Double Take: Dan Chaon’s ‘Ill Will’ is the Darkest Novel You’ll Read This Year
The literary thriller has a high body-count and a low estimation of humanity.
“Double Take” is our literary criticism series wherein two readers tackle a highly-anticipated book’s innermost themes, successes, failures, trappings, and surprises. In this edition, Electric Literature’s own Halimah Marcus discusses Dan Chaon’s bleak thriller Ill Will with Sam Allingham. Allingham is a former contributor to Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and the author of The Great American Songbook. He also happens to have been Chaon’s undergraduate student at Oberlin College. (Fun fact: one of the dead guys in Ill Will is named Peter Allingham, because Prof. Chaon recognized that Allingham is a good last name.)
Ill Will centers around the life of Dustin Tillman, a psychologist and widowed father living in the suburbs of Cleveland. Dustin has recently begun treating Aqil, a former police officer obsessed with a series of drowning deaths in the region. Aqil plies Dustin with an elaborate conspiracy theory about a satanic serial killer, until Dustin is eventually persuaded to join the ad hoc investigation. At the same time, Dustin’s traumatic past resurfaces when he learns that his adoptive brother, Rusty, who was convicted of murdering Dustin’s mother, father, aunt, and uncle, has been acquitted and released from prison. Rusty’s trial embodied the height of the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and led Dustin to write his thesis about Satanic cults and recovered memories. As Dustin becomes increasingly preoccupied with his and Aqil’s investigation, his youngest son Aaron’s recreational drug use grows into a crippling addiction. The novel’s tangled plot is told through a multi-perspective and formally experimental narrative, making for a gripping, blood-chilling read.
Spoilers are encouraged and fair-warned, with the hope that readers purchase the novel and join the discussion in the comments.
Halimah Marcus: One of the reasons I want to talk about Ill Will — which I think is pretty brilliant — is that it’s formally experimental but also, in many ways, a traditional mystery or horror story. There’s the formula of the past childhood trauma informing the present day. I’m thinking of In the Woods by Tana French, or even Season 1 of Dexter, and I’m sure there are many other examples. In the case of this novel, Dustin Tillman’s parents were murdered when he was a child and now he’s a psychiatrist “investigating” a possible serial killer. Formally, there are the broken sentences, the weird spacing, and the parallel narratives, which are both physically parallel in vertical columns and chronologically parallel. And then there’s the plot, which is dark as fuck. So where do you want to start?
Sam Allingham: I’m glad you started with the ways in which the book is and isn’t a traditional thriller; I love how it manages to maintain such a creepy atmosphere while also providing some high-level postmodern winks about the thriller form. Putting “investigation” in quotation marks feels right, because Dustin is so self-conscious (and a little too excited) about stepping into his role in the thriller. It’s like his past has made him obsessed with the structure of these sort of crimes — so obsessed that he can’t quite see the real horror staring him in the face. Not for nothing does his patient-turned buddy (and co-investigator) Aqil introduce him to people as a guy who’s writing a book about a serial killer. But it’s not quite Dustin’s book; as Dustin begins to unravel, the narrative unravels too. It gets more diffuse, with more parallel narratives, bigger gaps. Maybe we should talk about these gaps, divisions, and disjunctions. It’s hard to get across to someone who hasn’t read the book how upsetting it is to have awful stuff suddenly elided, or to be ripped out of a character’s scene just as something horrible is about to happen!
HM: It’s also very effective! Inextricably connected to these post-modern winks is the fact that Dustin is one of the most intensely unreliable narrators I’ve ever encountered. Ill Will reminded me that an unreliable narrator can be more than a crafty trick. It’s a workshop term that’s usually applied to self-interested or self-aggrandizing narrators telling stories in a way that flatters themselves, and I forget that it can also refer to so much else. Dustin is an easily manipulated, traumatized person with shaky psychological footing, and occupying his perspective is, as you say, really upsetting. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia was the last book that I read that totally exploded the concept of an unreliable narrator and how such a character could shape a story. Both novels use their narrator’s confusion about what’s real and what’s imagined to catch the reader off guard with something horrific. But Swamplandia was entirely from the point of view of one person, Ava Bigtree. Whereas Ill Will features multiple narrators and some sections in the third person, which provide reality checks and supply information Dustin can’t. I guess my point is that Dustin is a character that justifies those gaps, divisions, and disjunctions because he himself is so disjointed. There’s a joke in the book about how his sons are always finishing his sentences because he trails off before obvious words. When Chaon ends in a sentence abruptly or drops a period or put extra spaces in the middle of a line, it mimics Dustin’s brain on the fritz. And you don’t realize until the end how deep those disjunctions go and the tragedy of their consequences.
