Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Good to Eat is Good to Read

Looking for something entertaining and a little out of the ordinary? Have I got a book for you! Firmin by Sam Savage is a novel about books, survival, poverty and urban living in early 1960s Boston. Oh, and did I mention the main character is a rat? Firmin is born in the basement of Pembroke Books in Scollay Square, the runt of the litter of thirteen. Mom--Flo--made the nest out of shredded pages from Finnegans Wake. Since Flo only had twelve places from which to nurse, Firmin often got left out. In a moment of hungry desperation he ate some of Finnegans Wake. Tasty. Pretty soon he'd eaten a good portion of the nest so Flo shredded more of the book. Firmin ate that too. When he got big enough he crept out from behind the safety of the heater to a basement full of books. He began to nibble other books:

Do I hear snickering? I suppose you see this as merely a rather vulgar case of addiction or perhaps as the pitiable symptoms of a classic obsessive-compulsive disorder, and no doubt you are correct. yet 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 surely, but love all the same. Here was the crude glutinous beginning of the passion that has dominated my life, some would say ruined it, and I would not necessarily disagree. Had I been more astute I might have been able to see the dreadful abdominal pain that followed the exercise of this passion in its infantile form as a warning, an augury of the interminable sufferings that seem always to accompany love.
Sound like anyone you know? Apart from the actual eating of the books I mean? Maybe it reminds you of yourself? Eventually Firmin realizes that he can read the words in the pages of the books he has been eating. So he starts reading the books and nibbling around the margins. Soon he discovers that there is a relation "between the taste and the literary quality of a book." When deciding which book to read next, he would nibble a page. His motto became "Good to eat is good to read." All of Firmin's reading makes him long to be able to communicate with others who read. But he is a rat, he can't talk. He tries to learn sign language but discovers he needs fingers and the only thing he can say is "goodbye zipper." Still, determined to make contact with humanity he goes off to a park and waits for someone to walk by who is talking with their hands. Seizing his opportunity, Firmin leaps out from the bushes onto the path in front of the people and begins to frantically sign "goodbye zipper" over and over. Needless to say, the results are not what Firmin hoped for. Eventually he ends up as the pet of a poor science fiction writer who lives above Pembroke Books. Firmin gets to read all he wants, regular meals, and a friend. And though Firmin can't communicate with Jerry the writer, they are quite companionable. But in spite of his happiness, Firmin still dreams of being Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers whose movies he loves to watch at the Rialto down the street. My only quibble with the book is that it is written in first person by Firmin. But Firmin can't write, type or talk and there were no computers in the early 60s, so how the heck could he have written his memoirs? This is a very small point, however. Overall the book is highly entertaining in spite of it also being sad. Everyone in it is lonely. Everyone in it is trying to make contact, yearning to connect with someone who will understand. Books play a role in fostering that connection but also make the yearning for it even worse. Firmin does not have a happy ending, but it does have a right ending that rings true to all that came before and still manages to come back around to Finnegans Wake. A very tasty meal.