Firmin by Sam Savage
Posted January 1, 2007on:
One day Chuang Tzu fell asleep, and while he slept
he dreamed that he was a butterfly, flying happily about,
And this butterfly did not know that it was Chuang Tzu
dreaming. Then he awoke, to all appearances himself
again, but now he did not know whether he was a man
dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly
dreaming that he was a man.
–*THE TEACHINGS OF CHUANG TZU
Firmin is deceptive. At a modest 148 pages I assumed that the novel could not be much. The character Firmin is a rat, a well-read one, but a rat. In the first few pages you would never suspect it and even at the end you are left to wonder. Firmin’s life, as he tells to us, is one largely formed by a series of fantasies and illusions, of his misguided acts and sugar spun theories about himself and others, ones that are inevitably torn down and ruined. The episodes are based purely on memory, which we all know can be quite unreliable, especially, one thinks, with one such as Firmin who is so inclined to make-believe that the line between it and reality must often blur.
His life is one of dissatisfaction, of thwarted literary ambition, insatiate lust and defective relationships (such as they are). Flo, his mother, was an obese alcoholic who birthed 13 offspring of which Firmin was the “pip-squeak”, the runt of the litter. They lived in the basement of a used book store in Scollay square in Boston during the 60’s, an area that by various descriptions, something approaching a slum. At meals, his mother’s maternal instincts dulled by alcohol and his sibling’s thought only for their own stomachs, Firmin was forced to seek sustenance elsewhere and he found it in books. First he ate the shredded papers of what he liked to think was at turns “Moby Dick” or “Finnegan’s Wake” that made up the family’s bed and the he moved on to basement stock. He develops a voracious appetite for books, regularly overeating until his stomach is grossly distended and he is cramped with pain. “The concept of addiction is not rich enough, deep enough, to describe this hunger. I would rather call it love. Inchoate perhaps, perverted even, unrequited certainly, but love all the same”. The parallels to the professed reader’s ardour for the written word are obvious. (To my experiences at certain points, anyway. Perhaps others were always more genteel in their habit.)
His gorging on pages led to a figurative gorging on words and soon he is reading everything in the basement and on the book store shelves upstairs: from Christian pamphlets to books on building construction, to Stendhal. Literature is Firmin’s succour and sanctum, an escape from the crude, rodent reality he observes in his family and in himself when looks in the mirror. Indeed on one level his talent is not very good for him. He is a rat, the lowest of rodents, unique in his thoughts and abilities, with no like-minded counterpart in the world, certainly not in Scollay Square. Indeed he does not care at all for his species, would much prefer to be human and be treated as one when this is clearly impossible. He daily observes Norman, the owner of the book shop, lovingly noting his every move, pronouncing him a caring, capital fellow, something of a father figure, based on his book knowledge of phrenology. Inevitably he is disillusioned and in the most cruel manner. And we see this is as cruel because Savage constructs a humanised rat to whom we can relate. The reader responds to Firmin in a way the other human characters in the story could never do.
Firmin’s other sanctum is a cheap, dirty cinema that shows classic shoot-’em-up westerns and heady musicals during the day and pornography at night. Since books had become purely intellectual fare Firmin needed another source of sustenance and there he could feast on half-eaten popcorn and hot dog leftovers to sate that hunger while watching naked women gyrate on rugs to arouse another. This path of sexual desire, first inflamed when he spotted a censored girlie poster in an alley, made him a “pervert and a freak”. His fleeting lust for his sister’s “furry behind” was what was normal, the lust for woman a complete aberration. For me this was illogically the opposite as I had long since begun to treat him as a human and would often be startled when he did “ratty” things like nibbling on toilet paper—don’t do that Firmin it’s gross!–or ruffling in the garbage.
But is he a rat? Firmin declares that one of his many frustrations sprung from the fact that he could neither write nor speak. Yet in the first chapter he opens it as a writer ruminating over the difficulties of writing a novel’s first lines and ends the discussion with a “Hopeless. Scratch it.” Throughout the story he shares parts of conversations he supposedly had with persons he met at bars. His complete immersion in books and films, his constant fantasising about himself acting out scenes in books or creating new ones with involving himself and Norman or Jerry Magoon (a neighbourhood author), leads one to believe that any suggestion he gives that he is not a rat is nothing more than a contribution to the illusion. “I have not been able to get around much in the so-called real world, but I have done a lot of travelling in my head, ridding my thoughts this way and that.” I guess it is his exceptional skill at depicting these travels that leads me to speculate whether this tale of rat is just such another journey.
Savage is great at grounding us in Firmin’s physical reality from a rat’s perspective as he is scurrying through the pipe system in buildings, avoiding people in the street. His use of onomatopoeias to convey the “thump” of “man-people” coming down the stairs into the basement, or the “kerplop” of his drunk mother falling into bed before the start of a feeding frenzy, is particularly effective and gives a real jolt of pleasure (for reasons I can’t explain, it just worked for me). And one can’t forget that one moment of normal animal lust when Firmin caught a whiff of his sister’s butt.
In the end I am more inclined to believe that Firmin as what he said. Savage’s creation of this charming, arrogant, earnest and eloquent rat who lived a life of emotional complexity, who at turns disgusted and provoked sympathy, is one that everyone should read and witness.
*One of the opening quotes in the novel