Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Firmin, by Sam Savage

Needing a break from this term's reading (Heidegger and Bellow—ouch), I was hoping for a pleasant but not too challenging read, an after-term mint of a book to cleanse the palate.

I would say that Firmin is the perfect book for this sort of thing, but I don't want to sound as if I'm dismissing it as mere distraction. It is an engaging read, charming and honestly touching, about a rat who lives in a bookstore, first eating and then consuming (figuratively—clever, no?) books voraciously. I can therefore only describe Firmin in the context of characters—he is what might have happened if Dostoevsky became mixed up and wrote Notes from the Underground in Alyosha's voice. And perhaps I am just reading this into the novel, but I feel a Bellovian influence somewhere in there—probably in the mix of low and high "art" appreciation (Firmin, in addition to reading books, avidly watches pornographic films in the theater next door) and the whorling sentences which cry out at every moment, "Look! A great mind at work!"—a cry that is both exhilarating and (clearly) obnoxious.

But perhaps the loveliest part of the book is also what makes it more than just another story about an anthropomorphic rodent with preternatural abilities (speaking of which, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is still one of my favorite books). The author has set Firmin down in the last days of Scollay Square, a seedy (but charmingly so!) part of Boston, which has a date set with the forces of change and modernization. It is by now utterly tedious to hear this storyline once more, to imagine the weepy nostalgia and tottering indifference to the actual squalor of the vanished but ever-glorious rubbish heap, but to read it, and in Firmin's descriptions—cliches are irrelevant.

I have always heard that a Jeeves & Wooster novel is a terrific way to wrap up a term. Wodehouse is, as I have heard it said, the master of the cliche, a forceful counter to Orwell's injunctions against them in (I think) "Politics and the English Language." I think it is obvious tha these things go together—the talent to write in cliched language and with cliched tropes and yet seem neither self-consciously ironic nor prattish and the ability to write completely engrossing novels for serious readers that nevertheless function properly not even as a dessert or a snack between serious novels, but rather as a sort of chaser, washing down the hard stuff.

At any rate, I highly recommend Firmin, and I give it the Seal of Approval.

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