Ellen Ullman’s throbbing new novel, By Blood, tells the story of an eavesdropping neighbor with a compulsive attention to sound.
Ah, the voyeur, literature’s most beloved creep. Voyeurism, now so inextricably written into our contemporary psychology, hardly needs an introduction. Usually driven by scopophilia (the love of looking), voyeurs fix their gaze on the unaware other, and their drive is typically sexual in nature.
So what happens when we are presented with a voyeur who trades looking for listening? What happens when we use our ears instead of our eyes to penetrate the other’s private realm? What is the aural version of a scopophile? Ellen Ullman’s latest novel, By Blood, offers us a voyeur who embodies this strange twist – he’s a peeping tom who can’t actually see the woman he’s watching.
A disgraced professor (we never learn exactly what he’s done, but does it really matter?) with a history of mental disturbance rents an office in downtown San Francisco and discovers that the neighboring office belongs to a psychoanalyst. Luckily for his obsessive tendencies, one of her patients despises the whirr of the white noise machine, and he’s gifted with hours and hours of pure overheard therapy. He quickly becomes obsessed with the patient, an adopted lesbian who is toying with the possibility of finding her birth parents. As he begins stalking her solely through auditory signals, we quickly find ourselves in the more covert realm of voyeurism, that of the eavesdropper. In between the private and the public there is a thin wall, and our narrator has his ear pressed right up against it.
Sitting in the dark, making himself invisible, he is reeled in by one of the most seductive and overlooked qualities of all: sound. “She had inherited the more profound interior configuration of the body: the subtle crenellations of lung and diaphragm and sinuses, the delicate architecture of the airways; all which combine to produce that aspect which is last noted but finally most determinant of one’s overall feelings about a person….that which can make the plainest woman magnetic, the most visually lovely one an irritant: the voice.”
Her voice carries him into her narrative, an analysis centering around her adoption, or as she likes to call it, her “mysterious origins.” The narrative becomes perfectly triangulated when the analyst’s past makes treating her patient almost impossible; the countertransference (the analyst’s emotional entanglement with her patient’s case) proves to be just one more snarl in this seductive web that Ullman spins.
Upon listening, his ears become such attuned little radios, attenuated to every small noise. He’s able to suss out the shift of pantyhose (“cicada-like”), the inhalations, the sighs, the lighting of the post-therapeutic cigarette. Ullman allows us to revel in the seductive pull of the audible, ramping up the sex of every sound.
Set in early 70’s San Francisco, Ullman’s highly stylized prose walks along the backbone of that heightened era, teasing out the center of binary opposites: liberation and capture, public and private, voyeur and exhibitionist.
The voyeur asks the exhibitionist: are we really that different? Aren’t we both, in essence, trying to be seen?
Our narrator’s opening statement, the very first line of the book, “I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me,” sets the creepy tone. Yet he’s not a convicted criminal (yet), and part of his trajectory is learning how to safely use the other. Our disgraced professor can only begin his path of self-discovery through safely using the patient’s narrative as an entry point for his own problems.
Ullman’s insight into character is astounding. She writes of the professor’s darkness: “It was a time of the truest of lonelinesses (since loneliness is plural various in its aspects and effects); and by this I mean not simply the absence of companionship but a complete estrangement from all feelings except self-loathing. The world tolerated me, I believed, only because of my subterfuge: the fraud I perpetrated which fooled them into thinking I was human.”
It’s so easy to write our protagonist off as a creep. In fact the novel hints that you should find him despicable. But isn’t more interesting to ask what drives his desire? Freud wrote that “analysis shows us in a shadowy way how the fact of a child at a very early age listening to his parents copulating may set up his first sexual excitation, and how that event may, owing to its after-effects, act as a starting-point for the child’s whole sexual development.” It could be that there are two camps of people: those whose sexual introduction comes first through the eyes, and the other, through the ears. When one overhears, there is much to be left to interpretation and fantasy. Perhaps our disgraced professor, like many of us, finds himself in murky sexual territory, because he is stuck in the realm of fantasy. He is unable to deal with his own psychological mire, and instead chooses to live vicariously through the other.
Our protagonist, who seems to be drawn in a way in which we are encouraged to find him odious, sits in the dark, sustaining his silence, in order to weave together not only the threads of the patient’s life, but also unknowingly, his own. So why was it so easy to relate to this “creep”? Because in his hushed state of hiding, we see ourselves. By choosing a voyeur as the narrator, Ullman allows us position ourselves at a safe distance from the act we readers are also engaged in: voyeurism.
What is reading if not the ultimate act of voyeurism? Who could be more “safely” situated than the reader? The act of reading is the greatest perversion; we readers are such creeps –yet it’s important to ask what is behind our literary perversion. What dark creature turns the wheel of that machine? Ultimately perversion is an attempt to get closer to something perceived unattainable. The other. The object of desire. How do we get close to all of the things that seem beyond us? Sometimes, we start by listening.
The etymology of the term eavesdrop comes from a literal spot, that of standing under the eave of a home, next to the tiny opening where private sounds from the house are audible. The physical positioning of the eavesdrop makes it so that the listener, should it rain, would likely get wet (erotic implied.) Our professor observes, “as always, we analysands dangle ourselves before the fire only when we know it is about to go out”. Similarly we readers hang out, under the eaves, ears peeled, where we’re sure to get wet. Ullman is a master of seduction, and By Blood is a glorious downpour.
By Blood takes place on a single inhale. Ullman allows us to inhale, and makes us hold that uncomfortable, oxygen-draining pose, for the entire novel, as she winds us through the knotted, anxious web between voyeur, patient, and analyst. The eavesdropper inhabits a liminal border space, a wall, straddling the private and the public. Ullman makes her readers take the same stance, and the constant threat of danger gives the entire novel a charged unrequited sexual state of agitation. She allows us to exhale literally on the last page, in a type of exhaustion, rather than jouissance. I closed the last page, breathless and wiped out. By Blood is an affirmation that not only is the novel nowhere near dead, it’s panting breathlessly in the next room.