Welcome to the second edition of the Backlog, an ongoing series where I pick-out some exceptional reads both new and old that deserve your attention regardless of what kind of reader you are.
The two books we'll be discussing this edition will be:
I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid : Open-ended creeping horror.
Stoner by John Williams : The biography of a man who never existed.
Most relationships I've been in were like a carton of milk reaching it's expiration date. It gets to a certain point and just sours...
- I'm Thinking of Ending Things
I'd been in somewhat of a slump with reading for the past month, I hadn't stopped or slowed; it was just that nothing was leaving with any burning desire for more that I had been enjoying like with the books I had read previously. As is customary in such circumstances, I begin scouring through the Goodreads recommendation feed looking for something that might stand out. A miasma of unappealing covers and lacklustre reviews later, I was presented with "I'm Thinking of Ending Things", Iain Reid's debut novel. The title sounded interesting enough so I decided to skim the summary and check out a review or two.
"This is like those trippy A24 horror movies."
- A Goodreads users review
Having not long watched The Lighthouse, one of A24's standouts of last year, my interest was firmly piqued. I bought a copy and set aside an hour or two to get a feel for how the story might pan out. It became clear pretty quickly however that this was something I was going to need to see just what happens next.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things (I'll be referring to it as ITET) is a slow, even restrained book. There isn't a huge cast of characters, there aren't a large number of locations, we aren't even given a proper setting for what country or town the events take place in. And yet despite this slender ensemble, ITET packs more emotional punch and creeping dread than I could have ever initially expected.
We are introduced to our nameless protagonist as she stares out the passenger-side window of her boyfriend Jakes' car as they make their way along various secluded back roads on their way to Jakes' parents' farm. The two have only been in a relationship for a month or so but our protagonist is having second thoughts about their long term compatibility and, as the title harkens to, is thinking of ending things.
She uses this down-time during the car ride to weigh up and reflect on the time that she has known Jake, perhaps they are meant for each other but just haven't fully clicked yet, perhaps this chance to meet Jakes parents will put her at ease and settle any uncertainties she has about him.
The ride to Jakes' parent's farm is long however and it's late. The car surrounded in encroaching darkness, our protagonist is reminded of a series of past, and ongoing, mysterious and even traumatic experiences she has had. The looming, shadowy figure she awoke to find watching her from her bedroom window as a child, to a series of ongoing phone calls leaving cryptic voicemails for her despite all the calls appearing to be originating from her own phone. These unsettling memories do little to put her at ease as the car pulls up the drive way to the dilapidated farm.
ITET initially may come across as a tough sell given that almost half the book is spent simply following along with the idle conversations of our protagonists as they drive along a dark, wintry back road, don't let that deter you though. ITET is a slow burn that expertly pulls you in by planting countless seeds of unease and discordance that results in a skin-crawling, nail-biting atmosphere that does not let up even after the final page has long been read.
Ultimately, ITET is a fantastically haunting book of which the scope and number of interpretations surrounding it is longer than the novel's own page-count.
The scholar should not be asked to destroy what he has aimed his life to build.
There's something to be said for an author who can tell a seemingly boring story and have you hanging off every word. That is exactly what John Williams pulls off with the now cult classic 'Stoner', a book that could be considered the biography of a man who never existed, William Stoner.
William Stoner, born at the end of the 19th century initially leads a simple life helping out on his parents' farm in Missouri, something his parents are set on him taking over after they pass. Stoner is certainly involved in the farm, spending his day milking cows, gathering eggs, and feeding the pigs. His work ethic does not go unnoticed however and one day his Father tells him that a county agent has suggested he enroll at the newly built college of agriculture at the University of Missouri. After some deliberation, Stoner applies.
It is during the course of Stoners' studies that he attends a mandatory English literature class from which the seed of what Stoner's future path shall be is firmly planted. Stoner falls in love with literature, impassioned by the work of Shakespeare and the like, Stoners' agricultural studies gradually fade away until he is spending most of his time devouring the Classics instead.
Following his graduation, in a difficult exchange with his parents Stoner explains of his decision to not return to the family farm and instead to pursue a life in Academia.
Over the course of the novel we follow Stoner as he struggles his way through life, facing countless trials and tribulations along the way. From marrying the wrong woman, to becoming embroiled in countless disputes with his Academic superiors, to dealing with the wave of world-changing events that occurred during the first half of the 20th century.
Stoner as a novel does an incredible job of viewing major events from a very personal and grounded level. Early on in the novel, we follow Stoner during the years of the Great War and although it would have been very easy to simply paint depictions of conflict on the battlefield, Stoner is not that kind of novel. Instead we are simply presented with lasting impact that the war has on Stoner and those around him as he comes to grips with losing those he deemed close to the horrors of war.
Stoner should, on paper, be a fairly dull character; he doesn't add any kind of charismatic humour or energetic flourishes to his teaching. He doesn't have a wide variety of friends to offer the reader engaging dialogue with. In fact some of the actions Stoner carries out in the novel should make the reader resent him. Yet despite this, there is a beautiful sincerity present throughout the novel that leaves the reader with a deep longing for things to work out for Stoner, for Stoner to find true happiness both in and out of his work.
At its' heart, Stoner is a celebration of life that offers an endearing look at a man leading a simple life and routinely finding himself finding fulfilment in his work against an unbending series of setbacks.