Lives in stories have direction and meaning. Even stupid, meaningless lives, like Lenny's in Of Mice and Men, acquire through their places in a story at least the dignity and meaning of being Stupid, Meaningless Lives, the consolation of being exemplars of something. In real life you do not get even that. ― Sam Savage, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife
Children’s books are often populated by anthropomorphic creatures but I doubt many of them would know what the word ‘anthropomorphic’ actually means. (Mental image of Winnie-the-Pooh staring blankly at me.) Firmin is not a children’s book. True, it’s narrated by an anthropomorphic rat but he’s a rat who’s quite comfortable with terms like ‘anthropomorphic’, ‘defoliated’, ‘philoprogenitiveness’ and ‘winze’. He’s a rat who knows he’s a rat but rather suspects he ought not to have been:
Firmin: fur-man. Ridiculous. The chin, or the lack thereof, caused me special pain. It seemed to point—though in fact this nonentity was incapable of anything as bold as pointing—to a gross lack of moral fibre. And I thought the dark bulging eyes gave me a revoltingly froglike air. It was, in short, a shifty, dishonest face, untrustworthy, the face of a really low character. Firmin the vermin.
The big problem for a writer when giving an animal human attributes is what level of anthropomorphisation to settle on. The animals inhabiting Hundred Acre Wood are effectively human in all but appearance; they don’t behave like animals. No doubt Pooh Bear does shit in the woods but I expect he wipes and flushes afterwards and then, in case Christopher Robin asks, washes his paws. On the other end we have Watership Down where the rabbits behave much like rabbits but interact like humans: they have conversations, use names, have a belief system. Firmin veers towards this end. He has a mother—Flo—and twelve siblings: Sweeny, Chucky, Luweena, Feenie, Mutt, Peewee, Shunt, Pudding, Elvis, Elvina, Humphrey and Honeychild; no mention of a dad. Firmin is the runt of the litter.
Having narrowly escaped with her life and well aware her time is close at hand Flo takes refuge in what turns out to be the basement of a Boston bookstore and as she can do nothing to defer delivery she improvises as best she can:
Sadly Firmin never chances upon a second copy. Ford Madox Ford, Pound, Dostoyevsky, Strindberg, Jack London, Stevenson (Robert Louis I’m assuming) and Balzac—all Big Ones—but never again Finnegans Wake although he does devour (metaphorically this time) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. You see Firmin is a reader. He’s the kind of reader even the most voracious of us could only imagine being and that kind of hunger can never be sated. And it’s hunger that first drives Firmin to books, literal hunger. He can’t get enough food from his mother—the other twelve see to that—and so Firmin starts nibbling their bedding:
Despite the fact that I was barely out of my infancy, I think it fair to call this moment the beginning of the end for me. Like many things that start as small, illicit pleasures, paper chewing soon became a habit, with its own imperative, and then an addiction, a mortal hunger whose satisfaction was so delightful that I would often hesitate to pounce on the first free tit. I would instead stand there chewing until the wad in my mouth had softened to a delectable paste that I could mash against the roof of my mouth or mould into interesting shapes with my tongue and safely swallow.
This change in diet affects the young pup in an unexpected way:
I am convinced that these masticated pages furnished the nutritional foundation for—and perhaps even directly caused—what I with modesty shall call my unusual mental development.
Growing bored of the taste of what he calls “the Great Book” Firmin starts to investigate the other volumes in the basement:
My devourings at first were crude, orgiastic, unfocused, piggy—a mouthful of Faulkner was a mouthful of Flaubert as far as I was concerned—though I soon began to notice subtle differences. I noticed first that each book had a different flavour—sweet, bitter, sour, bittersweet, rancid, salty, tart. I also noticed that each flavour—and, as time passed and my senses grew more acute, the flavour of each page, each sentence, and finally each word—brought with it an array of images, representations in the mind of things I knew nothing about from my very limited experiences in the so-called real world…
At first I just ate, happily gnawing and chewing, guided by the dictates of taste. But soon I began to read here and there around the edges of my meals. And as time passed I read more and chewed less until finally I was spending almost all my waking hours reading and chewed only on the margins. And oh, how I then regretted those dreadful holes! In some cases, where there were no other copies, I have had to wait years to fill the gaps. I am not proud of this.
In time his mother abandons them—after briefly showing her progeny how to forage without her—and soon Firmin’s siblings also take their leave. Now he’s alone and free to indulge his passions. He starts to explore his world and realises that the basement holds only the dregs; there’s a treasure-trove of world literature in the floors above him.
Rats, however, cannot live on words alone and so literal hunger induces him to venture into the streets outside. It’s not a nice place and, as it’s infested with rats, there’s much competition but he eventually finds a safe place to fill his belly; it is here that another kind of hunger is awakened:
A combination movie theatre and flophouse, the Rialto stayed open twenty-four hours a day. Half the audience was there only to sleep—it was cheaper than a room and warmer than a street. It was known affectionately as the Scratch House, and most rats avoided it because of the vermin, a voracious population of fleas and lice, and also because of the reek—a stench of old people, poor people, sweat and jism, mixed with the stink of the pesticides and disinfectants they dumped in once a week. But to me, given my temperament, that seemed a small price to pay. The Rialto screened old movies during the day and evening, perhaps forty films in all, which it continuously recirculated, in order to maintain a front of shabby respectability. Then at midnight, when the citizenry and its censors were tucked in bed and the cops could safely look the other way, it would switch over to pornography. At the stroke of midnight, a halt, scratched, and flickering Charlie Chan or Gene Autry would come to a clattering stop in midreel. Utter darkness would follow, a few short minutes of coughing and shuffling, and then the projector would whirr back to life, and even its sound would seem younger, brighter. The change was spectacular.
