By Blood

By Ellen Ullman

Parul Sehgal, New York Times Book Review, Feb. 24, 2012

Pythagoras said the world was made of numbers; Democritus insisted upon atoms; Empedocles, four primordial elements — fire, air, water, earth. But Plato loved triangles. In his schema, matter was made up of triangles in kaleidoscopic configurations, triangles themselves divisible into tinier triangles. Triangles begat triangles. They were the essential unit.

Literature, I’d hazard, would agree.

The triangle has been the essential scaffolding for the novel; from its wobbliness emerges such productive instability. Take away the triangle, and Adam and Eve would still be simple-mindedly tending to their garden; Oedipus would leave mom alone; Vronsky wouldn’t stand a chance; and Freud would be out of a job. And literature would be bereft without the love triangle in all its variations — one party dead (“Rebecca”), oblivious (“Othello”), mad (“Jane Eyre”) or a pile of old letters (“The Aspern Papers”).

Despite this abundance of triangles, some still have the power to surprise. Such is the case with Ellen Ullman’s smart, slippery “By Blood,” which features a triangle so odd and improbable, it’s almost a riddle. Explain how a man can become fixated on two women without (a) seeing them, or (b) being seen by them.

Here’s how: It’s the summer of 1974. San Francisco is at its seamiest, stinking of sexual license, sexual menace and rotting garbage. Stagflation holds steady; a “defeated army” of homeless Vietnam vets occupy the city’s empty lots; the Zodiac killer is at large.

Into these insalubrious surroundings enters a nameless and magnificently weird protagonist, a disgraced professor and classic unreliably unreliable narrator, the spawn of Kafka and Krafft-Ebing, squirrelly and vaguely deviant. Ullman, skirting dangerously close to Gothic camp, pushes him just shy of caricature. He’s forever lugubriously alluding to “the terrible darkness within me” and his “morbid and afflicted” imagination — without showing us much evidence of anything other than low-grade prurience and torpor. While under investigation by the university for some unspecified infraction, he’s installed himself in a rented office, where he intends to prepare lectures on “The Eumenides,” the third part of the “Oresteia” (yet another story built on the back of a love triangle).

But lo — he finds, first to his consternation and then to his vast delight, another drama unfolding, one as wild and fanged as Aeschylus’. In the office next door, Dr. Dora Schussler, psychotherapist, sees her patients. And our man can hear every word.

He is taken with one patient: a young lesbian, also left nameless. It’s love at first listen, and not just because of the patient’s “creamy alto.” It’s her predicament. She is adopted and just beginning to pluck at the skein of secrets obscuring her origins. Our narrator comes from dreadful suicide-smitten stock — “My aunt Selma once said I had the temperament of Uncle Harry: Did this include whatever bad thing he had done with his gun?” — and this patient fills him with admiration. “Why,” he asks, “could I not learn the art of being parentless from these adoptees: these very models of self-creation?”

As the patient begins turning up clues (her birth mother was a Holocaust survivor) and her inquiries begin taking her to history’s painful places (where she discovers — what else? — triangles), it becomes clear to our diligent eavesdropper that Dr. Schussler may have a few secrets of her own. Her family too is twisted at the root. She too envies the patient, saying into a recorder: “She could shed her family and I could not. Her attachment to them was not ‘real,’ they were not blut, she had inherited nothing from them but experience, which can be discussed, analyzed, understood, changed. But I carried in me — what? . . . A stain.”

Ullman arranges her players efficiently, expertly. But what astounds is how she binds them to one another. Keith Richards said, “The eyes are the whores of the senses.” “By Blood” takes place on a whole other realm of the senses, an ignored, insulted realm. How does our eavesdropper fall in thrall to the women next door? He listens to them. He learns their sounds. The “suggestive, teasing” noise of a single tissue being pulled from its box. The scrape — followed by the acrid smell of phosphorous — that indicates Dr. Schussler has lighted another cigarette. The “cicada-like slip-slip” that puzzles him at first and then becomes clear: the doctor is crossing and recrossing her legs; it’s “the slide of nylon upon nylon.”

How beautifully this book restores to us the uses, the sensuality of sound — our awareness of how much information we are passively gleaning and unconsciously filing away. The narrator wonders why he automatically assumes the psychiatrist is an older woman. And then it comes to him. It’s the “slip-slip.” It’s 1974; young women don’t wear nylons anymore.

He pulls whole histories from the voices of the two women: age, race, geography, class. When he first hears the patient speak, he senses an inner censor, a “little watchful person who stood guard over her speech, . . . carefully ushering her confused A’s and R’s into the proper halls of culture.” He studies the effect the voice has on his limbic system, becomes a scientist of sound: the “profound interior configuration of the body, the subtle crenelations of lung and diaphragm and sinuses, the delicate architecture of the airways; all of which combine to produce that aspect which is last noted but finally most determinant of one’s overall feelings about a person: . . . the voice.”

But this book, which leans so heavily on dialogue, isn’t merely about voices; it’s about speech, about how we use language to conceal what we mean, as all language is code.

And code is, of course, Ullman’s great theme. In the 1970s she was a computer programmer, and her books “The Bug” (2003) and “Close to the Machine” (1997) were early dispatches from this mysterious world. She wrote of its rituals, pleasures, isolation, of how her body seemed to vanish during her marathon coding sessions, of how patiently and pain­stakingly meaning was coaxed. “Our physical selves have been battered away,” she said in “Close to the Machine.” “Now we know each other in one way and one way only: the code.”

All these elements run through “By Blood.” Our narrator, hanging on every word of his beloved patient’s story, is rendered bodiless, only a pair of ears in a dark room. In the next office, the psychotherapist wheedles admissions from the patient. The patient wrests secrets from her mother. It is as Irvin Yalom (himself a psychotherapist) said: we are compulsive “meaning-seeking creatures.”

The novel itself is an information technology, one that withholds information strategically for the sake of our pleasure. It’s a narrative striptease. And Ullman has such fun with it. What a cast of master prevaricators she gives us, how far she makes them travel. And in the end, after their journey, she asks: “Does it matter? Does it matter who your father is? Your mother? Who are the exact people who dropped their blood into the container that is you?”

In an Op-Ed in The New York Times last year, Ullman, herself adopted, argued forcefully in favor of mystery. She wrote of giving “not-knowing its due,” of “the sense of uniqueness that comes from having unknown origins.” But she’s also written elsewhere that where essays explain, literature enacts. In her Op-Ed, she said birth origins don’t matter; in “By Blood,” she shows us that they matter, intensely — if only because we cannot keep from seeking them out, whatever the risk, whatever we may find. And how could we not? The triangle is lodged deep in our narrative and literal DNA. We are each of us born of two. We each of us have created the first triangle we know, the original, ­irreconcilable equation.

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