May 3, 2007

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife - book review

I've read a lot of books. I don't mean that as bragging (ok, yes, I'm bragging a little), but as stating a simple fact. And after reading the hundreds of authors, I have become jealous of a certain few. I wish I could write like them. To have the spectacular control of narrative that James Ellroy and John Irving wield. To trip the light humourous as only Douglas Adams can do. To strive for inventiveness on the unparalleled levels of Jonathan Lethem, Philip K. Dick, and Raymond Chandler. To simply stir the world in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (and really, has there ever been an author with as singular a voice as Vonnegut? I cry schenanigans if you argue otherwise).

So, yes, there are many examples of authors I wish I could write like. Wish, but never try to emulate. Imitation is never as good as the original; I think every fantasy author who tried to copy Tolkien through ogres, trolls, magic, and the use of odd-sounding proper nouns prove my point again and again. Ditto the hard-boiled chatter of Mickey Spillane. If you ain't got it, you can't fake it.

But books I wish I'd written? Very few.

Every so often, however, I'll come across a novel that, in its themes, its flow, its view of life, I wish I wrote. Patrick Ness' The Crash of Hennington was the last one I remember, and before that, Chabon's Wonder Boys. Something about these stories speaks to a level of my subconscious so sublime and mysterious that I cannot comprehend why I didn't write it first.

Add Sam Savage's Firmin to the list.

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife is many things. It is a book-lovers dream. It is a fairy tale in the most realistic sense of the fantastic. It is an ode to the bygone past. It is very, very good.

Firmin is a rat, a remarkably ediudite and well-read rodent who has grown up in the bowels of a Boston bookstore in Scollay Square during the early 1960s: "There were Zane Grey westerns by the saddleload, books of lugubrious sermons by the casketful, old encyclopedias, memoirs of the Great War, diatribes against the New Deal, instruction manuals for the New Woman." Born in a confetti of paper that was Finnegan's Wake, nourished on the pages and glue of nearby novels, Firmin has gained the ability to read, and has therefore greater aspirations than those of his siblings Sweeny, Chucky, Luweena, Feenie, Mutt, Peewee, Shunt, Pudding, Elvis, Elvina, Humphrey, and Honeychild. As they and their mother Flo eventually wander off into their own narratives, Firmin decides to stay put, takes up a vantage point in the ceiling, and watches the goings-on of Norman, shop-owner and (in Firmin's mind), "THE FIRST HUMAN BEING F. EVER LOVED."

Soon, as Firmin's intellect grows by leaps and bounds, so do his flights of imagination and his periods of depression. Convinced that the "masticated pages furnished the nutirtional foundation for - and perhaps even directly caused - what I with modesty shall call my unusual mental development," Firmin sadly grasps that he cannot ever be what he truly craves to be: human. But in the books, and the mix of classic cinema and low-budget pornography he watches during visits to the Rialto movie theatre, he finds an acceptance he cannot find among his own kind, or amongst the patrons of the bookstore. His life, then, is one of constant yearning for betterment, and if there is a more common yet important theme in the evolution of humankind, I have yet to find it.

Firmin is, at first, a bookseller's dream, a reader with no discerning taste to guide his purchases; "I love all stories," he says, capturing the true glory of reading a good book. "I love the progression of beginning, middle, and end. I love the slow accumulation of meaning, the misty landscapes of the imagination, the mazy walks, the woody slopes, the reflecting pools, the tragic twists and comic stumbles." All this sounds unbearably precious and twee, yet it is precisely Firmin's ornate style, combined with Savage's flashes of cruel reality, that ensures that Firmin remains head-and-shoulders higher than the concept would indicate. Firmin himself hates the cliche of the loveable rodent; "The only literature I cannot abide is rat literature, including mouse literature. I despise good-natured old Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones." While never mentioned, it seems a good bet that Firmin might rather enjoy the adventures of William Kotzwinkle's insane Dr. Rat, one of the more disturbing examples of anthropomorphization in recent literature, leavened by Kotzwinkle's good-humoured bear Hal Jam in The Bear Went Over the Mountain (which is, come to think of it, another novel I wish I had written).

Firmin does make a friend of a sort, a down-on-his-luck science-fiction author named Jerry Magoon, "the second human I ever loved." Through Firmin's description of Jerry as having shoulder-length hair, "grey and thinning...a small Irish nose, a big drooping mustache over a wide thin-lipped mouth," you might be forgiven for believing Jerry to be a stand-in for Sam Savage himself (see portrait to the left), but the review of Jerry's novel The Nesting suggests a Vonnegut figure by way of Kilgore Trout.

What Savage does, effortlessly, is play his love of literature against his mourning over the comercialization of the world, of the practice of commerce over art. Firmin's world of books is an idealized paradise of ideas, one which reality constantly threatens to overwhelm.

In the end, this slight novel is a masterful love letter to everything good in the world. Firmin (the rat) is a spectacular character, and Firmin (the novel) is a treasure.

2 comments:

Ms Ulat Buku said...

I've just finished this book today. Definitely one of the best books I've read this year.

Ms Ulat Buku said...

I've just read this book and absolutely LOVE it!

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