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March 7, 2017

Book Notes - Dan Chaon "Ill Will"

Ill Will

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Dan Chaon's novel is one of the most chilling books I have read in years, a finely put together literary thriller.

The Wall Street Journal wrote of the book:

"An unreliable narrator can often feel like a cheap trick in the novelist’s playbook, but Mr. Chaon employs it masterfully, integrating unreliability into the book’s very typography. Sentences end mid-thought. Words are redacted, leaving blank spaces in the text. Sometimes the pages split into parallel columns, representing the 'honeycombed parts' of a mind that somehow contains different memories of the same event. Mr. Chaon’s writing is cool and precise, but his story is thrillingly unstable."

In his own words, here is Dan Chaon's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Ill Will:

When I’m working on a large project, I often make playlists that I will use over and over—I suppose that they are triggers for a kind of self-hypnosis. At first, they are meant to help me get in the mood of the story, and they might have a few lines in their lyrics that can act as a sort of mantra. But these playlists aren’t truly useful to me until I’ve played them enough that I can’t actually “hear” them. Eventually, they become a kind of Pavlovian bell, a portal that will take me to the fictional headspace of the world I’m writing about.

“Strangers to Ourselves,” by Modest Mouse, which was the first song on my playlist, has actually become a trigger for me. The minute I hear those opening dirge drums, I feel the world of Ill Will rise up in my mind, and it seems to be a true classical conditioning response. I’ve literally trained myself to use the song as a neural stimulus.

But it’s appropriate, since the song calls out the themes of the novel--self-deception, dissociation and the unreliability of memory--in a soft, sinister voice. We're lucky that we're so capable to forget/ How lucky we are, that we are, so easy to forget… How often we are confused/How honestly we have tried/But will forget…
It’s a song to be hypnotized to.

“Swimming Pool” by Emmy the Great also has that hypnotized mood. It’s a stoned, floaty, quietly desperate song. “I don’t know how I even used to be alive,” Emmy tells us, ghostily, and there’s an underwater shimmer to the music that felt right to me, since this was an underwater book. The main plot centers around drownings—inspired, in part, by the “Smiley-Face Killer” urban legend—and there is also a sensory deprivation tank, and in one key scene, an actual swimming pool, the kind that Emmy the Great describes, around which plots are hatched.

In his song “1 Through 8,” Mac Miller reaches a state of high dissociation and it’s not clear if he’s alive or not. “Dear people on earth after I die: what’s the weather like?” Mac sings from out of a haze, and a sample that sounds like ice clinking in a glass echoes behind him. This became my go-to song when I wanted to evoke 19-year-old Aaron, a burgeoning heroin addict who is the heart of the novel for me. If you want to picture what Aaron looks like in the movie, Mac Miller is not a bad stand-in.

Another artist that casts a shadow over this book is Angel Olsen, whose “Sweet Dreams” was a song that I was obsessed with when I first started working steadily on this book in 2013. It’s not so much the actual content of the song that I wanted to imitate. It’s that high lonesome yodel she does—that feeling of your mouth open in an oval and your head thrown back and your eyes rolled up. Hands rigid, calling forth lightning. Yeah, I wanted to do that. So basically Ill Will is an attempt to approximate that kind of wail.

The novel takes place in two time periods—in 2012-14 or thereabouts, and in the early 1980s. For the 1980’s I give shout outs to a few songs, including “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie and “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC, but the songs that most evoked that time period for me were written long after it was over. The songs that most helped me get back to that time were “Car” by Built to Spill, which came out in 1994—which somehow helped me to get into the mindset of the druggie Midwestern teens that I was writing about—and “The Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton” by The Mountain Goats, which is a song that helped me find sympathy for the Satan-worshipping villain-victim of the novel, who was sent to prison, much like the West Memphis Three, based primarily on circumstantial evidence and his association with certain kinds of music.

The novel is a stew of these different flavors. In the present, there may be a serial killer who is drowning college boys; in the past, there was a mass murder that had elements of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Stirred up in this is a middle-aged widower who is in a highly susceptible mental state, and his son, who is muffling his sorrow with opiates.

In my mind, the soundtrack has two different poles: One is this terrifying Method Man song, "Release Yo Delf (Prodigy Remix)"; another is this Doris Day song, “I’ll See You In My Dreams”, which in its own way is just as scary. Listen to those lyrics, and that creepily swooning chorus. “Lips that once were mine/Tender eyes that shine/They will light my way tonight/I’ll see you, I’ll hold you, tonight, in my dreams.”

Maybe that’s the illest willest of all the songs on my playlist.

Dan Chaon and Ill Will links:

the author's website

Boston Globe review
Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus Reviews review
Wall Street Journal review
Washington Post review

Cleveland Scene interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Stay Awake

also at Largehearted Boy:

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