By Blood


By Blood In Ellen Ullman’s searing novel about storytelling and the hunt for belonging, By Blood, the disturbing signals come early. Our unnamed narrator, who we slowly learn is a professor under suspicion for unclear but pseudo-sexual misconduct, has been forced to take leave from a similarly nameless university. He has decided to pass out his exile in the hairy, radical, and dark atmosphere of 1970s San Francisco, a setting akin to but standing in marked contrast to the Silicon Valley of a decade later, where the author set her previous novel Bug. This is the Bay Area before its tech-fueled transformation, caked in an uneasy mixture of grime and politics, with nary a foodie or a wine country tour in sight. The gritty gray of a Hitchcock noir is overlaid with a psychedelic smoky sheen, and our narrator — the erstwhile professor of some unnamed topic — ranges through a slightly decaying fortress that houses transient people, radical subcultures, and perhaps even a serial killer.
The professor seems to have no real human attachments. He is planning to endure the chagrin of his conscripted year off writing a few papers on something so arcane even he can barely repeat it and that anyone reading this book will immediately forget. To complete this task, he has rented an office in a part of downtown that was nice perhaps thirty or forty years before, a faded, painted-over remnant of a more golden time. Clearly unfamiliar with the weather of San Francisco, he has taken a house in the cold fog of the deceptively named Sunset District, where the ocean is a tempest, the wind always blows, and the air is never warm.
Cloaked in this unmoored and unmooring anonymity, the narrator nonetheless attaches himself to an intimate adventure. His office is adjacent to a therapist’s office, and during one particular session, he discovers that one patient has chosen to have the noise machine that would mask the sound of her and her therapist’s voice turned off. He quickly succumbs to a kind of aural voyeurism, and By Blood becomes the  tale of an almost obsessive desire to unravel a mystery. The patient is a lesbian who seems at first to be sorting out whether or not to stay with her radical feminist partner. The partner annoys the patient by planting every avocado pit into a recycled yogurt container, by never shaving her legs. These mild aggravations prove, however, to be only the cover for a deeper story: The patient is adopted. She has what she calls “mysterious origins.”  She decides to embark on a hunt for her birth mother.
And as the professor listens to the patient unraveling her way back to this primal knowledge, he finds himself unable to refrain from tuning in to her weekly sessions. And indeed, neither can we: The plot has thickened. The patient believes that some scant evidence she has gleaned will lead her back to a displaced persons camp — the limbo zone where Jews were kept after the concentration camps were liberated in 1945. The patient is suddenly no longer an adopted WASP but instead a displaced Jew, the child of Holocaust survivors. The professor, overhearing her anguish, decides to research the case on her behalf.
The ensuing pages nest stories inside stories — the patient making a trip to Israel, the patient recuperating and playing a tape of the incredible story she eventually does find. We read as the narrator listens to the patient listen to her own central narrative. As the patient’s origins shift, we are left to wonder if her own path back to her fascinating and traumatic birth story will help her or not. Will her discovery turn out to be a source of closure or, rather, the source of new trauma? It is fitting that as we perch, peering through the professor’s eyes, listening through his narrative, that it dawns on us that we never really see him clearly. He is an enigmatic host, an unfinished figure overhearing someone else’s unfinished and perhaps un-finishable tale.
There are one or two moments when this otherwise skillful book gets bogged down in narrating the complex history of European Jews in the period following World War II. It’s a fascinating chapter, but occasionally its mode seems a tad didactic, more tuned toward pedantry than storytelling. This is only noticeable because the rest of the book is so effortless and wholly engrossing. The narrator’s darkly refracted city is in flux, fraught and throbbing, reaching an almost hysterical tremor.
The book’s ending feels both abrupt and inevitable. And it offers a wrenching meditation on what it means to be a reader — the “hypocrite lecteur” Baudelaire once named — the grubby spy with an ear cocked to the next office, holding his breath, hanging on the next word.