SA: Yeah, you’re absolutely right — it’s the sense of tragedy (or maybe doom?) that keeps the whole thing from feeling like an exercise in style. Chaon is just so good at manipulating the terms of sympathy we feel for Dustin, especially since (spoiler alert) the death of his wife from cancer is such a central part of the story. For such a propulsive and structurally ambitious thriller, there’s a surprising number of scenes that stick because they represent Dustin in incredibly sensitive, emotional moments, like the one from his childhood where he and his newly adopted brother Rusty, who later gets blamed for murdering their parents, first watch the stars together. You can tell that Rusty isn’t entirely to be trusted, but Dustin’s loneliness is so palpable that his growing fascination with his brother and the trauma that follows both feel understandable. There are other flashbulb moments like these, in which Chaon communicates the emotional intensity of Dustin’s inner life so beautifully that you forget the disjointedness of the episodes, not to mention the fact that some of them might be misremembered, or even made up! I love how he places these little observational epiphanies that might satisfy in the context of a character-driven narrative in the midst of this thriller that’s really about psychological deterioration. It’s like he’s saying: sure, you can have these moments of realization, but what do they mean when your mind and your daily life are both falling apart?
But maybe we’re focusing a bit too much on Dustin. You’re right that as his point of view gets weirder his younger son seems like more of a reliable character, although his life is maybe even darker than his dad’s! What did you think of Aaron?
HM: Because drug addicts are the original unreliable narrators, right? Poor Aaron. I really feel for that kid. His mom has just died and his dad is so far out to lunch he doesn’t even notice his son is a heroin addict. It was heart wrenching but also kind of funny when Dustin realizes Aaron is doing heroin and says, “For some reason, I had thought it was a fashion choice — that he was trying to be what we used to call ‘Goth.’” Aaron also has a total lack of self-awareness, but in a more familiar, decodable way. Chaon is incredibly clever about circumnavigating his character’s limitations. For example, the way Aaron behaves with Terri, his best friend Rabbit’s mom, who is also dying of cancer, betrays his unprocessed feelings about his own mother’s death from the same disease. Somehow I knew more about Aaron than he knew about himself, and I felt tremendous compassion toward him, similar to how I might feel toward a friend who was spinning out. Yet even though I understood Aaron to be an isolated heroin addict, I didn’t get my head around how doomed he was until it was too late. I’m curious to know what you thought of him, and I also want to talk about Rusty and Aqil on our way to spoiling the shit out of the ending, which I completely failed at predicting.
Chaon is incredibly clever about circumnavigating his character’s limitations.
SA: I think one of the hardest parts of Aaron’s character is the way in which he doesn’t quite have the language or the perspective to handle what’s going on. I mean, his romance with his friend’s dying mother is just so painful to witness; like his father, he doesn’t seem to realize his desires or the desires of others until things have gone too far. And then there’s the weird hellscape he enters when he visits House of Willis, the drug house/abandoned funeral parlor. We can’t be sure whether the place is truly as creepy as it seems, or whether Aaron’s perspective is so fractured and high and paranoid that it comes across as a nightmare. But then again, the people he meets there really do seem like demons…
I found myself rooting for Aaron, even if at times I wanted to get out from behind him to see the world he was moving through from some more distant vantage point. But that’s precisely what Chaon doesn’t let us do, and it makes the horror feel more visceral.
The ending is one of the most delightfully horrible aspects of the book; it recasts everything that came before. I almost don’t want to give it away, so maybe I’ll give the spoiler warning again, so that people really can just go read the book. (DO IT: read the book.)
