30 March 2013

By Blood (Ellen Ullman)

"Thought-provoking" gets trotted out in book reviews and blurbs with some regularity. Not so much around here, though--except for once, in my rave about The Master and Margarita--which isn't surprising, since I'm more a Feel All the Feels type of gal than a Novel of Ideas fan. But it's time to use it again in quite literal reference to Ellen Ullman's By Blood; because every time I try to formulate a sentence about this novel, I end up with two questions, an intellectual experience less frustrating than it is exciting. I really wish I'd read it for a book club, cause I wanna jaw about it like whoa.

In an attempt to keep this cogent (you know, spring-Saturday cogent), I'm sticking to musings on two themes/topics/motifs/whatevs: eavesdropping and inheritance. The former's what makes the book possible: a disgraced professor discovers his rented San Francisco office abuts a therapist's, and since one patient dislikes the white-noise generator, he can hear every word of her weekly sessions. An obsessive, depressive, only slightly hinged man, the professor quickly becomes obsessed with her story, sitting with lights off and bated breath as she relates the details of her life: she's a financial analyst, a non-political lesbian (which gets her a lot of guff in 1974), and--most fascinating to him, for reasons that gradually become clear--adopted.

This eavesdropping comes in layers: the patient's sessions, which eventually entail weeks of a tape recording she's made; the therapist's phone calls to her own counselor, struggling with counter-transference; conversations told at a remove. It's a nebulous narrative, the stacking up of different forms of hearsay, multiple tiers of truths. And it struck me, cataloging these indirect forms, that every novel is an act of eavesdropping, the reader listening in on only into the minds of characters but of authors. And I'd never thought of it quite that way.

While eavesdropping catalyzes the plot, inheritance and identity propel it forward. The patient, at first, deflects the therapist's desire to discuss her adopted status, insisting "I am not adopted! I have mysterious origins!" It's this initial reluctance that most endears her to the professor, for he would give much to escape his own origins, a legacy of madness and suicide. He believes the patient
should [revel] in the unknown possibilities of her future. Everyone has his own genetic fate written inside him--his own complement of mental predispositions, weaker organs waiting to fail, more or less likely routes upon which he will encounter death. But what good does it do to know it? Knowledge is not a relief. The burden is not lessened by the sense of its not being one's own fault, not a failure of will, of intent, of virtue. One is just as subject to this fate, the fate of this body, its Furies.
(I do adore this 19th-century-tinged prose.) But the therapist keeps pushing, and the patient finally confronts her brittle, cold adoptive mother, learning that she was brought as an infant from post-WWII Europe by a Catholic agency--she's shocked, as her father was virulently anti-Catholic, and further shaken when she discovers her birth mother was actually German--and Jewish. The patient's research skills fail at this point, and it's the professor who, unbeknownst to her, takes up the quest, sending her documents under an assumed name. He's determined to somehow show her that her ancestors do not define her, believing this to be the only way to slip free of his own. The therapist, too, is haunted by her parentage, as the daughter of an SS officer instrumental in rounding up the Jews of France. All three struggle between knowledge and fear, the void of the unknown (reinforced by both patient and professor remaining unnamed) and the terrible abyss of the real. And for the reader, it's captivating.

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