“Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story. They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale. But she suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination — that, in fact, we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden. Memories were no more solid than dreams.”
Ill Will by Dan Chaon is a hard story to summarize, but let me try. The focal character is Dustin Tillman, who’s had a hard life. When he was thirteen, his parents and his aunt and uncle were massacred, and his adopted older brother Russell was indicted for the crimes, based largely on Dustin’s and his cousin Kate’s testimony. Which concerned Satanism (a big thing back in the ’80s, if you recall). Thirty years later, though, Russell is cleared by the Innocence Project and released. Dustin, now a seemingly successful psychologist, is also dealing with his wife’s terminal cancer and his estrangement from his teenage sons, and he’s forming an unhealthy relationship with a patient, Aqil. Aqil has uncovered what he thinks is a serial killer (or possibly a cult?) drowning college boys around the area, and he wants Dustin to help him investigate.
It becomes increasingly clear that neither we nor any of these characters have a coherent idea of the truth of any of these events, Dustin least of all. Our memories are untrustworthy, stories we tell ourselves to make sense out of our lives, or “truths” other people implant in our brains. As we go deeper down this rabbit hole, we realize that everything we think of as real is fundamentally untrustworthy. Like the characters, how can we even be sure if we are alive or dead?
This story is not for everyone. It is about the ambiguity of reality, so the reader has to be comfortable with an ambiguous story. Chaon lets the readers assemble their own truths out of the component parts he gives us, just as the characters do. I think this is the work of a master craftsman, a great funhouse of a book that I’m sure would reveal more of itself with multiple readings.