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Sometimes you can’t help but open the box, and when I opened By Blood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Ellen Ullman’s latest novel, set in San Francisco in the early 1970s, I found a noir gem. The novel is creepy-exciting and skillfully ironic at almost every turn, with a narrator’s voice snaking through the measured text. It is a voice that is appalling, brilliantly perverted, cunning and smart—and desperate for redemption.
The narrative vehicles Ullman uses to drive her plot—voyeurism and eavesdropping—are Faustian, somehow compelling us to participate in the deceptions and betrayals that hold the story together. As readers, we don’t figuratively marry the narrator, we become him, agreeing—or struggling against agreeing, with our perverted professor’s banal opening line, “I did not cause her any harm.”
Our narrator is a disgraced, middle-aged, tenured professor of philosophy who has done something inappropriate. He’s the kind of guy who steals his neighbor’s newspaper and shadows Asian couples in Union Square. He is on administrative leave and has exiled himself to San Francisco, rented a shabby apartment on the ocean and rides the N Judah to a dreary office on Market Street, near “a rough, depressed neighborhood” in an building from which “eight begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time,” images that are metaphoric of the dark legacy of the Twentieth Century with its two world wars and its millions who watched as millions were slaughtered.
The nameless narrator’s office is next door to a therapist, Dora Schussler, PhD, and what does our completely unreliable narrator do in his office? Nothing, really, until:
The sound machine abruptly stopped. And in its absence was a stillness so crisp that I could hear the suggestive, teasing, slip-sound of a single tissue being withdrawn from a Kleenex box.
Then a voice, which said, Thanks. You know how I hate that thing.
And a reply: So sorry. I do forget.
Whoa! The professor hears everything? Everything? You bet! This brief exchange, circumstantial and ill-timed, sets up the triangulation between the patient, Dr. Schussler, and the weird professor, whose lovely phrase, “a stillness so crisp” hooks us and repulses us. Its pacific subtlety amplifies the impact of what is being said.
Ellen Ullman’s prose is wry, quirky, and brilliant. Throughout By Blood, she throws us lines that make us close our eyes and smile. “Again I skimmed the rim of sleep” is another stunner, and I love the visual of the Furies, “chattering through the voices of our trembling doors, through the rattling of our windows.”
The narrator’s voyeurism allows seamless twists and turns in the narrative. As the creepy professor changes his routines so that he can sit in his dusty, half-empty office and listen, he becomes possessive, protective, and predatory. He has erections as he listens to the patient talk about her disintegrating relationship with her girlfriend, difficulties at work, and the cold denial of her adoptive family. The professor constantly disabuses himself of wrongdoing: “to understand a feeling is no prevention from the act of feeling it,” he tells us. “What delight it gave me to torment her,” he declares, attaching stereotypic attributes to the therapist. “I had to endure Dr. Schussler… she was my only conduit to the patient.”
Ullman’s dark novel also has moments of pure light, as in the sequence in which the patient’s birth mother relays the story of the singing of the Hatikvah in liberated Bergen-Belsen:
I was surrounded by the rising chorus of this song…. One woman in particular leading, a very strong voice, a steady alto, and everyone followed…. What sort of people have such determination and courage, even before all the dead have found their graves? What was giving them such strength, such hope? And the tears ran down my face, this time not with joy bur with regret, and heartbreak, and longing.
Why? What happened asked her daughter.
Well, her mother replied with a catch in her voice. This was the miracle.
The patient’s silence held the question, What was the miracle?
You see, said Michal: At that moment, and for the first time in my life, I wanted to be a Jew.
