By Blood

By Blood

3.9 19
by Ellen Ullman

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The award-winning writer returns with a major, absorbing, atmospheric novel that takes on the most dramatic and profoundly personal subject matter

San Francisco in the 1970s. Free love has given way to radical feminism, psychedelic ecstasy to hard-edged gloom. The Zodiac Killer stalks the streets. A disgraced professor takes an office in a downtown tower

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The award-winning writer returns with a major, absorbing, atmospheric novel that takes on the most dramatic and profoundly personal subject matter

San Francisco in the 1970s. Free love has given way to radical feminism, psychedelic ecstasy to hard-edged gloom. The Zodiac Killer stalks the streets. A disgraced professor takes an office in a downtown tower to plot his return. But the walls are thin and he’s distracted by voices from next door—his neighbor is a psychologist, and one of her patients dislikes the hum of the white-noise machine. And so he begins to hear about the patient’s troubles with her female lover, her conflicts with her adoptive, avowedly WASP family, and her quest to track down her birth mother. The professor is not just absorbed but enraptured. And the further he is pulled into the patient’s recounting of her dramas—and the most profound questions of her own identity—the more he needs the story to move forward. The patient’s questions about her birth family have led her to a Catholic charity that trafficked freshly baptized orphans out of Germany after World War II. But confronted with this new self— “I have no idea what it means to say ‘I’m a Jew’”—the patient finds her search stalled. Armed with the few details he’s gleaned, the professor takes up the quest and quickly finds the patient’s mother in records from a German displaced-persons camp. But he can’t let on that he’s been eavesdropping, so he mocks up a reply from an adoption agency the patient has contacted and drops it in the mail. Through the wall, he hears how his dear patient is energized by the news, and so is he. He unearths more clues and invests more and more in this secret, fraught, triangular relationship: himself, the patient, and her therapist, who is herself German. His research leads them deep into the history of displaced-persons camps, of postwar Zionism, and—most troubling of all—of the Nazi Lebensborn program.

With ferocious intelligence and an enthralling, magnetic prose, Ellen Ullman weaves a dark and brilliant, intensely personal novel that feels as big and timeless as it is sharp and timely. It is an ambitious work that establishes her as a major writer.

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Editorial Reviews

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.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times,andThe New Yorker.

Reviewer: Tess Taylor

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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BY BLOOD (Chapter 1)

I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me. At the end of it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changed me, although I never learned her name.

My involvement with the young woman in question began several years ago, in the late summer of 1974, while I was on leave from the university. I sought to secure for myself a small office in the downtown business district of San Francisco, where I intended to prepare a series of lectures about The Eumenides—The Kindly Ones—the third play in Aeschylus’s great trilogy. A limited budget brought me to the edge of a rough, depressed neighborhood. And my first sighting of the prospective office building—eight begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time—nearly caused me to retrace my steps.

Yet there was no question of my turning back. Immediately upon my arrival in San Francisco, a month earlier, a great gloom had descended upon me. I had arranged my leave in great haste; I knew no one in the area. And it must have been this isolation that had engendered in me a particularly obdurate spell of the nervous condition to which I had been subject since boyhood. Although I was then a grown man of fifty years, the illness, as ever, cast me back into the dark emotions of my preadolescence, as if I remained unchanged the desperate boy of twelve I had been. Indeed, the very purpose of the office was to act as a counterweight to this most recent spell, to get me dressed and out of the house, to force me to walk on public streets among people, to immerse myself, however anonymously, in the general hum of society; and in this way, perhaps, sustain the gestures of normal life.

It was therefore imperative that I do battle with my trepidations. I suppressed my fears of the neighborhood and my distress at the building’s dreary mien. We were in the midst of the Great Stagflation, I reminded myself. The whole city (indeed the entire country) had a blasted, exhausted air. Why should the building before me not be similarly afflicted? I therefore turned my gaze from the eyeless gargoyles, told myself there was no reason to be unnerved by the shuttered bar on the ground floor (whose sign creaked in San Francisco’s seemingly perpetual wind). Somewhat emboldened by these mental devices, I took the final steps to the entryway.

I opened the door to a flash of white: a lobby clad entirely in brilliant marble. So clean and smooth was this marble that one had the sudden impression of having entered a foreign landscape, a snowy whiteout, where depth perception was faulty. Through the glare I seemed to see three cherubs floating above the elevators, their eyes of black onyx, which, as I watched in fright, appeared to be moving. It took some moments to understand what hung before me: elevator floor indicators, in the form of bronze cherubs, their eyes circling to watch the floor numbers as the cars rose and fell.

To the right of the elevators was a stairway, above it a sign directing visitors to the manager’s office on the mezzanine. I climbed this short flight—its marble steps concave from years of wear—then I followed the manager into the elevator and rode with him up to the eighth floor (the cherubim ogling us, I imagined). He led me along hallways lined with great slabs of marble wainscoting, each four feet wide and as tall as an average man of the nineteenth century. Finally we stood before a door of tenderly varnished fruitwood, its fittings—knob, back plate, hinges, lock, mail slot—all oxidized to a burnt golden patina.

The room he showed me was very small. The desk, settee, and bookcase it contained were battered. The transom above the door had been painted shut. But I had already decided, on the strength of the building’s interior materials—clearly chosen to withstand the insult of time—that this would be my office. So with the manager’s agreement to restore the transom to working order, I signed a one-year lease, to commence in three days, the first of August. And then throughout the first weeks of my tenancy, while I struggled to regain my footing and begin my project, I was calmed by the currents of dark, cool air that flowed through the transom (the sort of mysterious air that seems to remain undisturbed for decades in the deep interiors of old buildings), and by the sight of the aged Hotel Palace across the way, where I could, in certain lights, see the doings of guests not prudent enough to close their shades.

