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Book Review: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon’s Ill Will is not your traditional “whodunnit” murder mystery. The action of the plot follows two separate investigations that consume the life of psychologist Dustin Tillman. The first is a childhood trauma, specifically the murder of his parents, aunt, and uncle. The second is a string of drownings of college-aged men that one of his patients, Aqil, brings to his attention. However, the task that Chaon undertakes is not to lead us to a firm conclusion about who is responsible in these cases; it is to force us to question the soundness of thoughts and memories, which we may trust far too easily. Chaon prefaces the final chapter with a quote from writer Sacheverell Sitwell, “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.” Indeed, it is not an increasing sense of clarity that makes this novel so engaging, but exceptional confusion. We leave this book with few solid answers, a couple of strong theories, and abundant questions—which is exactly the point. We see that we can truly know almost nothing, including details of our own lives, an idea that is perhaps more frightening than even the most cruel and unnatural horrors found in other thrillers.

Trust nothing, this book seems to say as the reader is thrust into a hazy mix of recollections and faulty perceptions by narrators overcome by paranoia, drug abuse, and other impairments. Ironically, the most reliable narrator of any part of the novel seems to be the most disturbed character, Dustin’s adopted brother, Rusty. Rusty is the only character to blatantly admit to his misdeeds, including his abuse of Dustin. Yet there are some points that even Rusty is unsure he can recall exactly. In particular, he ponders his motive in reaching out to Dustin’s drug-addicted son, Aaron. “I liked him. Didn’t I? Didn’t I want to help?” Rusty inquires. Additionally, it is Rusty that bears one of the most haunting symbols contained in this novel, a tattoo that reads, “REMEMEMBER,” perfectly capturing the distortion of memory prominent in the novel’s main characters.

Even when the central events of the book remain unclear, an overall impression of horror is left on the reader. A strong instance of this can be found in the image of the House of Wills, an abandoned funeral home which is overrun by drug dealers and generally unseemly characters. The House of Wills is described in small bursts of language that mimic Aaron’s drug-induced lapses in and out of reality in a chapter that unifies his story with his dead friend, Rabbit. One of the brief descriptions offered—presumably in the narration of Rabbit’s last visit here, though even that is not entirely certain—is the following:

Labyrinthine. It seems like it was built to get lost in. He walks along an empty hallway and opens a door and there is a clutter of chairs, along with a life-sized plastic Santa—why would a funeral home need Christmas decorations?—and a collapsed ceiling with the asbestos hanging down like kudzu. The sound of someone talking in another room.

This embodies the effect of the entire story, which is in many ways “labyrinthine” in both plot and structure. The undertone of confused panic in this passage is exactly the sort of feeling on which this novel thrives and frightens.

Upon first reading this novel, some of its more overtly horrific events seemed like they may be overkill. The book is riddled with obscure yet graphic details about unnatural sexual relationships, frequent drug use, and Satanic (or pseudo-Satanic depending on who you believe) rituals which had me wondering if it was all really necessary. Then I realized that it is these details of the characters’ trauma that create the effect Chaon is attempting to achieve. First, I found that these disturbing images were the ones that lingered in my mind after reading, haunting me even days after I’d finished reading. Also, more importantly, they allowed me to see how the perceptions of these characters could be distorted, which is imperative to reading and understanding this text.

Ill Will is stylistically fascinating. The point of view changes frequently. At various times first, second, and third person point of views are all used. Some parts are organized chronologically and some are organized by chapters. There is occasional use of a three-column layout in which each column was a separate train of thought interwoven with the others. There are text messages and emails included in some chapters. Some sentences (or entire chapters) trail off without ending completely, reflecting, in some cases, a loss of thought or grasp of time. This is seen especially in parts focused on Dustin, who is known as distracted and often pauses abruptly in his speech. In any other context, it would seem that the author is trying to do too many things, that he is overly ambitious. But one of the most extraordinary things about Ill Will is that it doesn’t. The scattered, inconstant style is completely fitting to the story. As unordinary as it is, it feels natural in this piece.

I cannot think of a better description of the feeling of reading this novel than the title quote which concerns the protagonist, Dustin Tillman: “Without nicotine, his brain seemed murky with circling, unfocused dread, and the world itself appeared somehow more unfriendly—emanating, he couldn’t help but think, a soft glow of ill will.” Likewise, the reader, plunged into a world where everything is tainted by uncertainty and menace, frantically tracing the tangled plotlines, attempts to discern the truth only to discover that there are no absolutes. There are not good guys and bad guys. There are no neat little conclusions tied up with a bow. Nothing the reader learns can be trusted because every character in this novel, whether they recognize it or not, carries within them some little bit of ill will.

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