The Litblog Co-op is pleased to announce its Autumn 2006 Read This! Selection: Firmin by Sam Savage (Coffee House Press, 2006). The weeks ahead will include a chat with the author and discussion about Firmin by members of the LBC.
We will remind you of the other considered titles over the next two days, and having week-long discussions and posts by LBC members taking up the pros and cons of each title. Firmin will be discussed the week of November 6th, three weeks away, which you gives you plenty of time to find the book, read it, and join the discussion.
Now we present Ed Champion, who nominated Firmin, as he explains why you should Read This!
I picked it up at BEA. The only thing I knew about it was that this was a story told from the perspective of a rat. I figured that, at the very least, this would be great airplane reading, something that might serve in lieu of or, if mediocre, in addition to those tiny little bottles they charge you too much money for. After all, the book was slim and, given BEA’s commercial atmosphere, a tale told by a rodent seemed only fitting on the way back to San Francisco.
I was entirely unprepared to read a wry and remarkably thoughtful book about the state of imagination in American society. The book had teeth, perhaps a continuously growing set of rodent-like incisors ground to manageable size so that the teeth in question wouldn’t puncture the brain. Sam Savage had kept the page count lean, but certainly hadn’t skimped out on the thoughtful ambiguities beyond it.
I don’t believe there’s any way to describe the book without it sounding preposterous, but the book concerns itself with Firmin, a rat who, through mere taste, has the capacity to read literature at an astonishing rate. He scurries through Boston’s infamous Scollay Square, just before the square was cemented over by the City of Boston, attending peep shows and exploring the interconnected buildings, in search of food and in search of meaning. Abandoned by his family and unable to interact with his humans, save through recurrent allusions to people he’s “talked to” at bars, he retreats instead into books, finding solace and a new existence. A pulp science fiction writer named Jerry Magoon takes Firmin under his care, offering compassion and unintentional enlightenment. But residing at the center of all of this is a more troubling dilemma: Firmin is alone and books serve as a way, perhaps the only way, for him to subsist.
The books, however, are Firmin’s downfall, as apocalyptic in nature as Scollay Square’s sad fate and Magoon’s visions. Even from the onset, Firmin cannot settle upon a proper first line to describe his story. That Firmin himself boasts of gorging upon the books instead of understanding what’s inside them suggests a character willing to grope at anything to fight a terrible isolation that he is often vague or disingenuous about. And could it be that the tale we are reading here is not one written by a rat, but one of an outcast so thoroughly ignored by society, that he is reduced to feeding on humanity’s leftovers?
That Savage suggests all this without sacrificing his panache for gallows humor (such as Firmin’s first experience with rat poison pellets) is a testament of his talent. Firmin challenges our narrative assumptions by presenting us with a tale told by a rat, signifying perhaps both nothing and everything, about the relationship between reality and fiction. It can be read as a literal entertainment or a multilayered parable about gentrification and the palliatives and pitfalls of imagination.
It is a novel well worth your time.