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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review of ILL WILL by Dan Chaon

4 Stars
Dustin Tillman, a 41-year-old psychologist, is experiencing a lot of turmoil in his life.  His wife has recently died and he learns that his adoptive brother Rusty has been exonerated and released from prison after 30 years.  Rusty had been convicted of killing his adoptive parents and another couple.  As a very impressionable young boy, Dustin had described Rusty’s involvement in satanic rituals; this testimony had led to Rusty’s conviction.  As he grieves his wife’s death and frets about his deteriorating relationship with his sons, Dustin welcomes the distraction of investigating a series of drowning deaths which a patient of his believes are the work of a serial killer.  Meanwhile he fails to see how his son Aaron is increasingly abusing drugs. 

The book explores the unreliability of memories.  As an adult Dustin realizes that he may not remember events exactly as they happened; he tells a patient that “our recall of episodic memories becomes less accurate because of post-event information.”  But as a child he didn’t realize the significance of a question asked by an older cousin who also testified at Rusty’s trial:  “’What if we made a mistake?’”  Of course, Dustin has also lived much of his life trying not to remember certain events or his role in Rusty’s conviction:  The mind has its unknown mercies and ministrations, many sealed chambers . . . Some people’s entire lives are directed by trying not to remember something.”  One of the characters concludes, “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. . . . ‘I don’t think anybody really remembers the truth of what happened to them.  They just remember the pieces that fit together logically’.”

The book also explores the difficulty of separating reality from fantasy.  As a child, Dustin was “eager to please and easily tricked” and more than once was manipulated into believing he witnessed things he was not present to have witnessed.  Dustin tells a patient, “’People can find patterns in all kinds of random events.  It’s called apophenia.  It’s the tendency we humans have to find meaning in disconnected information.’”  He also knows that “The mind is tricked by all kinds of stimuli and stress makes it worse.”  At one point Dustin says, “’We have theories about how things will turn out, and when we cling to those too tightly, it . . . closes off our experience of the world.  Our ability to see things for what they are.’”  Ironically, Dustin doesn’t realize that he has the most difficulty differentiating fact from fantasy; he doesn’t see the truth in front of him and succumbs to the “belief that random and meaningless things are connected.”  The consequences for him are horrific.  He fails to understand that sometimes perhaps all one can conclude is that “Possibly there was a glint of reality in it, somewhere.”

The lack of communication among characters means that people have even more difficulty determining what happened.  Dustin and his wife don’t tell their sons about the murder of Dustin’s family and don’t even tell them that she is dying!  The reader is given access to the minds of all the major characters and he/she soon realizes that no one has a full understanding of past and/or present events.    If Dustin, his cousins and Rusty actually talked to each other, they could have figured out what really happened in the past.  If Dustin and Aaron had real conversations, they would see what is actually happening in the present.

Characterization is a strong element in the novel.  The characters are complex with no one being flawless or blameless, but it is the depiction of Dustin that stands out.  As a child he was very gullible; his desire to please also meant he could be easily manipulated.  As an adult, he hasn’t really changed.  He has an amazing capacity for self-delusion and can still be manipulated; his son and even a patient see these traits.  Dustin often doesn’t complete sentences; he lets others finish them – what a perfect metaphor for his letting other people lead his thinking. 

There is a great deal of suspense because there are so many questions.  For example, knowing Dustin’s crucial role in his conviction, will Rusty exact revenge on his brother?  Why is Aqil so obsessed with the drownings?  Who actually killed Dustin’s parents and why?  Because no one person knows the whole truth, everyone comes to suspect everyone else and there’s “a soft glow of ill will” throughout. 

This is a dark novel about people living out their lives in lies and half-truths.  Prospective readers should also be forewarned that the ending is somewhat open-ended.  Considering its thematic explorations, vagueness and ambiguity are appropriate.  It is a novel which does probably need a second reading to ensure that the reader has not been deceived or manipulated or is guilty of retrospective patterning, “the fallacy of seeing planning where there is none.  A design that doesn’t exist.”