The Book Rat Project: Week Four



The Book Rat Project, a sustained experiment in which a book critic (me) will attempt to act as a human algorithm for a willing subject (my Phoenix colleague Will Delman), sprints into its third week.  After his tepid response to The Rook and his qualified embrace of The Orphan Master's Son, I told him to read Ellen Ullman's latest novel, By Blood. Here's his take:

I came into By Blood cold; I'd missed Ellen Ullman's first two books, Close to the Machine and The Bug. After picking it up from Eugenia a day late and checking the page count I decided I didn't even have time to read the jacket. The moment I was on the train back to Salem I turned the cover and started reading. Almost at once I was struck by Ullman's narrative voice-deeply and obviously influenced by the Max Brod translations of Kafka's longer works-and her ambitious, if obvious, experiment in meta-story.

A neurotic, disgraced professor narrates the story, set in the 70s. He's on an imposed sabbatical in San Francisco and has taken an office in an odd, slightly rundown building. The walls are thin, and he finds himself endlessly distracted by the voices that bleed in from next door: those of a German psychologist and one of her patients. Before long, the professor becomes obsessed with the patient's life: her difficulties as a lesbian, her struggles with her adoptive parents, her quest to find her birth mother. When her investigation into her origins stalls, the professor feels compelled to find a way to help. Each new discovery he makes amplifies his obsession.

I found By Blood to be a fascinating exploration of character and identity. The professor, the patient and the therapist are forced to confront the secrets, lies and demons that have driven their lives. This is a meticulously crafted novel in which each of the characters is deeply fleshed and touchingly flawed. Even though Ullman never uses quotation marks, I never wondered who was speaking because each voice is so strong and distinctive. The entire story is carried off with a confidence that's admirable and occasionally intoxicating.

Strange to say, but I was left feeling that not much had actually happened by the end. A great many things occur, sure, but the pacing is so consistent, the tone so uniform, that I often found myself emotionally removed from scenes and tempted to skip sentences, if not entire paragraphs.

I had trouble  with the voice of the professor. For an American in the 70s, he sounds more like Joseph K. of Kafka's The Trial. This made him hard to take seriously for the first hundred-plus pages. I also couldn't escape the feeling that this was novel by an artist still in the process of finding her voice. I kept thinking By Blood should have been the prodigy of The White Hotel and Little Kingdoms, but it wasn't meant to be.

Still, By Blood rewarded my perseverance with big ideas and more than a few passages of glowing prose. In short, this is a novel that's worth the time and energy of any literary-fiction lover and serious fans of psychologically driven narratives are guaranteed to be pleased.

The Book Rat letter grade: B+


From this review, I've hypothesized that the subject is fond of giving B+'s. Can I ever land an A? I believe the subject might be fatigued by a long, difficult novel. And so, for this week, a palette cleanser: Curse the Names by Robert Arellano, a Hitchcockian thriller set in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. I chose it because it looks awesome and is under 200 pages. Also, Arellano has a really good beard:



 Check back next week for a full review, and follow the Book Rat's daily updates on Twitter.




| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
PageViews Archives