Sam Savage, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 9780297854586, 2008 (Aus, US/Kindle)

Firmin is a sad, lonely, depressing book. An anthropomorphous rat, achingly empathetic, shares his hopeless, dreaming, doomed existence. The ‘chinless’ one was born in a bookstore and suffers from ‘lexical hypertrophy’ or, as he also refers to it, a kind of ‘biblio-bulimia’, where he at first literally devours books, before actually learning to read them.

Estranged from his common rat family and pondering how he might communicate with humans, Firmin consults a book on sign language. But his communicative efforts result only in the sign-language phrase ‘goodbye zipper’, which has little, if opposite, effect. He imagines a life for the bookstore owner, and regular customer and sci-fi writer Jerry Magoon, who lives his own lonely existence upstairs. Firmin also spends time at The Rialto, with his ‘lovelies’ – in the daylight hours Ginger Rogers, smoothing over into midnight naked ladies, rolling around on rugs.

The book contains a smattering of heartbreaking illustrations. Mostly, Firmin appears small, isolated, and overwhelmed. His rat-eyes are large and simmering. The book is intertextually woven with narratives in the shape of (useless) hopes and dreams that Firmin has, due to his reading of the recognisable classics in the bookstore, beginning with ‘the big one’ – Finnigans Wake, which ironically is never complete for him as he ate so much of it as a child-rat. The way Firmin views his world is sincerely literary, and tinged with self-loathing, and had such enormous appeal to me. Like the best sad books, it is also often warmly funny:

‘The combination of a heavy head and weak limbs forced me to adopt a ponderous gait, and while later in life I fancied that this lent me a methodical and dignified air, at the time it only made me seem all the more freakish. I could not help wagging my enormous head from side to side as I walked, or lumbered, which gave me a rather bovine appearance.’

The beginning of the novel didn’t get me in straight away, where Firmin ponders how to begin. After reading such great works himself, it is a daunting task for him (and oh-so-relatable). But as soon as the novel switches to an empathetic description of his mother seeking refuge in the bookstore to give birth, the tone took me over. While I will not ruin it, the ending at first disappointed. But as I pondered it in the days after reading, I couldn’t think of any other way it could have ended. It disappointed me, perhaps, because it was such a low note. I realised all the reasons for it in the days after – the rats swarming just like humans swarming over the earth. The definitions of vermin. Parallels between a rat-infested crumbling suburb and a human-infested crumbling world. The possible uselessness of intellect and passion. The loneliness of the impossibility of true understanding and communication. And in the end…

It makes it a deeply artistic, truthful and quite absurd book. I walk around with the feeling of it still, a little unshakable – it feels a lot like Midnight Cowboy, so if you love that movie and you generally are a reader, I think you will get something from this book. I think about Firmin still weeks afterwards and bring the book up in all sorts of conversations, and I know its effect, its character, its purpose, its lines, are turning it into a favourite. Yet a favourite that is quite personal – a favourite I wouldn’t recommend to everyone. A favourite I just want to gobble up myself, alone, in a dusty corner of a falling-apart bookstore at the end of the world…

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