Dan Chaon’s fifth (and darkest) novel is the opposite of your typical horror-thriller: the world it depicts does not cloak vast, supernatural forces coming to get you; no super-brainiac serial killers manipulate everyone into a brutally complicated, “Seven”-like dénouement; and, as the horrible crimes mount (drownings, multiple homicides, sadomasochistic sex and even a live entombment), it’s never entirely clear who is evil, who is not and who does what to whom.
Violence and bad faith abound across a landscape of such malaise and “ill will” that human attribution is difficult, if not impossible, to determine; and the only truly omnipresent force is a “circling, unfocused dread” that infects everyone indiscriminately. Chaon’s characters see crime and malignancy everywhere, even where it isn’t; they suspect everyone of ulterior motives (even their own parents and children). And eventually they distrust every story they hear — especially the stories they tell themselves.
“Ill Will” stretches across several decades and numerous crime scenes, beginning with the violent murder of two sets of parents during a summer holiday in 1983. The survivors spend the rest of their lives trying to live with the consequences.
One is Rusty, a sexually manipulative, bed-wetting teenager who likes heavy metal, Ozzy Osbourne, ritually sacrificing small animals and openly fantasizing about parenticide. He is eventually accused of satanic ritual abuse, then spends the next three decades imprisoned for crimes he may have contemplated but never committed. Meanwhile, his foster brother Dustin capitalizes on his own notoriety as both survivor and chief prosecuting witness to the crimes, and goes on to write a “feverish, barely acceptable dissertation on the now long-discredited idea of ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse.’ ”
While “bad boy” Rusty broods alone in prison about the things he did (and didn’t) do, “good boy” Dustin earns his doctorate in psychology, and throws around the false expertise granted him by terms such as “recovered-memory syndrome, dissociative identity disorder, et cetera.” Unlike Rusty, he gets married; he has kids; he considers himself a decent person. And even though he eventually abandons the insubstantial theories that once got him (and the people he testified against) into trouble, he never abandons the half-formulated belief that evil forces invest our world and that he is just the man to expose them.
Complications (and points of view) multiply. Three decades after the murder of his family, Dustin is co-opted by one of his more disturbing patients to investigate a complicated series of crimes that may or may not have happened — they involve the apparently accidental drownings of young men across America, a hypothetical secret society that commits elaborate torture-murder sacrifices and an Internet-based rumor about someone known only as the “Jack Daniels killer.” (As we all know by now, everything is available on the web — especially nonsense.)
Meanwhile, Dustin’s youngest son, Aaron, develops a texting friendship with foster-uncle Rusty, who has been exonerated and released from prison with little more than five bucks in his pocket. Like most of the characters in “Ill Will,” father and son journey off on their own trajectories, never keeping each other informed about what they are doing. And what they both don’t know about each other could soon kill them.
In this long, complex, and sometimes relentlessly dark novel, the crimes of the parents are visited upon the children and vice versa until everyone is involved in a vast multi-generational network of anger, dissociation and remorse.
Since nobody tells anybody anything (at one point, Dustin doesn’t even inform his teenage sons that their mother is dying of cancer), they go seeking their own private versions of truth in strange places. The alienated foster brothers, Dustin and Rusty, troll for information about one another through relatives and crime reports, rather than confront each other directly. In fact, for the people of this novel, the term “sibling” might just as well mean “they don’t talk.”
One of the syndromes that most interests shut-down and overly clinical Dustin is apophenia, the desire of people to “find patterns in all kinds of random events … to find meaning in disconnected information.” And looking for “patterns” is all anybody manages to do amid the escalating perils of this novel; they certainly don’t have much time left over to provide good families to one another.
Dustin travels across America interviewing the families of dead young men while trying to recall the murder of his own parents three decades previously, and what he said and did that might make him responsible for the crimes remaining unsolved. Meanwhile, his son Aaron takes too many drugs, wonders about the point of hoping for anything when you belong to the “penultimate generation” and eventually goes looking for the dark world of violence and perversity that makes more sense to him than family life (“bondage and domination stuff. Duct tape. Mummification. Crucifixion.”)
In conventional thrillers, fate drives characters to their inevitable doom. But in “Ill Will,” characters go searching for a world that confirms their notions of fate, and almost always find it. Sharing only one firm belief — that “the official story isn’t true” — they are readily willing to trust in anything else: “psychic glimmers,” rumors about “that Mayan apocalypse,” blog postings from conspiracy nuts, and hashtags associated with serial murders that may or may not have happened.
As Wave (another survivor) reflects decades later: “Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story. They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale. But she suspected 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. Memories were no more solid than dreams.”
Chaon is one of America’s best and most dependable writers, and in the end, “Ill Will” is a ruthlessly “realistic” piece of fiction about the unrealistic beliefs people entertain about their world. Reminiscent of the darkest psychological thrillers, such as George Sluizer’s film “The Vanishing” or the convoluted, unreliably narrated novels “The Horned Man” by James Lasdun and “Spider” by Patrick McGrath, it is ultimately a wider, less personality-bound story than any of those.
The problem of our world, Chaon seems to argue, is not simply that individuals tell themselves stories they shouldn’t believe, but rather that everyone is constantly telling themselves (and everybody else) unbelievable stories all the time. And amid the looping freeway interchanges of storytelling, the exit signs are often impossible to find.
Bradfield’s latest novel is “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”
By Dan Chaon
Ballantine: 480 pp., $28