Sunday, July 05, 2009

Firmin by Sam Savage

Anyone who has taught an intro to creative writing class is wary of books narrated by non-humans and I was seriously disturbed by my childhood reading of Stuart Little (though E.B. White is one of my all-time favorite authors, I say if you want to put young people off of the idea of sex for awhile just let them believe that they might give birth to a mouse) it took me years to come around to reading this novel, narrated by a rat, despite only having heard positive reviews. But when I was browsing the bookstore, and I pulled it off the shelf to read a page or two with the idea of getting it from the library if I liked it, I saw the book had a bite taken out of it. I mean the publisher had faked a large bite going all the way through. So I had to take it home. (some books are like puppies, they cannot be left in the store). Publishers are getting a little wonky nowadays with their panic over the Internet and the Economy and the End of Art Appreciation ...but I firmly approve of a little bravery and innovation when it comes to the physical object of the book. And it turns out a chunk missing from the side of the book makes for a very comfortable resting place for my thumb. I'm thinking of carving out little thumbholders in all my books.

Anyway...the content: in the past in my studies of anthropomorphism in fiction I've talked about how doglike is the dog or how tortoiselike is the tortoise, but this isn't a novel about rats, it's a novel about reading. It reminded me more of Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader or Walker Percy's The Moviegoer than it did any animal books. So why not write about a person, rather than a rat, who reads-and fantasizes his life more than lives it--well, I think maybe while we know lots of people like that (and some of us may be a little bit like that ourselves), they aren't the most sympathetic characters when they're all passive and reading and unhappy. But a rat who is reading--well, he actually seems really active, an over-achiever. And when he's unhappy, it's understandable--he's a rat, and while he can read, he can neither talk nor type nor execute sign language (all of which he tries). It reminded me of a children's book author who talked about how she could have animal characters push each other out of trees, but obviously you couldn't have child characters doing that. So sometimes it's useful to write about the things that humans do, without using actual humans. Readers are more sympathetic. In the end, while Firmin gets a lot out of reading (and movie watching and music listening)--the novel makes clear that a life that's all reading is not all of a life. (clever, huh?) So it's pretty sad in the end. Not entirely a novel For Me, but I appreciated it all the same.

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