All of us eavesdrop, even when we try not to do so. The ear craves narrative; and so we listen. The news, our family stories, even the snatches of conversation caroming around the street, all of it gives us a preview of history’s melody. But what about us - the listener? Are we not implicated in the music we hear?
Those questions are at the heart of Ellen Ullman’s extraordinary new novel, in which the reader becomes a kind of eavesdropper, three times over. In San Francisco in the 1970s, a feverish academic overhears an analyst counseling a young woman in the office next door to his.
Ullman’s splenetic narrator is a glorious and strange recorder of this woman’s story, and, less straightforwardly, his own life. Proceeding in bursts of hydraulic prose, “By Blood’’ evokes San Francisco in all its stagflation gloom: the erotic danger of its night life, the coded nature of its transactions.
In other sections, Ullman’s narrator presses his ear firmly to the wall and follows the ongoing story of this patient. Adopted as a child, the woman has torched her way through a series of bad romantic relationships with women. And she is beginning to wonder if she should search for her birth mother. When the woman’s analyst, a German émigré, attempts to steer her patient away from serious digging, Ullman’s narrator steps in - and starts mailing the patient clues to her mother’s true identity.
“By Blood’’ takes so many unexpected turns it would require most of this review space to catalog them. The largest and most successful is how the patient’s story evolves from a story about a woman’s dating life into a powerful tale that reminds how deeply the Holocaust haunted the exodus to Israel.
The unlikely bridge between these threads, again, is Ullman’s narrator. He not only eavesdrops but begins assisting the patient, writing to her in the name of the Catholic charity she contacted for help in finding her birth mother. Ultimately, the information he provides is so provocative the patient boards a plane to a country far away, so she can sit down with a woman whose story eventually takes over this novel with its mesmerizing power.
Ullman’s narrator is an unlikely but fascinating guide. Chased out of a university job for some kind of obsessive infraction, he waits out his judgment during the day in his downtown office, counting down the hours until the patient’s next session. By night he lives by himself in a small oceanside apartment, a neurotic reincarnation of a noir character from the 1940s.
Except it is San Francisco in the 1970s, so wherever Ullman’s narrator lurks, he overhears snatches of news about Patty Hearst, the creep and seethe of the Zodiac killer case. Each event causes him to wonder about the nature of blood, how much of our programming it really contains.
As helpful as these gestures are to place “By Blood,’’ they are not necessary because its exquisitely plotted form - a man listening to a therapy session, within which unfolds another woman’s moving testimony - is so riveting. Not since Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint’’ will a reader encounter a talking cure so rich and strange, so full of occult news of the family.
Ullman beautifully re-creates the rhythms and rituals of analysis: the rising crescendos, the confrontations, and weirdly chaste, cooing conclusions. Over the course of the novel, as her narrator grows obsessed to the point of collapse, Ullman layers these sounds onto the city’s pulse and wheeze. As a result the book feels less like a story than a living organism.
This is a fallacy, however, one driven home by the book’s shocking climax. We do not, Ullman’s tale reminds, listen neutrally. To hear, or for that matter, to read, is to take a story within ourselves, to find its originating note there. One could spend all the years of a life wrestling with what this says of us, our capacity for evil. Or one can simply live. Improbably, beautifully, “By Blood’’ suggests they are the same activity.John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’