By Blood

Ellen Ullman

A disgraced college professor moves to San Francisco in the late summer of 1974 while his school investigates him for an inappropriate relationship with a student. Hoping to work on a series lectures during his exile, he rents the cheapest office he can find and describes a dreary building with “begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time.” In the marble lobby, the elevators are overseen by bronze cherubs whose eyes circle to watch the cars rising and falling. The floors are inhabited by an array of tenants behind frosted glass doors, and he settles in to begin working. After a couple weeks, he arrives to find a new whirring noise and discovers he rented the office adjacent to a psychologist during her annual summer leave. As he is trying to adjust to this new development, suddenly the noise machine goes silent, and the voice of a client comes through saying, “Thanks. You know I hate that thing.”

After a moment of reasoning, he decides that making his presence known would be more of an imposition than listening and, besides, “How could I see myself as a trespasser when I had so little comprehension of what I was overhearing?” But as the weeks goes on, he gets invested in this client’s story and eagerly awaits her hour in the office next door. As a readers, we become complicit in this transgression, and the book shines an interesting light on the voyeuristic nature of fiction when narrated by a semi-omniscient source. Do these characters want their stories told?

Aside from a few instances where narrative devices seem overly contrived — for one, I find it highly unlikely that someone would record a conversation they had and bring that to their therapy session — the story is so engrossing and rooted in big questions of identity and history that I skipped over those qualms. Much like Are You My Mother? it’s probably not for people who feel that listening to people talk about therapy is boring, since the vast majority of the book is our professor eavesdropping on sessions.

I had no expectations piled against this book (to be honest, I put it on my list primarily because I’d been looking for a writer with the last name U so have something for my alphabetical by author archive page and couldn’t bring myself to read John Updike), so I was floored by how much I loved it. I’m now quite interested to read Close to the Machine, Ullman’s memoir about being a pioneering female programmer.