I remarked on Twitter that while Ill Will by Dan Chaon is often gripping and has some fun with typography the novel did very little that was new for a psychological thriller. This feeling that the book was a tad conventional was the result of picking one of the key reveals toward the end of the novel. On reflection though I’ve come to the conclusion that while the plotting is perfectly fine the strength of Ill Will stems from the erudite things Chaon has to say about mental health, about repressed memories and about pattern recognition and how it can easily lead us to confuse fiction with fact.
I’m going to limit what I say about the plot. It’s not because of some massive twist, rather this is a book that gradually, patiently, methodically reveals its cards and to say too much would be to rob the reader of that sense of progression, which is tied intrinsically with the overall feeling of dread and suspense the story evokes. What I will say is that while Ill Will features a number of perspectives, this is very much the story of psychologist Dustin Tillman and how the horrible thing he witnessed as a boy – the brutal massacre of his parents, Aunt and Uncle by his adopted brother Rusty – shaped his life, marriage and career. Now based on a lack of DNA evidence Rusty has been cleared of these murders after spending more than twenty years in jail. At the same time one of Dustin’s patients approaches him with a long-standing case of unsolved murders, a string of drowning deaths involving drunk college boys.
Ill Will reminds us that something like “fake news” or better yet our capacity to believe in outright lies is not a new phenomena. I know as a kid, when I did something wrong, the gut instinct was to create a story – a cobbled together tissue of half-truths and bullshit – rather than face what I’d done. I still have that predilection today, not as bad as Dustin Tillman, but I could certainly appreciate his desire to believe in an alternate reality involving the deaths of his parents. Chaon ties that smartly into two popular crazes, the Satanic madness of the 1980s and the fallacy of repressed memory which, while dating back to the 19th Century, really hit its stride in the 80s and 90s, both which highlight that it doesn’t take much for humanity to incorrectly recognise a pattern and then overlay that on reality. Dustin’s story is therefore emblematic of a society that would rather be comforted by confirmation bias then seek the truth. The madness of our current age, of what’s happening now, Trumpism and the aforementioned fake news, is that it seems easier to believe in conspiracy theories than actually deal with the cold hard facts. It’s easier for Dustin to believe there is a serial killer murdering drunk college kids or accept that his adopted brother hacked up his parents than deal with the death of his wife or the tragic fact that his sons are drifting away from him.
I’d like to say that Dustin Tillman’s story is a cautionary tale, but I think we are well past that. In anycase, Dan Chaon has written a very clever novel that shines a light on our own insecurities, our desire to avoid pain, physical and psychological, by choosing fantasy over reality.