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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.