March 2012

Evan McMurry


By Blood by Ellen Ullman

Ellen Ullman's By Blood is a crackerjack of a novel, folding a Zodiac-haunted San Francisco and a Holocaust-sunk mystery of origins into a giant Freudian metaphor worthy of Iris Murdoch, and doing it all with the subway pacing of a thriller. Few books so deserve the appellation of unputdownable, but as Ullman rips layer after layer from the phenomenological buffer of the world, her book can't be lowered, even as the reader wants to pause and tour its crevices.

Ullman is the author of a cult memoir, Close to the Machine, about the early days of the computer programming industry, and the well-received semi-thriller The Bug. Hers is an updated noir aesthetic, finding the dark sheen of trench coats and back alleys in the shifting shadows of psychology and sexuality. One can easily imagine Phillip Marlowe feeling his way through the crepuscular corridors of her nameless narrator's mind.

As for that nameless narrator, he's on leave from a university after a scandal involving one of his male students, and has moved to San Francisco to hide out while the college's ethics committee takes its Kafkaesque time. Most likely manic depressive -- Ullman describes his behavior without worrying over his diagnosis, which is refreshing -- the narrator is hounded by what he calls the crows, black voices that seduce him toward stalking and voyeurism. He takes a room in a jaded office building where he hopes to complete in isolation some project that is never even conceived, for right next door is a psychoanalyst, and our narrator, hungry for anything to distract him from his own crumbling life, becomes quite the eavesdropper.

Most of Ullman's novel consists of the overheard sessions between the psychoanalyst and her most troubled patient, a young financial analyst who, having come to the end of her rope with her adoptive parents, is pondering tracking down her birth mother. The narrator desperately wants the patient to detach herself from both sets of parents, so as to prove that the poison that lurks within both of them is neither nature nor nurture -- for if our demons are self-created, they can be self-destroyed. When the patient's search turns up dead ends, the narrator takes it upon himself to find her origins and deliver them via subterfuge, implicating himself in a moral miasma that is as delightful to untangle as any murder mystery.

How we get from there to the Holocaust is best left to Ullman's novel itself. If all the coincidences and lucky dodges that bridge the plot of By Blood aren't always to be believed, neither are those of any mystery story, in the sense of order and causation those intricately-plotted tales project onto the world. And anyway, Ullman so confidently portrays her characters in the midst of the reveal that the revelations cease to matter all that much. The patient's conversations with each mother -- the first in which her "big M mother" narrates the troubled adoption process, the second in which her birth mother tells a dismal tale of concentration camp survival -- are masterful vignettes of dialogue, history, and simmering resentment. That all this retains such force, even as it is relayed via exposition to a psychoanalyst and heard through a wall by an anonymous narrator, is a testament to Ullman's brawny craft.

The substance of Ullman's novel is so engaging that it's a shame she flings it by us so fast. By Blood is told in quick snippets, with each chapter averaging two or three pages; continuous scenes are cleaved for no more reason than the cliffhanger cadence.

Such a technique drives the story on, but at the cost of the increasingly devilish details. This reader will admit to taking down huge chunks of the novel in the time it took to get to Midtown, and while it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, too many of the second half's twists and turns whooshed by like an A train. The premise's psychological conceit -- the psychoanalyst-as-conflicted-superego and narrator-as-clawing-id is almost too obvious -- required more time to seep into the oak, and the characters' complex emotions, so well extracted, deserved to respond to events rather than just react to them. The downside to the novel's thriller pacing is an overreliance on the thriller's indigenous need for more information -- the root of suspense, Kenneth Burke reminds us, but also the least satisfying form of it.

There are, of course, worse problems for a novel to have than the inducement to read it again. A second trip through the tunnels of By Blood would no doubt reward even more thanks to Ullman's potent prose and fertile images. The narrator looks out over "the restless back of the ocean"; "a slender hand knifed through" the closing space between elevator doors; water "licked" at the patient in a pool; and after a particularly confessional session, "patient and doctor were languorous, like lovers after sex."

These examples were chosen at random; there are dozens more where they came from. They reveal a writer in complete control of her text, assuredly executing the same dynamic insights on all levels of prose, plotting, and philosophy. By Blood dunks us deep into this multifarious world; my only request is that, next time, perhaps the author could let us sink on our own.

By Blood by Ellen Ullman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374117559
384 pages