The creature is torn. Between knowledge and lust, between the Big Ones and his Lovelies. Firmin may not be fond of looking in mirrors but he does hold up a mirror for us to look at ourselves. He is our proxy. And it’s clear he’s deluded and becoming increasingly so. As he says, “I must constantly remind myself, sometimes by means of a rap on the head, that Eisenhower is real while Oliver Twist is not.” He becomes fixated on the bookshop owner and imagines some affinity exists between them. If only he could communicate but, unlike Winnie-the-Pooh, Firmin is incapable of verbalisation:
I was never able to get beyond a few incomprehensible variations on the basic squeak. Here is Hamlet, dagger in hand: squeak squeak squeak. (And there is Firmin crushed beneath a barrage of boos and seat cushions.) I do better with the lines where Macbeth talks of life being a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing: a few pathetic squeaks serve pretty well there. Oh, what a clown! I laugh, in order not to weep—which, of course, I also cannot do. Or laugh either, for that matter, except in my head, where it is more painful than tears.
He considers sign language but it brings its own problems:
I soon discovered that whoever had devised this silent language had intended it for creatures equipped with fingers. With what I had in the way of feet and claws, I found it impossible to stammer out even the most rudimentary phrases. I could manage at best a kind of digital stutter. I stood in front of the mirror, painful as that was, and balancing on the rim of the sink, struggled to say in sign, “What do you like to read?” I tried letting my body stand for a palm and my legs for fingers and then midway through the phrase changed the principle and let my forelegs stand for arms and my hind legs for thumbs. Slapping my chest now, then crossing my legs, then curling up in a ball, I flung myself frantically about like a man with his clothes on fire. It was useless.
He’s trapped within his own head. But he has a vivid and active imagination and so lives his life there quite comfortably. Although he doesn’t write things down as such he does become a writer, “writing in [his] dreams”. But, of course, he finds he can’t avoid humans forever. The bookseller may have failed to live up to his expectations but after an ill-advised trip to a park where he gets injured Firmin finds himself in the company of Jerry Magoon:
He actually may not be any of the things listed on his business card—other than being E. J. Magoon—but he is a writer. Has Firmin met his soul mate?
In an interview Savage says:
The character Firmin is almost based on the character in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. He has the same manner of speaking to the reader as "you." In Notes from Underground, the character will say, "You find me ridiculous, don't you?" Firmin also does that. Firmin speaks about himself that way. "I'm a despicable character. I'm a sick man, I'm a weak man, and I think my liver is diseased," is how Notes from Underground begins. So Firmin had a very conscious relation to Dostoevsky. It's hard to say Dostoevsky's an influence, because that sounds so incredibly pretentious. […] I wouldn't want to say an influence, exactly.
He was not a young man when he wrote Firmin. He’s been writing all his life, poems mainly most of which he says were not very good, and he had ideas for novels but they never quite got off the ground. Eventually he gave up. For five years he stopped thinking of himself as a writer. And then one day the words came back. One night he wrote a page and a half in the voice of what he thought was a failed writer, inspired, as he says above, by Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. In a profile in Poets & Writers he explains what happened afterward:
The next morning he read what he had written and—ping—he thought, “‘Jesus, this is a rat!’ That seemed like the perfect outsider, the perfect metaphor for exclusion, because a rat is a part of human society. They live in our houses and yet they are the most despised. They became a metaphor for any kind of exclusion or invisibility,” he says. “So then the novel became this raging against this invisibility, this exclusion. There was this desire to become visible, to become human. The idea that art and literature could make him human, visible, that he could take his place among us. Art could save him. That’s something I got from my mother: that art can save you.”
I liked this book. I can’t imagine any reader and/or writer out there not liking it. And clearly a lot of other people have too. It’s been quite the international success. It’s profound and wise and funny and tragic and short; you all know how much I love short. I’m sure there’re flaws in it but I got so caught up in it that I can’t say I noticed any. And that’s definitely a good thing as I’m a terrible one for editing books as I’m going along. But really there’s nothing here I’d want to change. Except the author’s name. I wouldn’t’ve minded seeing mine there.
Sam Savage grew up in a small town in South Carolina in the '40s and '50s. Then he went north, first to Boston and New York, and later to France and Germany. He studied at the University of Heidelberg and at Yale, eventually acquiring a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale. He taught there, briefly and unhappily. It was a period when many had become convinced that there are no genuine philosophic problems, only genuine linguistic puzzles. This discovery did not leave any "career options" for Savage, since the only puzzle that interested him at that time was himself. In 1980 he went back south, to McClellanville, South Carolina (pop. 400), where he spent the next twenty-three years. He worked as a carpenter, a commercial fisherman, and a letterpress printer. He lived, however, mainly on a diminishing pile of inherited money and the labours of his wife, while he attempted to write, pretended to write, and often really did write. Most of the things he wrote have not survived. In 2003, he moved north again, this time to Madison, Wisconsin, where he now lives.