San Francisco, 1974. A professor banished from his post (for what disgrace we don’t quite know, only that it involved a “dear student”) takes refuge in a cubby of a downtown office.
In the next room a psychotherapist meets her patients, their conversations curtained by the whir of a sound machine -- except for those of one woman who can’t stand the noise. He begins eavesdropping on her sessions. Soon obsession claims him.
Ellen Ullman’s weird and fascinating novel “By Blood” builds from there. The “dear patient” (we never learn either her name or the professor’s) is a quant with a Wharton MBA who came to San Francisco for the gay revolution and found herself a square peg in the politically correct community of Bay Area lesbians.
The adopted daughter of a stiflingly WASP family, she begins unearthing her history. Soon she’s receiving assistance, though she doesn’t know the source, from her eavesdropper.
She’s startled to learn that she may have been born a Catholic -- startled because her adoptive father is a Catholic hater. In time she has reason to think that (worse, from her adoptive family’s perspective) she may have Jewish blood.
The professor listens, sweats and once nearly gives himself away by coughing. Using oddly 19th-century diction, he writes of “the nervous condition to which I had been subject since boyhood,” which involves images of pursuit by crows that he describes this way:
“It was as if my flock of crows ... had flapped up from a dense tree to cut crazy angles around me and shout, Her! Her! Her! (So did the desire present itself to my imagination, which, as I have said, was morbid and afflicted at the time.)”
Those ravens might be cawing “Nevermore!” -- this is the voice of Edgar Allan Poe. What’s less clear is whether the professor is one of Poe’s neurotics or one of his maniacs.
He hints at the latter when he hears a description of the Zodiac Killer (“Loner. Voyeur. Fear of women. Obsessional”) on the radio and wonders, “Was this a description of ... myself?”
Ullman has sadistic fun with this jittery nut case, setting him down at one point on the dance floor of a lesbian bar, where he’s almost punched out, and at another in a Castro cruise bar, which he flees.
Meanwhile, the “dear patient” pursues her origins, and when her search leads her to the Holocaust, it takes over the novel. Ullman has a showman’s sense for dispensing information in dribs and drabs, the length of the therapeutic session putting a limit on how much she gives out at once.
(As a result, the book’s 125 chapters are all short enough so that late at night you can keep telling yourself, “Just one more.”)
“By Blood” is, in other words, two novels, ingeniously interlaced. The professor’s tale allows the author to be devious, witty and cold; it’s a literary construct. But since the patient’s tale opens onto the Holocaust and the Holocaust is an event too ugly, too big and still too close to treat with irony, her chapters are increasingly earnest and heated.
Each half is successful, even brilliant, on its own terms, but the two sit uncomfortably, and in the end unsatisfyingly, together.
If “By Blood” had been published as back-to-back novels, it would be a less ambitious, a less showy and no doubt a less commercial book, but a better one. And it would still demonstrate Ellen Ullman’s remarkable range.
“By Blood” is from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (378 pages, $27). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)