Lie, Memory

‘Ill Will’ by Dan Chaon

Would a bookish 1970s adolescence have been complete without taking on Thomas Tryon’s The Other? Aside from Judy Blume’s lurid chronicles of puberty and John Jakes’s racy historical sagas, nothing was as eagerly passed among the newly voracious readers of Ms. Katz’s sixth-grade classroom as this classic novel of horror, which trafficked in some of the occultish frights (malevolent children, ceremonial killings) to become associated with the era. A solitary thirteen-year-old in an isolated Nebraska village was equally absorbed: Dan Chaon, future novelist and National Book Award finalist, who would also grow up to write the afterword to the The Other’s 2012 New York Review Books reissue. No mere artifact of mass-market schlock, Chaon writes, The Other is a serious meditation on childhood, death, and especially how we human beings recollect: “[O]ur well-remembered pasts...are each a little Atlantis, sinking into the sea; a memory, that, on second thought, was never accurate anyway.”

The multifariousness of memory—its mutability and insistent unbidden-ness, its maddening elusiveness and acknowledged unreliability—is a thematic staple of Chaon’s fiction. What he’s interested in is not how we draw on the past to make sense of the present, but whether we should even buy into the notion that we can. If memory is a set of subjectively authored stories, the tales endlessly reshaped by private retelling, how can it be a guide to the objective reality of now? Why should we believe that what we have in our heads is true? Chaon has mined this premise across a distinctly unsettling body of work, to which his novel Ill Will is a thrilling addition.

Among the virtues on display are some that seem to get short shrift in contemporary literary fiction, such as breakneck plotting built around characters truly in extremis. Add to this that Chaon doesn’t shy away from reliably disconcerting tropes of genre horror: twins, amputees, corpses, and serial killers, to name a few. There is nothing supernatural, though there is the periodic truly terrifying image. But lest readers think Chaon is just Stephen King with some Raymond Carver in his back pocket, Ill Will also examines modern, troublingly common horrors like intergenerational poverty, sexual abuse, and opioid addiction. It would be too much to call it a social novel, but as Atticus Lish did with Preparation for the Next Life (2014), Chaon compels readers to consider the forces that helped bring about the circumstances in which his characters find themselves. “Disproportionate numbers of bad things happen to people who are economically disadvantaged,” observes one as she enumerates the tragedies that have befallen the protagonist’s family.

Why should we believe that what we have in our heads is true?

Ill Will begins with a grim discovery, a scene Chaon handles with his typical dispatch and tactile immediacy. “Sometime in the first days of November the body of the young man who had disappeared sank to the bottom of the river,” reads the first sentence, leading quickly to a pair of college biology students at paragraph’s end peering at the corpse, “both feeling scientific rather than superstitious, and one of the girls reached down and touched the face’s cheek with the tip of her pencil.” It’s soon clear that this mystery will serve mainly as the backdrop—though an increasingly pressing one—to the main story, built around protagonist Dustin Tillman, a forty-something psychologist living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He gets word that his adopted brother, Rusty, is being released on exonerating DNA evidence after serving thirty years of a life sentence for the 1980s murder of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. This is not good news, as Dustin and his cousin were the main witnesses against the older boy, their exaggerated tales of Satanic rituals the basis of the prosecution’s case.

Chaon moves back and forth among narrators and across time and place as the book unfolds: between the weekend of the murders and the aftermath; between the adoption of the troubled adolescent Rusty by Dustin’s well-meaning father and Dustin’s own muddled, undirected middle-age; from the dying Nebraska town of Dustin’s childhood to the blighted fringes of Cleveland today. At the time of Rusty’s release, Dustin is already dealing with the death of his wife from quickly moving cancer, along with a pair of now-motherless sons drifting away from him. Apathetic about his practice and sinking into self-doubt, he also grows increasingly susceptible to the conspiratorial theorizing of one of his patients, an ex-cop convinced there is a serial killer preying on Midwest college boys.

The book’s narrative tension, of course, lies in the will-he-or-won’t-he question of Rusty’s settling of scores with Dustin. By what we learn of their childhood, Dustin has legitimate reason to fear his adopted brother even without the fact of his testimony against him. Rusty as a boy was cruel, casually violent, and on at least one occasion sexually abusive; Chaon deftly keeps certain details of these events murky, the better to represent the blurriness of memory. Yet in other fleeting but heartbreaking scenes of Rusty’s own pre-adoption childhood, we learn what might have contributed to his behavior. Here Chaon demonstrates how sexual abuse need not be graphically depicted or even explicitly sexual to result in psychic and emotional damage.

But Ill Will’s real subject is whether Dustin can continue to believe what he thinks he knows about his life. Does he actually remember the murders? Does he know the details of the relationship between his parents and aunt and uncle (a pair of brothers married to a pair of sisters)? Has he placed too much faith in the memories of one cousin over the other (twins themselves)? “There is that feeling when your own story is out of your hands,” Dustin observes at one point, dwelling on the crumbling of his memory—another little Atlantis, sinking into the sea—even as his present disintegrates beneath him.

The question of narrative reliability lurks throughout Ill Will, but Chaon’s use of multiple points of view mitigates the practical concerns without undermining his thematic aims: collectively the characters corroborate enough of the main facts to root us in what is unquestionably reality, even if their individual recollections don’t precisely line up. Yet in anxiously holding to their versions of the truth, they cleave themselves from one another. Internal monologues and conversations break off in mid-sentence or are disrupted by extra spaces between words, a splintering of consciousness and speech that’s indicative of the splintering of everything else. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” Dustin’s younger, heroin-addicted son declares late in the book, though it’s hardly an expression of courage. “I believe in...what? Malevolence?” Ill Will is literary horror for these times. 

Ill Will
By Dan Chaon
Ballantine Books, $28, 458 pp.

Published in the July 7, 2017 issue: 
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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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