The book’s inherent darkness is obvious from its very title, “Ill Will,” as well as from its introductory passage about the body of a young man sinking to the bottom of a river. But as one keeps reading, more and more new angles crop up in the story, each one propelling the narrative even deeper into darkness than the one before it.

Ill Will” tells the story of Dustin Tillman, a suburban psychologist whose parents, aunt and uncle were all violently murdered 30 years ago supposedly by his adopted brother Rusty, against whom Dustin testified using accusations of satanic ritual abuse. Now, DNA evidence has proved Rusty’s innocence, and Dustin has to process the news of his release from prison. All the while, Dustin’s wife is dying of cancer, his son is spiraling deeper into a heroin addiction and one of his patients is convinced that the periodical drownings of drunk college boys in the area are, in fact, serial killings.

“I think it has to do with trauma begetting other traumas,” said novel’s author, Dan Chaon, in an interview. “With Dustin, you have this very traumatic experience as a kid that he hadn’t really dealt with in any substantive way. So he kind of built his life around ignoring that trauma. […] He was in a sort of happy suburban life, everything was fine, but once one domino fell, everything became much harder for him to deal with because he hadn’t dealt with the original trauma.”

In the case of Ill Will,” the trauma so inherent to the story — the underlying sense of harm, of dread and indeed of ill will — is oriented not only around specific events, but around specific people as well. There is Dustin, the unlucky protagonist turned unreliable narrator; Aaron, the heroin-addicted teenager who makes out with his best friend’s dying mom, only to have his best friend go missing and turn up dead soon afterward; Kate and Wave, the twin sisters whose divergent beliefs during Rusty’s murder trial set them apart for the rest of their lives. With the exception of Dustin’s wife, every major character has at least one section in the book that is focused entirely on their perspective. According to Chaon, these sections were all planned out beforehand. The book does a masterful job of using them to fill-in a more complete picture of the events and the characters’ motivations, one fragment at a time.

The sections fluctuate a little between first person and third person, as well as past tense and present, and this is only one of the ways in which Chaon uses the story to experiment. The visual presentation of the prose itself is innovative: The lines and paragraphs are sometimes broken up in terms of spacing, and twice in the book the pages are boxed in and divided into columns that follow multiple narratives at a time.

“I think that maybe the original impetus just came from being jealous of poetry, and liking the things that you can do with poetry on the page,” Chaon said. “With this particular book, it felt like it was really vital as a way to describe the level of dissociation in the characters’ lives, and particularly in Dustin’s life. It seemed like it wasn’t just a gimmick, but it actually sort of felt intrinsic to the reader being able to understand how Dustin thought.”

Chaon does a lot of his writing longhand, which he said had a tremendous impact on the evolution of the book in terms of the exploratory structure, the inventive uses of form and the revisions that took each section through multiple drafts. His opinions of the characters also changed as he was writing the book, particularly in the case of Rusty.

“When I started out, I thought of him primarily as a horrible bully who had been an awful influence on Dustin. Then as I went along and sort of thought about his own background and what had happened to him, I found myself becoming more — sympathetic is a weird word, but empathetic,” Chaon said. “I started to feel more compassion for him. And that was weird, because in the first half of the book he is kind of the bad guy.”

One of the things that “Ill Will” does so well is indeed changing the way it presents its characters. By the end of the book, almost every character seemed significantly — at times even fundamentally — different from how they had seemed at the beginning. What makes this interesting is the fact that rarely are the earlier representations of the characters disproved or recanted; the change in their presentations comes more from new experiences of theirs being revealed, and new layers of these experiences being uncovered.

“Ill Will” is disturbing and unfriendly, but it is also a nearly impossible book to put down. Against twin backdrops of Nebraska and the “haunting,” “post-industrial landscape” of Cleveland, Chaon leads the reader through a dark labyrinth of human horrors that comes closer to emotional truth than many of us may want to admit. The book is a long series of traumas and tragically flawed relationships, and Chaon doesn’t grant any of his characters a happy ending, but through his detailed, sensitive and at times stunning prose, he treats them with a level of compassion that is the mark of truly quality writing.

 

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