Dustin’s relationship with his “patient” Aqil feels codependent and a little odd, sure, but once you find out that Aqil is the killer it curdles everything. When the news came out, I immediately remembered an early part in which Aqil, who enters Dustin’s life as a patient in his therapy practice, kneels in front of Dustin and takes his hand: a weird moment on first read, and uncomfortably intimate, but when you realize Aqil had already essentially marked Dustin as a pawn, a true mark… it becomes almost unbearable. And we’re implicated, too. How could Dustin miss the truth? But then again, so did we!
The ending is one of the most delightfully horrible aspects of the book; it recasts everything that came before.
HM: I’m about to go even deeper into spoiler territory, but how did you interpret Aqil’s motivations for involving Dustin in his investigation/murder plot? At one point, Aqil speculates that the alleged serial killer, nick-named Jack Daniels, is opportunistic. That he noticed the pattern of young, white, frat boys getting wasted and falling into rivers, and recognized a chance to get away with murder. Serial killers often target vulnerable populations such as sex workers and the homeless. Young white men are not usually thought of as vulnerable, and everyone assumes their deaths are a result of reckless self-endangerment rather than foul play.
Later, Aqil posits a technique Jack Daniels might use to subdue and disorient the victim, involving a sensory deprivation tank and a feeding tube of whiskey. So what came first, the plot to manipulate or the plot to murder? Was Aqil obsessed with a serial killer to the degree that he became one, or was he Jack Daniels all along?
I’m able to find plausible motivations for his behavior in the former possibility, but struggle with the latter. If his plot to murder Aaron was pre-meditated from the first time he walked into Dustin’s office, it’s not clear to me what role he needed Dustin to play. Aaron is a vulnerable, isolated, and defenseless drug addict. Aqil doesn’t need to become close with Aaron’s father in order to gain access to him. Perhaps he wanted to eliminate Dustin as a witness, but the only reason Dustin knows Aqil from Adam is because Aqil sought him out in the first place.
Even though the situation is ambiguous, I come down on the side of Aqil committing a murder of opportunity. He began as an obsessed investigator, albeit one with horrific proclivities, and transformed into a killer.
SA: You’re blowing my mind a little, I must admit. It never occurred to me that Aqil could be anything other than a committed killer, working his way slowly into Aaron and Dustin’s life for the pure enjoyment of it. That was what made the retrospective reading so intense for me — but, in some ways, the idea that Aqil slowly transformed due to the intense nature of the investigation is actually more horrifying. Still, I don’t see any reason why Aqil being interested in murder from the start as being implausible. Part of the enjoyment would be in becoming Dustin’s trusted confidant, and drawing the web tighter, bit by bit. (An episode like the “lost wallet” is an example of this.) Though if there’s anything in the whole book that seems a bit too grotesque to be real, the sensory deprivation tank is definitely it, whiskey or no whiskey.
Since we’re talking about the ending, I’m interested in talking a little bit about Rusty, Dustin’s adopted brother. For most of the book he’s an off-stage figure, but in the end we get to spend some time with him, post-prison, and I found these sections some of the most interesting in the whole book. Obviously returning to society after a roughly thirty-year prison sentence is bound to cause all sorts of dislocations, but I liked how Rusty’s observations about our current society — the fixation on smartphones, for example — added to the dark, semi-apocalyptic tone of the whole book. At a time when the rest of the book was sort of flying off the rails, his struggle to deal with regular life (and a horrible kitchen injury) added an unexpected spike of sympathy in the midst of what was clearly going to be a gruesome finale. It’s like we get this sudden glimpse of humanity before he gets snuffed out.
This leads me to one big question for the ending, with the ultimate spoiler alert. There’s such a body count at the end, and pretty much all of the characters you might have sympathized with are dead; despite all this work Chaon puts in to make us feel for these people, he doesn’t spare any of them! Certainly this seemed in keeping with the book’s overall tone, but how did you feel about the ending?
