Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What Do You Call a Thriller That Doesn't Thrill?

Dan Chaon, Ill Will: a Novel

Nearly thirty years ago, someone murdered thirteen-year-old Dustin Tillman’s extended family, leaving Dustin and his older female cousins orphaned. Dustin’s testimony steered his adopted older brother, Rusty, to Nebraska’s Death Row. But DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty. Dustin, now a successful Cleveland therapist with kids and a critically ill wife, must grapple with his brother’s sudden reappearance in his life… as a fresh round of killings begins in his area.

Award-winning novelist Dan Chaon has good intentions with this novel. He takes premises from genre fiction, filtered through the techniques of high-minded literary fiction. But like a sleeper couch, he creates a hybrid that performs different functions with relative discomfort, in a way that will satisfy neither thriller readers nor literary cognoscenti. By populating his simply ordinary story with supremely unlikable characters, he leaves audiences nowhere to hang their hats.

First, Chaon’s nonlinear storytelling confounds where it should clarify, and vice versa. By stringing events together in an unsequenced montage, like a hip-hop filmmaker improvising at the editing table, events coalesce more from context and inference than organically. Joseph Conrad did this in Nostromo, where the confusion of secondhand information was partly his point. When we have access to viewpoint characters’ thoughts, as we do here, it just looks sloppy.

Moreover, as narration tapdances without chronological coherence, experienced thriller readers will start watching for whatever the viewpoint character leaves out. We understand how unreliable narrators work. We read this shit every day. Within thirty pages, it becomes painfully clear which character has omitted which important information from the recounting. This isn’t a mystery, where our protagonist must coax reality from conflicting evidence. The characters are just lying to the audience.

Dan Chaon
Chaon’s characters, besides being willfully dishonest, are also unpleasant. Not ordinary unpleasant, like Sam Spade, whose impromptu ethics define his story. Dustin Tillman, who has buried childhood trauma in marriage and career, handles his wife’s early death by descending into alcoholism and parental negligence. His son Aaron becomes a quasi-goth junkie with homoerotic tendencies, presumably because “gritty realism” sells. Dustin’s cousins use promiscuity to plug the vacancies in their souls.

The characters come across, not as hard-boiled, but as merely dickish. Everybody’s morally vacuous, but not for any story-based reason. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure even Chaon understands why his characters do anything. Dustin, a therapist, revisits his childhood with Rusty (Rusty & Dustin, geddit? Jazz Hands!) in terms transcribed almost verbatim from the DSM-V. Chaon cursorily plugs proper nouns into the description and apparently considers his authorial responsibilities thus covered.

But Dustin is a deliberately unreliable narrator. What about his son Aaron, the junkie? His described descent into addiction, debauchery, and crime, feels memorized from ONDCP pamphlets and Tarantino movies. I don’t believe these events for one damn moment. Dustin’s cousins behave wantonly because what self-respecting attractive 17-year-old doesn’t? Flashes of homosexuality, incest, and domestic abuse evidently happen because literary fiction authors have little else to elicit emotional responses anymore.

Parallel to all this, Dustin befriends a former patient, an ex-cop who deals with being benched by diving into tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theories. Aqil Ozorowski, who sounds like an error at the Scrabble factory, has identified a pattern of college-aged men disappearing at regular intervals and turning up later, drowned. He claims law enforcement is ignoring the truth. His wild surmises seem harmlessly annoying, until his pattern strikes Dustin’s family directly.

I feel so cynical describing Chaon’s work this way. His well-crafted narration, which sometimes reads more like Rimbaud’s epic prose poem A Season in Hell, deserves some mention. At the sentence level, Chaon writes well. But contra the advice sometimes dispensed by undergraduate writing instructors, writing is more than constructing good sentences. He’s chosen a genre with a dedicated, experienced audience, and apparently doesn’t realize his readers recognize the boilerplates.

Clearly Chaon wants to combine genre fiction’s gut-level sensory immediacy, with literary fiction’s thoughtful investigations of character motivation. But he doesn’t realize his thriller aspects are recycled, or that his characters treat the reader with contempt. I cannot help comparing Chaon’s story with Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, which accomplishes what Chaon apparently cannot. Where Bauer explores her characters, Chaon acts like an exhibitionist. Bauer is morally ambiguous; Chaon is just unpleasant.

Somewhere around the one-third mark, I lost all motivation to keep reading. I realized, I didn’t care if these characters all died in a fire. I just couldn’t bring myself to persevere. That, fellow reader, may say everything you need to know about this joyless cinder block of a book.

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