Hasta la vista Not this time: Dont expect redemption in heartbreaking Dahlia

The Terminator is many things — an enemy, a protector, a futuristic killing machine with a heart of gold.

But a philosopher? Not exactly — unless “Your clothes. Give them to me” has some as-yet-undiscovered Kantian subtext.

So it’s a gutsy move for Elisa Albert to quote the T-101 (aka our governor as a cyborg) in the epigraph to her first novel, “The Book of Dahlia.” Not usually one to care about epigraphs, I did a double take. Was she trying to be funny? Ironic? Sarcastic? Was the line — “Anger is more useful than despair” — just too fitting, even if it came from “Terminator 3”?

As it turns out, all of the above.

The titular Dahlia — we discover after an opening scene of her smoking pot, watching VH1 and having a grand mal seizure — is sick. Specifically, she has a brain tumor, which will probably kill her within 10 months.

In most other contexts, Dahlia would have been eligible for our pity. But in the caustic hands of Albert (previously known for her short story collection, “How Is This Night Different”), the 29-year-old Jewish trustafarian may be one of the least likeable heroines of modern literature.

Not that that’s a bad thing.

Albert gives Dahlia all the worst qualities of the “millennium generation.” Cynical, sneering and ungrateful, Dahlia derides the hippy-dippy “how to beat cancer” books her parents buy for her and mocks every attempt at cheer and optimism.

Yet for all her sardonic, too-cool-for-school attitude, Dahlia has a tender underside, which comes through in flashes of poignant regret for decisions she made before she settles back into her trademark bitterness.

Most of the book flashes back to Dahlia’s past as she tries to figure out the Why of her cancer — what horrible thing in her life contributed to the poisoning of her body. But the more appropriate question might be, What didn’t contribute?

Raised by her milquetoast American father in Los Angeles after her Israeli mother all but abandons the family, Dahlia grows up in a chronically unhappy home — made especially bad by her vile creep of a brother, whose behavior toward his younger sister is tantamount to psychological torture.

An awkward adolescence follows, with Dahlia’s mother, Margalit, making promises to visit from Israel and rarely following through. Her blonde private-school classmates shun her. To mask the pain, Dahlia cuts herself with a razor.

An older Dahlia makes friends, but through recklessness, disloyalty and just plain laziness, she loses nearly all of them. Jobless and aimless, she does drugs, seduces friends’ boyfriends and ruthlessly takes advantage of her rich daddy’s platinum card.

But Dahlia will never get a chance to turn her life around. There’s no redemption here — just a few short months to look back on her disappointing life before it comes to an unceremonious end.

Dahlia’s contemptuous attitude shoots through the pages like venom. She isn’t raging against the dying of the light, she is raging against the people who hurt her so badly. It’s an all-consuming hatred that almost makes her indifferent to death.

At its heart, “The Book of Dahlia” is a study of the young, urban, disaffected Jew. Dahlia indicts religion for its hypocrisy (her brother continues to torment her even after he becomes a rabbi), yet she has strange, primal urges to attend High Holy Day services and speak Hebrew. Her struggle between the tantalizing secular world and an innate sense of her Judaism is subtle, but will be painfully recognizable to a certain 20-something set.

The book isn’t perfect — it dates itself with too many superfluous pop culture references, and its tendency toward run-on sentences and logorrhea is often uncomfortably reminiscent of a Mark Morford column on SFGate. And Dahlia herself can be extremely hard to take — at times I wanted to scream at her for being such a brat.

But as unlikable as Dahlia is, there’s something oddly loveable about her. At the very least, I wanted to slap her across the face and then give her a big hug. I would never be friends with this girl — but her train wreck of a life kept me fascinated until the end.

You won’t expect “The Book of Dahlia” to end on a happy note, and it doesn’t. The last lines may be some of the most tragic and chilling I’ve ever read — and they’re a wonderful conclusion to an ambitious and heartbreaking novel.

“The Book of Dahlia” by Elisa Albert (288 pages, Free Press, $23)