HM: For being physically absent for much of the novel, Rusty is incredibly well-drawn. The sections you site about his post-prison life really complete his characterization. A lesser writer would try to get away without giving Rusty his due. Like Aqil, he’s a master manipulator. Unlike Aqil, we have information about his history of violence. Aqil did something to get kicked off the police force, but we don’t know what. Rusty was falsely convicted of murdering Dustin parents and Aunt and Uncle, and is suspected to have burned down his foster home, murdering his foster family as well. These are accusations and rumors, but we know with greater certainty that Rusty sexually abused Dustin when he was a kid. Specific sexual acts he performed with Dustin are corroborated by Dustin’s cousin Kate, with whom Rusty had a sexual relationship. It’s possible Dustin could have misremembered these experiences, as he did others, but Rusty himself admits his intentions when he says, addressing himself in the second person, “You knew from the beginning that you could fuck him up.”
That line really punched me in the gut. Despite everything I knew about him, Rusty was winning me over. On his phone calls with Aaron, Rusty seemed sane compared to Dustin. Rusty seemed like the one who had Aaron’s best interest at heart. I guess in the end, the novel’s two master-manipulators, Rusty and Aqil, manipulated me too.
I suppose it’s time you and I offer our own satisfying conclusion, to the best of our abilities. So, what was your biggest take away from, or lasting reaction to Ill Will? For a novel populated by deeply dishonest people, I’m still in awe at the relentless honesty of the project as a whole. It’s rare that narrative art eschews redemption to this degree, but to offer redemption would be to undermine the weight of the story. Which isn’t to say the story isn’t resolved; killing everyone off is a resolution unto itself.
SA: I was deeply, deeply impressed by this book. As I think the reader can tell from both of our responses so far, Chaon is equally good at the more traditional pleasures of literary character building and the spikier, slightly stranger realm of post-modern storytelling. He can evoke readerly sympathy for his characters by presenting these uncomfortably intimate moments from their lives, while also showing how the stories they tell about themselves have frightening gaps, and that they resort to all manner of cobbled-together narratives to fill these gaps. I keep coming back to the fact that Dustin’s attempt at playing detective was what led him to Aqil. He thinks he’s entering this genre playacting as a detective, but it’s not playacting — and he’s the victim, not the detective. And, because Chaon is so good at both sides of the narrative, by the time he meets his fate, you know exactly why his way of seeing the world led him there. There’s something very tragic about the narrative construction: the hubris of wanting to solve these murders, the flawed “hero,” the sudden reversal of fate.
Chaon is equally good at the more traditional pleasures of literary character building and the spikier, slightly stranger realm of post-modern storytelling.
But I’ve also been mulling over the only aspect of the book that I found slightly unsatisfying: not on a technical or emotional level, but on a moral one. I know it’s a little bit unfashionable to talk about morality in fiction, and maybe it’s not even the right word to use here, but there’s just no moral center whatsoever in this novel: moments of beauty and human connection get snuffed out, one by one, and anyone who seems to be a source of comfort ends up revealing themselves to be hopelessly compromised. I can see why you think of the novel as brutally honest (it is!) and I agree that any sense of redemption would have cheapened the sense of devastation the reader gets at the end — and yet in the breakdown of Dustin’s character and the half-transfer of our sympathy to Aaron I feel like we lose sight of some of the investment we had in Dustin initially. When he comes to Rusty with a gun, that particular part of the tragedy feels inevitable but not quite as emotionally affecting as it could have been.
But that might be asking too much. I certainly felt an enormous sense of terror at the end of the novel, as everything unraveled. Maybe the end of the book is more about the revel of Aqil’s character, and is meant to be satisfying as a horror novel; maybe all the sympathy was just a way to buckle me in tight, so I couldn’t turn away!
Sam Allingham grew up in rural New Jersey and Philadelphia. After graduating from Oberlin College, he worked for many years as a music teacher for adults and small(ish) children, before receiving an MFA from Temple University in 2013. His work has appeared in One Story, American Short Fiction, and N+1, among other publications. He lives in West Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University. The Great American Songbook is his first book.
Halimah Marcus is the Executive Director of Electric Literature and the Editor-in-chief of its weekly fiction magazine, Recommended Reading.