The very first thing you notice about Ellen Ullman's new novel, By Blood, is that its narrator is overwrought, practically hysterical and talks like Vincent Price at a retirement party. Among his first few utterances, the disgraced English professor claims that isolation, "engendered in me a particularly obdurate spell of the nervous condition to which I had been subject since boyhood." It's as if Ullman plucked her hero out of 1874 and plunked him down a century later.
We're in the San Francisco of 1974 — Patty Hearst, feminist collectives, The Castro — but the web of secrets and the neurasthenic, bumbling narrator-detective who untangles them, is all Edgar Allan Poe: "The fifth deluged day found me still in bed, in dirty pajamas, watching rainwater seep slowly under my door. Out on the beach, no one appeared but a single haunted soul in a black, hooded jacket: a suicide, I thought, surveying the sea for riptides."
On mandated leave from his university post — until his "case" (of inappropriate obsession) is reviewed by an ethics committee — the moody professor rents an office in a building crowned by eyeless gargoyles in a crummy section of town, planning to "escape the great black drapery" of his condition by working on a series of lectures about "The Eumenides." He soon discovers, to his utter dismay, that his office shares a paper-thin wall with that of a psychotherapist.
The professor can hear every intake of breath, every "lifting of a haunch." Cast abruptly into the not altogether unfamiliar position of eavesdropper, the professor becomes quickly obsessed with a young female patient.
At first his interest is prurient — the patient is a lesbian, a thrill right out of the gate for the male voyeur ("Beautiful legs in stomping boots!"). Then, it turns personal. The patient, it's quickly revealed, is adopted. Or, in her words, not adopted: "I have mysterious origins!" And her doctor wants her to work out her feelings about it.
The professor, his suicidal gloominess most certainly genetic, can't resist the idea that as an adoptee, the patient has full license to extricate herself from "the clammy hand of ancestry," that she is "a model of self-creation," that, crouched darkly, ear to the wall, he can find deep intimacy with her, and perhaps therein find the path to his own psychic emancipation.
There is a high-camp aspect to the professor and his gothic ways, but with his canny brand of empathy, he is the only one who can properly synthesize what turns out to be the incredibly complicated plot of the patient's origins, which are rooted in Nazi Germany and deeply layered with secrets, shame, collaboration, self-loathing and masquerade. The analyst is implicated, the birth mother obfuscates, the eavesdropper keeps butting in, and the patient, faceless on the other side of the wall, just wants to know who she looks like.
The unwitting stalker in "The Man of the Crowd" — a Poe story that has to have had some small part in inspiring Ullman — observes: "Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burden so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And there the essence of all crime is undivulged."
By Blood is about the undivulged — about psychology, legacy, obsessions and storytelling. Like analysis, it has urgency — as if, by talking and talking, a solution will be found. Like history, it extends in all directions. There is no real starting point, no end, perspectives are muddled, and consequences have no logic. Like the best novels, it's irresistible — twisty-turny, insightful, revelatory — funny when it's tragic, and complicated when it's funny.