I bought this book because it had a giant bite taken out of it, and it said it was about a rat who grew up in the basement of a bookstore. What’s not to like? (Well, okay, I kind of have a rat phobia, but I was willing to give it a try.)
Firmin is born in a nest made of a shredded copy of Finnegan’s Wake, in the basement of a 1960s-era Boston used bookstore. He’s the runt of the litter and often gets shorted at feeding time. As a result, he turns to the books surrounding him for something to chew on and finds that he can’t stop.
Like many things that start as small, illicit pleasures, paper chewing soon became an 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. (17)
In this way, Firmin becomes a literal consumer of literature. After a while, however, he learns to read what is written on the pages, and switches to only chewing on the margins. Soon he is better read than most humans, and he migrates to the ceiling where he watches the bookstore below. I love his description of what he observes, because it reminds me of the joy inherent in having a bricks-and-mortar bookstore to visit:
Sometimes the books were arranged under signs, but sometimes they were just anywhere and everywhere. After I understood people better, I realized that this incredible disorder was one of the things that they loved about Pembroke Books. They did not come there just to buy a book, plunk down some cash and scram. They hung around. They called it browsing, but it was more like excavation or mining. I was surprised they didn’t come in with shovels. They dug for treasures with bare hands, up to their armpits sometimes, and when they hauled some literary nugget from a mound of dross, they were much happier than if they had just walked in and bought it. In that way shopping at Pembroke was like reading: you never knew what you might encounter on the next page – the next shelf, stack, or box – and that was part of the pleasure of it. (26-27)
Soon Firmin stops eating books altogether and begins scavenging for food outside the store, finding his way to a theater. This is where he comes to love another art medium, film. The theater shows classics all day, then switches to pornography at midnight. It is somewhat disturbing to think of a rat watching and enjoying pornography, but I presume this is included to show that he consumed “high art” and baser art forms indiscriminately. And, after all, if he is trying to learn about humans through the art we produce, both are essential.
After the bookstore owner spots Firmin one day and attempts to poison him, the rat leaves the store. He moves in with a struggling writer who lives in a room over the shop and has no trouble accepting a rat into his life. This shows a shift from Firmin as a reader and consumer to someone creative, working to express himself. His attempts at communication with humans fail miserably, but he is afforded a small piano that gives him a bit of an outlet. Having consumed so much culture in his life, Firmin longs to have his own voice heard. Other than the narrative he sets down in this book, he never succeeds.
By the end of the book, the bookstore is liquidated, then destroyed. Having experienced something similar very recently, his description of the process hit home for me.
It was exciting at first, and then it was sad. It was sad to walk around the shop at night, a place where I had spent my whole life, my home really, and see all those empty shelves. (146)
Overall, I would recommend this book for anyone who has escaped into another world through art, who is addicted to the written word, or who has been “burdened, practically crippled, by a monstrous imagination”. (136) It’s a glimpse into a small life made up of fiction and fantasy, as well as a warning to not let the arts be destroyed. Firmin, faced with the destruction of all he holds dear, remarks: “Jerry used to say that if you didn’t want to live your life over again, then you had wasted it. I don’t know. Even though I consider myself lucky to have lived the life I did, I would not like to be that lucky twice.” (163) There’s a lesson in there somewhere.