I stumbled upon Michelle Herman’s most recent novel, Dog, quite by accident. I was wandering around the book store looking for nothing in particular when the cover caught my eye. As you can see above, it has a very cute puppy on the cover. Being a dog owner, and having a weakness for puppies, I was drawn to see what this short novel was all about. I was further intrigued when I found out that the author was from the same town (Columbus, Ohio) and was a professor at Ohio State University. Given the size, the topic, and the fact that the author was local and might be talked into an interview, I figured I had to buy this book.
I did buy the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I will admit it was not the type of work I usually read: female author, female lead character, heavy on inner thoughts and emotions, etc. But I found the characters endearing, the writing honest and insightful, and the wry tone just right.
J.T. (she found her given name Jill too “girlish,” too “lightweight”) Rosen is a poet and professor at a Midwestern university. Unmarried, childless, and solitary, she is settled in her way of life. She has the house she adores set up just the way she wants it (built-in bookcases, reading lights in every room, tchotchkes placed just so) and has grown accustomed to being alone. Having given up on romance and nearly abandoned hope of close friendship, she nevertheless has a quiet sense of something missing.
One night she finds herself having rather morbid thoughts about being alone and ends up Googling the name of the town she lives in and “adoption,” “foster,” and “home.” What turns up, to her surprise, is hits about dogs, not children. Soon she is clicking into these sites and, almost by accident, deciding to adopt a dog:
It had all occurred almost without her participation. The website, the photograph, the phone call, the visit—all of it, as if she had been sleepwalking.
Suddenly, she has a dog. She finds her life has become a situational comedy, or what she thinks of as a situational comedy (not having watched television since she moved out of her parents house):
The thrust of the situation being that she’d soon be forty-five, with fifty just around the corner, that she was a tenured professor with two volumes of poetry to her name—neither one in print now, but they could be found in libraries, and in boxes in a closet in her office on campus—a charming wood-frame house, and that her life now boiled down to the care of one small dog.
Now this doesn’t seem like a terribly interesting plot does it? A middle-aged woman learns to take care of a dog. But like Herman’s other writing, plot is not the point here. Instead, she uses this situation to describe and explore the experience Rosen finds herself in. Herman looks back on Rosen’s early romances (a boyfriend named Phillip like the dog, in particular), her lack of friendship, her struggle to fit in to the academic world, even her relationship with her family.
The descriptions and emotions involved ring true. Here is a section where Rosen looks back on her expectations when entering academia:
When she had first begun this job, had moved from New York City to the Midwest, she had imagined that she would be among friends always. It pained her now to think of this. She had imagined a world in which people spoke of, thought of, nothing but books—in which there would be cocktail parties where people drew their heads together close to talk about a new poem in The Nation, the new book by Robert Hass, the miracle of Bishop; where they would quote Berryman, make arcane jokes that featured Pound or Joyce, press brand-new novels upon one another (“You must read this at once! and call me, no matter how late, and tell me what you think!”), exchange list of favorites, desert-island books, the books you knew you had to reread at least once before you died.
Herman captures these type of moments and thoughts perfectly (and there are a number of these moments in Dog). And I think this is what makes her writing interesting—outside of the obvious skill she brings to description, inner dialogue, etc.—her writing is almost emotional and psychological cartography. It is something everyone can relate to and wrestle with, and yet, because Herman’s characters are just different enough from us, the exploration is fresh and new.
Dog is a short, quiet little book, but it is a pleasure to read. Herman’s creative ability to capture the thoughts and emotions of her characters and her lively prose make her short works aesthetically pleasing and intellectually insightful. They may be small but they pack an understated punch. If you are looking for something different to read this summer, and something that is easy to take with you, I would encourage you to pick up Dog.