Favorite Books of the 2010s: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

This is a series of reviews of my favorite books published between 2010 and 2019.


Ill Will by Dan Chaon (2017)

My first impressions of this book were not great. It seemed like a hot mess, to be honest. Jumping around in time and in point of view, from third person to first, and sometimes even second. And what was it with sentences just ending in the middle like.

But gradually, sneakily, this book got me in its grip and would not let me go. And I absolutely love it when that happens.

This 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. Here is where Chaon’s odd stylistic choices begin to work their magic. Looping around in time, skipping from one unreliable narrator to the next, the reader becomes hyper-aware of the unreliability of memory. Ending sentences in the middle–something only Dustin does–demonstrates his fundamental disconnect from the events of his life. At a few points, the text splits into three or four columns, illustrating how multiple perspectives, even contradictory ones, can be true, or perceived to be true, at the same time. 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. While I think there are two characters (minor ones) who are more trustworthy than the rest, even they are just putting theories together. No one knows, so whatever you decide did happen is in fact your truth.

By the end, I had become convinced that Chaon is a master craftsman, and for the last two hundred or so pages, I could not put this book down. Chaon has built in so many twists and turns and tunnels, it’s like a great funhouse of a book that I’m sure would reveal more of itself with multiple readings. While not a comforting story–or maybe it is?–it is a fascinating trip into the depths of the human experience.

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