Near the beginning of Dan Chaon’s third novel, Ill Will, a character leaves a voicemail message that says: “We know the official story isn’t true. That’s all we know…Merry Christmas.” The speaker is Rusty Bickers, who was convicted of murdering his adoptive parents, aunt, and uncle twenty-five years earlier but was finally, recently, exonerated by DNA evidence and released. The message is for his nephew, Aaron Tillman. Rusty and Aaron have never met, but, by phone, they’ve begun a long-distance friendship. Aaron’s father, Dustin, who is Rusty’s younger brother, was one of the people whose testimony led to Rusty’s conviction. Dustin has no idea that his son and his brother have any contact with each other.
This strange, disorienting situation is typical of those found in Chaon’s fiction. In these stories, the reassuring narratives that characters create about themselves and their experiences rarely hold up to much scrutiny. Instead, they’re the product of careful, self-interested selection. The conversations Rusty and Aaron are having, for example, could be benign: a long-suffering man reconnecting with his estranged family, seeking some kind of reconciliation. Aaron is having struggles of his own, with drugs and with despair, and he could use a non-judgmental confidante.And yet the reader feels certain that what is going on is far more sinister than that. There are too many shadows, too many things that could go wrong. Rusty may not be a murderer, but his intentions are not at all clear.
Meanwhile, Dustin Tillman, distraught after losing his wife to cancer, becomes involved in an investigation of the drowning deaths of local college boys. The deaths have been classified as drunken accidents. But one of Dustin’s patients—he’s a therapist—is convinced he sees an ominous pattern in them. The patient, Aqil Ozorowski, is an ex-police officer, let go from his job for reasons that are not completely clear. Together he and Dustin start interviewing family members and friends of the dead boys, gathering evidence, building a case. When one of his high-school friends disappears mysteriously, Aaron also gets drawn into this hunt for a killer who may not even exist.
The narrative of Ill Will comes to the reader in pieces. The novel has ten parts, each with one of several narrators. Then, within these sections, the narrating voice sometimes splits into parallel columns or grids of text, each with its own point of view or storyline. The characters’ speech and thoughts frequently break off in the middle and remain incomplete. If the unfolding plot were less urgent or the atmosphere it creates less consuming, these unconventional formal devices might interrupt the reader’s concentration. As it is, they serve to pull the reader deeper into the bewildering world of the story.
Chaon uses these formal experiments, it seems, to explore how human consciousness under pressure can fracture and fragment, and how we are able to ignore, bury, and deny what we don’t want to see or remember. The novel revisits an almost-forgotten moment in history, the period in the late 1980s when it was widely believed among psychologists and the public that people could suddenly “recover” memories of traumatic events in their childhoods. Connected to this was a national hysteria about Satanic Ritual Abuse. SRA was supposedly perpetrated by a network of secret cults operating all across the country, tormenting children who were supposedly so traumatized they could not remember what had happened to them. As the novel progresses, we learn that Dustin Tillman and his cousin Kate were caught up in this panic when they testified against Rusty; Dustin’s “memories” of Rusty’s Satan worship were key to his conviction. In the years since, the notions of recovered memories and Satanic cults have been discredited, but Dustin has not really faced the implications of this debunking. He has simply turned away and moved on, much as the broader culture did.
In Ill Will we’re made to examine closely the way we actually do our selective forgetting, our editing, cutting, and pasting of the past to create a story of our lives that serves us, even if we do so at the expense of others. Did Dustin and Kate lie about Rusty? Or did they just interpret real events in a particular way, one that the culture around them encouraged? If they did lie or embroider, does this suggest the world is less malevolent than was believed at that time? Or does it just mean that the evil is more chaotic and diffuse, the ongoing effect of damaged lives bumping into one another down the generations, and therefore much harder to mitigate? Whatever the answers, the novel strongly suggests that the thing we call a self is pretty flimsy; like the people that we care about, it cannot be relied on not to disappear.
Ill Will is set in Cleveland, Ohio and in rural Nebraska, in basements and abandoned buildings, neglected by and looked down on from the prosperity of the coasts. The setting gives it additional resonance. As Aaron Tillman says at one point, “I think if I’d been born in a nicer place, I wouldn’t be such a fuckup,” a refrain that is repeated elsewhere in the book. These places are the ones we have collectively decided to ignore, to leave to their own fates of depopulation and decline and Chaon’s portrait of them seems to say that nothing good can come out of such disregard; if something awful should well up from them, we really shouldn’t be surprised.
In this context, the baldest lie you can tell is that everything is going to be fine. In his role as therapist, Dustin has a mantra he tells his patients to repeat: “I trust myself, I trust the universe, I accept myself for who I am.” By the end of the novel, we recognize that this makes him the villain of the piece, the person in the most extreme denial about what is going on around him. The novel is a sharp retort to just this kind of inspirational, uplifting rhetoric, to the American idea of life as a process of learning, growth and ultimate redemption—and to the corresponding notion that evil can be found and rooted out and banished.
At points, towards the middle of the novel, Ill Will seems to move among so many plot strands that the reader can’t become absorbed by any one of them. But then it picks up again, draws them all together for a stunning and frightening conclusion. Ultimately, the book might be viewed as an investigation of the proposition in Rusty’s cryptic phone message: we should all know by now that the official, sunny stories of our lives aren’t true. But if the world isn’t just or good, or even understandable, what is it? And how far down do we have to sink before we find the bottom?