Rear Window meets Sophie’s Choice and Wally Lamb
Ellen Ullman has written a page turning, thought provoking, disturbing book that is fascinating even though it doesn’t completely succeed
2 of the central 3 characters are unnamed. What is particularly interesting is that all 3, for different reasons, are unreliable narrators. Unreliable narrators appeal I think precisely because they leave the reader a little wary, a little unsure whether they can trust what they are discovering and being told. The unreliable narrator prevents reading complacency, and requires the reader to do a bit of assessment. It’s a little edgy, spending time with such a narrator.
The book is set in San Francisco in 1974. The narrator who reveals the stories he hears and makes conclusions on, is an educated man, a University professor. However, for some reason he is not actually working at the moment. He is under disciplinary investigation, the subject of a student harassment complaint . He appears to have a mental health history, making reference, repeatedly, to `the crows’ – some symbol of ever lurking depression. He has spent a lot of time in therapy. Unsuccessfully, with a series of therapists.
He rents a room in an office building to complete some research and course work. The building itself seems to have some not quite neutral atmosphere – or this may of course be our narrator just being unreliable. He discovers his next door office neighbour (whom he never meets) is a German psychotherapist. She appears to have a complex history of her own, as he overhears, through the thin walls, in her phone conversations with her supervisor.
She uses a white noise machine to ensure no one hears the conversations of her patients (even though she thinks the adjoining office is empty) However, one patient objects strongly to the noise of the machine, so it is switched off for her sessions.
It is these that our professor hears, and quickly becomes obsessed with this patient, going so far as, listening, to begin to think of her as his patient `my dear patient’ as he repeatedly refers to her in his head. In fact, he begins to influence the course of her treatment, by circuitous means. Again, he never sees her, but has fantasised and become obsessed by her, and by the therapist, because the patient’s unfolding story resonates for him.
There is a whole subtext around trying to escape from personal history, around whether there is any freedom in individual identity, the nurture /nature debate. Issues of transference and counter-transference.
There is also another story which weaves in and out, a real story, concerning another `unreliable witness’ – Patty Hearst. Hearst, wealthy daughter of the publishing family, was kidnapped by a left-wing guerrilla group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, in 1974. Within a few short weeks Hearst had been `turned’ and became a fully fledged guerrilla with the group, and took part in bank robberies. Later captured, espousing group ideology, she was sentenced to a long prison term, though released after a couple of years, reputedly a classic victim of The Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages form attachments to their captors. The Hearst story reinforces the search for `who am I’ which the book’s journey is all about, and issues of control, and how one person controls another
The `about’ of this book is excellently absorbing, however, I struggled at times with Ullman’s writing, which can be clunky. Lots of shorthand phrases get repeated, ad nauseam – the crows, the endless reiteration of `my dear patient’ which became overlaboured and wearing. Her professor narrator certainly is pedantic, but some of his (or, possibly the author’s own) choices of language just seemed unrealistic and unnatural – particularly as these are `in his head’ rather than spoken or written.
A couple of examples
But I was stronger than they were; the patient was my shield; the demons did not ensorcell me
And, describing heavy rainfall:
It might have been the rain, which fell with deluvian determination
This type of writing just seems clumsy.
And the shocking ending, which I didn’t see coming, felt absolutely contrived. The author playing with the reader. I wondered whether she had copped out on her narrative
However, I am still thinking about the complex themes the author engaged with, and how well the unreliable trio of narrators worked, adding depth to a story which might have been arranged more simply, without the presence of our eavesdropping principal. That extra layer, the therapy filtered through the eavesdropper, was most engaging, and the psychology which she explores, cultural and personal and the narrative drive, did hold me. Perhaps next time an editor will work magic on poor writing constructs.
Nonetheless, a thank you to Cleopatra Loves Books where I first found this book flagged up.
PS Despite the title, I’m relieved that no vampires were evoked, invoked or in any way given page room in the writing of this book!