Each weekday, I rode downtown on the streetcar, anticipating the pleasures of sitting at my desk, the rumble of the traffic eight stories below me. Before reaching the city center, however, one had to pass a grim procession of empty storefronts, vacant lots, and derelict buildings—a particularly blighted district. Nevertheless, despite the proliferation of such neighborhoods, the good San Franciscans seemed to rouse themselves each morning to perform at least the motions of civic life, producing an air (however false) of gainful industry. This impression of restorative public energy helped me to put myself aside, so to speak, and by month’s end I had made progress on my lectures, producing my first coherent set of notes.

Then, shortly after Labor Day, as I sat down to draft the first talk in the series, I found that the acoustical qualities of the office, previously so regenerative, had abruptly changed. Cutting through the pleasant social drone from the streets below, superseding it in both pitch and constancy, was an odd whirring sound, like wind rushing through a keyhole. And just audible above the whir, coming in uneven and therefore intrusive intervals, was a speaking voice, but only its sibilants and dentalizations—only the tongue and teeth, as it were. I am certain it was only the general darkness of my mood, but I felt there was something mocking and threatening in this sibilance, for the sound drew me to it the way a cat is lured—psst, psst—for drowning.

I jumped up from my desk determined to know the source of these intrusions. Immediately I suspected the doors to the adjoining offices. My room, small as it was, had two interior doors to what were once communicating offices, both doors now kept locked. Aside from noticing the fine wood of which they were made, I had paid these vestigial entryways no attention, as I had never heard anything issuing from them. Indeed, I had had no awareness of the other offices at all, my goal in securing my own room having been, as I have said, to find a place outside of my own life, so to speak, to immerse myself in a general, anonymous social sea.

Now forced to consider the reality of the tenants around me, I went out into the hall. The stenciled letters on the office door to my left identified its occupants as “Consulting Engineers.” I moved my ear closer and heard nothing, but through the frosted glass in the door’s upper portion (unlike my office, many doors retained their original etched-glass panels, with finely wrought patterns), I could make out two heads moving, as if over a desk or drafting table. The only odd thing I noticed about this office was that its number was out of sequence, being 803, whereas mine was 807, and my other neighbor’s 804. I then recalled the building manager saying, when I signed the lease, that tenants, as they changed offices over the years, were permitted to take their numbers with them as long as they remained on the same floor, their suite numbers obviously constituting some kind of property or identity. And indeed, as I looked around the hallway, I saw that the office numbers were a complete jumble, 832 next to 812 next to 887, and so on, indicating that the lessees had proved themselves loyal to the building and to the eighth floor but were otherwise restless and inconstant. I wondered for a moment if I should want to retain 807 in the event that I should move away from my neighbor, and I decided that I would, for there was something orderly in the descent from eight to seven passing around zero, and, in the number 7, perhaps an aura of luck.

Rousing myself from these distractions and resuming the surveillance of my neighbors, I came to the office on my right, number 804. As I drew closer, the whir became unmistakable, as did the voice. There was no glass panel in this door; its gold letters simply read, “Dora Schussler, Ph.D.”

I stood immobile in the hall for some seconds. My first association with the designation “Ph.D.” was that this Dr. Schussler should be an academic like myself, and that she and I should coexist quite well, her time being spent in the quiet pursuits of reading and writing. Why, then, was there this whirring, and this persistent hissing? And why hadn’t I heard it from the first, on the day I inspected what was then my still prospective office, thereby preventing me from being bound to such an incompatible neighbor?

These questions (posed to myself with an aggrieved, affronted, indignant air) distracted me from seeing the truth of my situation, which became clear only as I stared at the swirls of the ancient, wear-darkened broadloom that lined the hall. I recalled the first time I had ever heard a sound like the one issuing from Dr. Schussler’s office, which had been many years ago, in the office of one of the many therapists I had had reason to visit during the course of my life. In the waiting area, there had been a small beige plastic machine, placed on the floor, which had given off just such a whir, its role being to blur the clarity of the spoken word that might be audible from the therapeutic offices, thereby preventing anyone, as he waited, from understanding what was being said within (though I myself, still a young man, often tried to overhear, telling myself such curiosity was natural). With great force, the whole period of time surrounding my meetings with the psychotherapist came back to me, and I could see quite clearly the little yellow lamp she kept on a low table beside her, and the vine that covered the single north-facing window, its leaves perpetually trembling.

I did not wish to recall this portion of my life, especially not at the office where I had sought to escape the great black drapery of my nervous condition. Indeed, finding myself tied to such an enterprise seemed to me an evil joke, as I had wagered both my emotional health and my professional reputation against the efficacy of the therapeutic relationship. Over the course of thirty-five years—meeting weekly, twice a week, sometimes daily—I had looked across small rooms into the bewildered, pitiable faces of counselors, therapists, social workers, analysts, and psychiatrists, each inordinately concerned about his or her own professional nomenclature, credentials, theories, accreditations; all of them, in the end, indistinguishable to me. Now, still battling the hooded view of life that had haunted my family for generations, I had come to the conclusion that their well-meaning talking cures, except as applied to the most ordinary of unhappinesses, were useless.

What now could I do to separate myself from this Dora Schussler? How could I escape her analysands with all their fruitless self-examinations, beside whom I was now obligated to spend the remaining eleven months of my lease? I had no legal recourse, I realized. I could not go to the manager and say I had been duped, my neighbor had been hushed, paid off to silence the babblings of her profession on the day I had first surveyed the premises. The situation of my room had not been maliciously misrepresented. I had engaged the office in August, iconic month of the therapeutic hiatus. It was now September. Dr. Dora Schussler, Ph.D. and psychotherapist, was back at work.

By blood Copyright 2012 by Ellen Ullman

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