Post-modern, 30-something and single - it's no way to live.
"It's a dog's life," we say. The phrase implies some combination of creature comforts, torpor, uselessness, an acquiescence in both pats and kicks, and perhaps, like a dog, an inability to fully understand, learn from or even remember one's experience.
"Housebroken," the title piece in Israeli journalist Yael Hedaya's newly-translated volume of three novellas portrays three characters living a dog's life - a man, a woman and the dog they adopt on their first, blind date, on their way to her apartment to sleep together. The adoption, like much else in their relationship, is a diversion that neither of them considers deeply or feels, at first, any responsibility for. But soon they both come to feel involved with the dog, just as - like agitated atoms colliding blindly until they bond - they do with one another.
The man is 33, a producer of commercials, the woman a freelance translator, age 30; they're the sophisticated bourgeoisie. The dog, an orphaned mongrel, is the smartest of the three, clear from the start that he wants a home, love, someone to feed him. The man and the woman, their deep needs unconfessed, unable to care for themselves emotionally and armored by their self-degrading insistence on personal independence, have no ability to plan a future, individually or together. They are strong-willed but weak-minded; they can't say what they want, but no one's going to tell them what to do. Bored, restless, anxious, needy, both are pulled along by events without knowing where they're headed.
Thus, the morning after, she asks, "Will we keep in touch?" The man answers finally, "I don't know." Still, he comes back that evening, and she cooks for him. Neither has an idea of what could or should happen next, but she's grateful that he's there in her kitchen and her bed. The stray is now a pet. (He's also a real character, not merely a symbol, and the writing is often deliciously allusive: "She had taken him into her house from the street, without asking any questions, without knowing anything about his past, where he had been, and with whom.")
In their ambiguous situation, the small signs and gestures that the man and the woman make to each other are, not surprisingly, misunderstood. She kindly leaves him sleeping the second morning with a note telling him there's no milk in the fridge. He, waking, feels abandoned, inconvenienced, and departs with no answering note. She's disappointed that he didn't buy milk - it would have told her something - but feels "consoled" that he took the apartment key she left for him.
And so it goes. They each have a sentimentalized attachment to the idea of marriage and family, but there are no rules, no road. They're like dogs, doing what comes next. He gradually moves in, begins to love her. She's equivocal but doesn't want to lose him. Some inarticulate emotional hydroponics breeds misery between them, as the mood of one seems to engender the opposite mood in the other.
They talk of breaking up, and though he finally tells her he loves her, even that brings no balm. They make love like dogs and meanwhile move the dog onto the landing, where he develops a psychosomatic drooping of his hindquarters, from which he recovers only when the man finally moves out.
But half a year later, the man returns, and the story circles back to the flash-forward from which it began: The dog bites off a kindly old neighbor lady's ear and lets himself be taken away by the dog-catchers - the humane society, though the author does not call it that - to be quarantined and destroyed, the only one of them who won't accept living "a dog's life" any longer.
The same themes of men and women too shamed and threatened by what they want to make a path to it or to each other is even more caustically developed in "The Happiness Game." Maya, a 30-year-old PhD candidate not too involved in her studies, becomes lovers with nurseryman Nathan, 34 - always at his apartment, by arrangement and never on weekends. He doesn't even know where she lives. When she visits him by surprise one Friday afternoon, she discovers that he has another, more serious girlfriend, Sigal, a kibbutznik prettier and younger than she. And yet Maya, who seems to be repeating the pattern of her parents' damaged marriage, keeps coming back on weekdays, keeps falling in love with him, not wanting to lose him.
In "Matti," a married man of 40, the father of two children, is dying of a brain tumor. Narrated alternately by his wife and by his former girlfriend - 15 when he had a year-long affair with her 10 years before, and who cast a ghostly shadow over his marriage because he still loved her - the story grippingly charts his decline into something less than fully human. After he has sunk into a final coma, the wife and ex-girlfriend meet at the hospice where he is interned and have a kind of reconciliation.
Throughout this book, Hedaya's first to be translated into English, we meet self-involved men with expectations that a woman will take care of them and women who are smart, sad, full of unmet needs and willing to try. But the volume is no tract, for the writing, which is tight, wise and cannily indirect, draws both men and women characters with a rich depth. The translation makes the book seem composed in an original, easy English. The combined narrations in the third novella are not completely successful, but the only true misstep here is the author's photo on the dust jacket, which shows her eye to eye at a table edge with a ceramic frog.
It's a cliché worth forgiving.