses of symbolism and the unsettled reality of self. The book feels more and more like the setup of a creepy horror piece, with some imminent act of violence on the horizon.
At this point, in the book, the couple heads back to home and stops at a dairy queen for dessert. In the film, it’s some other Diary Queen correlate with no recognizable real world brand. There is a creepy warning from a girl with a rash that works at the establishment. Driving back, Jake realizes he can’t finish his thing, and he doesn’t want it to get the car sticky, so he suggests turning off toward a high school nearby that he knows, so find a trash can. Everything collapses in the high school. Jake disappears into the high school, in some fashion in both the book and the film, and Lucy wanders its empty hallways, afraid and alone, until she realizes the truth of her situation. In the book, of course, up until that point, it seemed to be the setup for some horrific thing, and I guess so, but not really. The book demonizes mental illness, again, in a tiresome trope of thrillers and horror novels whenever the plot gets too inconvenient. The author pulls mental illness out of the hat, and voila it all makes sense because people are crazy. This is a terrible trope that does real harm to the world. It makes it harder for people in need to seek treatment. It makes it harder for people in need to be treated like people. Anyway, forget the book. The film is more interesting, if still certainly not the kind of film one watched to “enjoy a film”. The film was disintegrating into something else entirely for some time, now, and it’s clear that we are entering the final act of a man’s life, and watching him fade into a kind of hell of his own making, seeking happiness even as he is unable to know things in death that he did not know in life. He stands upon the stage, then, and sings a heartbreaking song of hope against despair. The audience cheers. The curtain draws to a close. The film is an interesting thing, and no doubt film studies courses will be interested in it.
Skip the book, though. In the end, I felt my time reading it was wasted by such a tedious and consistent Big! Twisty! Reveal! that I just sort of shrugged and stuck my tongue out. Communities impacted by mental illness do not need to be used in the scary arts like this, over and over again. It does no good.