Devil in the Details

Ill Will: A Novel BY Dan Chaon. Ballantine Books. Hardcover, 480 pages. $28.

The cover of Ill Will: A Novel

Early in Ill Will, Dan Chaon's most recent work of acutely turned literary fiction in crime-fiction drag, Dustin and his wife, Jill, announce to each other that they have some big news they need to share. Jill goes first, informing Dustin she has a tumor the size of a grapefruit, which the reader already anticipates will kill her soon. (In the unremittingly dark atmosphere of Ill Will, it's not exactly a shocker to discover mortality is just around the corner for almost every character, whether they seem to deserve it or not.) Hearing this, Dustin decides to keep to himself his own bit of momentous news: that his adopted brother, Rusty, imprisoned for life after he was convicted of slaughtering Dustin's parents along with his aunt and uncle one June day in 1983, has been released from jail owing to the work of the Innocence Project.

With the sort of portentous little touch that decorates Chaon's fictional interiors, Jill is reading Nabokov's Despair, a story in which a scheming murderer is convinced he's met his doppelgänger—setting in motion a grand plan to fake his own death—though to everyone else the two men don't resemble each other in the slightest. Like Nabokov's novel, Ill Will relentlessly proceeds to pick apart its main character's self-delusion—one flaw among many that Dustin can lay claim to. "We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves," he reflects. "But we can control those stories. . . . Events in our life have meaning because we choose to give it to them." This is the smug advice he doles out as a psychologist specializing in down-market treatments (smoking cessation, hypnosis), and it quickly becomes clear to the reader just how oblivious Dustin is in buying into his own self-satisfying nostrums—so much so that the suspense of Ill Will seeps out a bit earlier than it might in a purer crime page-turner.

Yet Chaon manages to maintain interest in Dustin with a handful of plots that rotate like the whirling lines in a hypnotist's pinwheel around a receding center. The novel flashes back and forth in time, returning to 1983 to ask precisely what happened in the bloodbath. It's giving little away to say that Rusty is convicted thanks to the testimony of Dustin and his corroborating cousin Kate, and that the adopted brother's dabblings in echt-'70s occultism—pentagrams and D&D, and the Ozzy-soaked Black Sabbath that gave the moment its sound track—set a scene where coincidence gets taken for clues and credulity has doleful consequences.

Dustin, it turns out, has gone on to become something of an expert in Satanic ritual murder and repressed-memory syndrome—specialties that become rather less professionally marketable over the years. They strike his eighteen-year-old son, Aaron, as especially ludicrous: "I'd never heard of that term before—'Satanic Ritual Abuse.'
It sounded so corny that I kind of chuckled . . . and then I started doing some Internet searches. . . . Looking back from the future, it's kind of embarrassing how superstitious and gullible they were back then."

Unbeknownst to his father, Aaron, a budding junkie, has begun a phone relationship with his recently sprung uncle, Rusty, who has relayed the story of the murders—and of Dustin's duplicitous testimony—to the teenager. Aaron and Rusty become odd confidants—not-really-blood relatives who have never actually even seen each other in person. Yet Rusty seems to know Aaron better than his dad does, while Aaron reveals to his uncle his father's growing obsession with a new wicked phenomenon: the disappearances and drownings of binge-drinking college kids across the Lake Erie region. When one of Dustin's nominal patients, an ex-cop with the unlikely name Aqil Ozorowski, draws him deeper into the web of coincidences surrounding the drownings and enlists him in the effort to solve the mystery, he's pulled down a rabbit hole in which it becomes impossible to separate reality and speculation.

What's sinisterly good about Ill Will is Chaon's audacity in teasing out the strands of his novel, enlisting vastly different yet somehow linked perspectives on a series of seemingly ritualized killings, separated by decades, as if they come from the far sides of a single unfinished jigsaw puzzle. Its lively incoherence is wholly appropriate for a novel that puts to the test Dustin's notion of those "controlled" stories we tell ourselves and the reliability of even the most bedrock memories. Fragmented into ten subsections, the novel refuses to gel around one viewpoint, and in its most formally ambitious flights it even splits Dustin's voice into a disjointed mix of first-, second-, and third-person channels, scattering the text across three long columns descending for several pages. Throughout, blank spaces about the size of a word intersperse the text and break up the dialogue, a kind of visual representation of the mind's and the novel's discontinuities, its leaps over time and space. All of Ill Will's characters are slinking toward something awful, and Chaon is a master of creeping dread and gathering paranoia.

"People can find patterns in all kinds of random events. It's called apophenia," Dustin at one point explains to Aqil. "It's the tendency we humans have to find meaning in disconnected information." In Ill Will, there's no respite from that tendency. Everyone in this gray world is prey to its logic, whether they are monstrous or benign—and so is the reader, picking up the clusters of clues in the text. Chaon exploits that symmetry with a neat and diabolical precision, which makes Ill Will an especially bedeviling yet strangely despairing experience.

Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.