We jump into Ullman’s prose so we can be carried downstream, over the falls, into the past, rolled and jostled here, then there. We are in San Francisco, then we are in Tel Aviv, then Berlin, then Bergen-Belsen, then Pebble Beach, and back to San Francisco, into the labyrinth of history and the machinations of terror, bigotry, denial, and deception. There are secrets piled upon secrets that really aren’t secrets: Or are they? And Ullman ups the ante every chance she gets, as when the “beloved patient” confronts her adopted mother, who tells her:
Your father converted when he married me. And because of this, his father cut him off. Completely. You see, your grandfather was not just Catholic, but a traditionalist Catholic. Mass twice a day, confessions, rosary beads, murmuring Latin in the dark in a haze of incense. Bleeding Jesus crucifixes everywhere, even over the bed. Horrid to have the image of a man—even if he is the son of God, he’s a man—horrid to have the image of a man nailed at the hands and feet bleeding over your headboard.
The young, thirtyish financial professional, the “beloved patient” is difficult to warm up to and until her vulnerabilities are exposed to the air one might actually dislike her. But the patient (“number three”) plows ahead with her quest to find her birth-mother and in doing so exposes the anti-Semitism of her adoptive family and the understanding that she was tolerated more than accepted: “Said her mother: I told you not to smile like that. It’s disgusting. Your gums are so low. You shouldn’t show those disgusting gums when you smile.”
There are myriad conventions and tropes thrown in to heighten the intrigue: the therapist’s name is Dora, “the name of Freud’s famous hysteric”; the patient’s birth-mother was a baptized Jew whose safety in Nazi Germany depended on her husband’s greedy, anti-Semitic family (who of course betray her); the patient’s therapist is the daughter of a high-ranking SS officer; the patient, once adopted, betrayed and cast out because she is Jewish; the patient’s mother raped in Bergen-Belsen; the professor figuratively gang-banged on the dance floor of a lesbian bar; the patient’s birthday is the day after Christmas; the therapist refers to her patient as “number three” and so on. There is no escape from the relentless onslaught of the horror and discomfort of discovery. Even the design and typeface of the book exude an indifference (like the grimy gargoyles on the office building), markers of something dissociated, fractured, fate caught on tape in a Munchian scream. As in the movie Crash, the characters are oblivious of each other’s humanity until the moment of impact.
When Ullman’s patient and the therapist falter, they question reality—especially within the context of obsession—and the factuality of identity and family. “What envy coursed through me,” Dora Schussler confesses to her mentor/advisor, Dr. Gurevitch:
I see now it was envy. She was right: She could shed her family and I could not. Her attachment to them was not ‘real’ they were not blut, she had inherited nothing from them but experience, which can be discussed, analyzed, understood, changed. But I carried in me—what? What have I inherited from the Obersturmbannführer? A stain which cannot be removed? For I belong to him, to them, my family: the defenders of the murderers of the Jews.
But they become darkly heroic, upending the very ideal of heroism, positioning themselves in imperfect relation to their secrets and deeds, and—except for the professor—do this instinctually.
Ullman’s By Blood reminded me of Paul Auster’s exquisite, labyrinthine storytelling in The New York Trilogy, but Ullman goes further than Auster’s anti-heroes, relinquishing control of moral certainty while simultaneously pushing characters and readers closer to the edge of redemption. As the “beloved patient” reveals after hearing yet another version of her story of origin: “I saw what telling this story had cost her.”
The dilemmas Ullman sets up in By Blood are not alien and given the present-day political extremism and lack of civil discourse, the social back-story of the novel heightens the tension and emotional connections between patient and therapist as they explore the eventualities of American hypocrisy, the recalibration of American society and culture in the wake of the Holocaust and U.S. incursions into Southeast Asia. As the patient tells her therapist:
I felt that everything was fragile, she said, that if I moved, everything would fall apart.
What everything? Dr. Schussler asked.
Everything, everything, the patient said. My life, my identity, all the things you think are solid—suddenly you realize you could have been someone else. Anyone else, depending upon the family that had taken you in to be their child.
There is a lot more I can say about this amazing novel but now, dear reader, it’s your turn to pick it up and find out what that might be.
By Ellen Ullman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374117559, 384pp