By now we should all be on guard against Dan Chaon, but there’s just no effective defense against this cunning writer. The author of three novels and three collections of short stories, he draws on our sympathies even while pricking our anxieties. Before beginning his exceptionally unnerving new book, go ahead and lock the door, but it won’t help. You’ll still be stuck inside yourself, which for Chaon is the most precarious place to be.
“Ill Will” revolves around Dustin Tillman, a 41-year-old psychologist who recently lost his wife to cancer. The shock of her illness and death has rendered Dustin even more distracted than usual. “His brain seemed murky with circling, unfocused dread,” Chaon writes, “and the world itself appeared somehow more unfriendly — emanating, he couldn’t help but think, a soft glow of ill will.”
Dustin may think his atmosphere is dark, but the fog of animosity is just starting to gather. His brother, Rusty, has been exonerated after almost 30 years in prison. He’d been convicted of killing their parents, along with their aunt and uncle, in a trial that hinged on young Dustin’s sensational testimony of sexual abuse and occult rituals. A fraternal reunion is the last thing Dustin wants right now — not only because he can’t shake the sense of Rusty’s malevolence but because he can’t exactly recall what happened the night of those murders. Nothing made sense amid all that carnage. Thirty years later, devastated anew by his wife’s death, his memories feel even hazier, but no less alarming.
The difficulty of separating fact from fantasy, history from memory, pierces the heart of this novel. Chaon, who lost his own wife — the writer Sheila Schwartz — in 2008, captures the obscuring effects of grief with extraordinary tenderness. But he sows that misery in the soil of a literary thriller that germinates more terror than sorrow. There’s something irresistibly creepy about this story that stems from the thrill of venturing into illicit places of the mind. His previous book was a collection called “Stay Awake,” but that’s not a problem for anyone who reads him.
“Ill Will” is told through a shifting series of narrators, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, but none of them has the full story of what happened or what’s happening. In the novel’s most febrile moments, the pages break into three columns of text so that we experience these horrors from different but parallel perspectives. It’s all part of Chaon’s ingenious design that makes us participate in this family’s collapse, struggling to establish lines of culpability and discern the real threats from a shifting body of evidence.
As Dustin tries to maintain his psychology practice, he’s increasingly concerned by what his just-released brother might do in return for those stolen decades. Perhaps it’s that alarm that makes him susceptible to the entreaties of one of his patients who wants him to help solve a series of drowning deaths that the police have written off as accidental. Slowly at first and then quickly, Dustin abandons his professional distance and throws himself into an investigation that relies on the same dubious psychological theory that convicted his brother three decades ago. Caught up in this amateur sleuthing, he doesn’t notice that his younger son is slipping into a raging heroin addiction, which, you may be surprised to learn, causes some perception problems of its own.
If all this sounds a bit chaotic, it’s meant to, and the book’s complicated structure — jumping back and forth in time and between narrators — exacerbates that sense of disorientation. Childhood scenes of Dustin and his troubled brother vacillate between feelings of affection and menace. Present-day scenes of Dustin’s investigation suggest that he’s about to catch a serial killer or lose his own mind. He can barely distinguish between the real people in his life and the phantoms of his imagination — and neither can we. But Chaon’s great skill is his ability to re-create that compulsive sense we have in nightmares that we’re just about to figure everything out — if only we tried a little harder, moved a little faster.
It’s all part of Chaon’s continuing exploration of how we know what we think we know. “Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story,” he writes. “They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale.” But, he suggests 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.”
Of course, these are basic principles for a trained psychologist like Dustin. He knows how effectively we all create a usable past. He keeps warning his increasingly insistent partner/patient against apophenia — the idea that random events are, in fact, connected in some meaningful way. But that only makes his own eventual descent into the delusion of certainty that much more alarming.
Chaon’s novel walks along a garrote stretched taut between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock. By the time we realize what’s happening, we’ve gone too far to turn back. We can only inch forward into the darkness, bracing for what might come next.