×
header-image

The Rodent is Myself

IN FICTION, MICE ARE THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS.
DISCUSSED
Rat Advocation, Chicago, The Holocaust, Haruki Murakami, Sam Savage’s Firmin, Rodenticization, Walter Mosley’s Mouse, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Dostoyevsky, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Mammalian Tragedy, Warfarin, Mice, George Orwell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Aleksandar Hemon, Exterminator’s Guilt, Bombs and Pinball Machines, The Fear Behind Mice, Knowledgeable Rodents, Rats = Men, Ironic Qualities, The Nesting, Revealing Mistakes, Overlooked Species
by Andrew Friedman
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Rodent is Myself

Andrew Friedman
10 Snaps

Humans kill rats with poisons named after helicopters: Talon, D-Con II, Enforcer, Havoc, Jaguar, Boothill, Hawk, Tomcat, Top Gun, Assault. Either that, or the tools of military punishment so often take their shapes and sobriquets from predators that it becomes a circular question. Which came first, the Pentagon or the exterminator? In the case of our oldest modern rodent-killer, the chemical compound itself is called warfarin. U.S. scientists designed warfarin in Wisconsin three years after the U.S. government dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. To me, this seems less an accident than a symptom of the culture of existential disposability that plagues modern life yet only dependably reveals its theoretical core when we speak of rats. The core being this: life matters, but there are different levels of life, worth different amounts.

By 1950, gloomy philosophy had found its peacetime footprint in killer product. Most rodenticides, as they’re called, are anticoagulants: they incapacitate a rodent while its lungs fill with blood. Other unfortunates are smashed with brooms and bricks, snapped into traps that crack their spines, glued to cards where they starve to death, or simply tested on, gene-spliced, or done up in poisonous make up that eats away their flesh. In nineteenth-century New York, entrepreneurs made gloves out of them.

But who would be fool enough to advocate for these most scorned mammals? At least history gave the bat its vampire cult. No one suspects the rodent of some covert erotic transformation. The mouse is dirty. The mouse eats trash. It invades the sanctity of the white-walled home with a disturbing grayness. A rat is worse. A rat lives in the city. Bearer of disease, the rat nurses its young with milk and slops around on the subway tracks, switching its naked pink tail. And a rat bites. At least a mouse has the deference not to defend itself.

Yet there is something that gnaws about the rodent. Perhaps it’s the cast of its fearful eye or, alternately, its fearlessness, its brazen self-assertion in the face of our clearly superior force. The rodent has a will that can be respected. It persists in living despite its scrappy fragility and our preference that it didn’t. Its mute single-mindedness, its noble anonymous striving, its inability to sleep through the night—all these are familiar qualities. A suspicion arises that deep in our cantankerous mammalistic core, the rodent and the human are one.

In real life, the hysteria of the rodent encounter buries this link—the rodent in the dark alley, the rodent in the rafters, the rodent in the weeds. After a steady dose of the warfarin of rhetoric, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking There are two sides. The rodent is on that side. I am on this other side. But in fiction, which by its best nature sweeps away the uncomfortable shadows between states of life, this separation is harder to maintain. In novels, the rodent is a barometer of the human. The rat and I recognize each other. The rodent is myself.

Making this particularly evident are four characters in recent literature who take their essential qualities from rodents: the Rat in Haruki Murakami’s Trilogy of the Rat, only partially in print in the United States; Mouse in Walter Mosley’s ten Easy Rawlins mysteries; Vladek from Art Spiegelman’s two-part graphic novel Maus; and, most recently, Firmin, the furry narrator of Sam Savage’s novel of the same name. To grasp the significance of these manimalistic interventions into human-rodent segregation, it is useful to situate them within the wider and oft ignored canon of rodent literature.[1]

In a sense, the rodent novel is the city novel, and the city novel is the modern one. In the city, the modern character found himself rodenticized, cast out to scurry through the crevices of the complex urban world, the holes and alleys, the streets and tunnels, the hotels and tenements, hunting for sustenance in an effort to define a transitory and ever-threatened I. This originary moment created two strains of rodent novel. In one, humans are like rodents. In the other, rodents are like humans.

In this country, the humans-are-like-rodents novel begins with the bleak naturalism of the Great Depression. In Of Mice and Men (1937), John Steinbeck uses a tiny mouse as a stand-in for his easily crushable characters, two ranch-hands looking for work in despair-stricken California. In the end, life inside the rathole of the U.S. turns the pair to brutal acts. Three years later, in Native Son, Richard Wright brings this rat trope into its own by taking it to Chicago, where the rat is more comfortable. Bigger Thomas kills a black rat at the start of the first book, called “Fear”; he ends “Fear” when, as a driver about to be caught with the drunk white girl he’s been charged to ferry around, he suffocates her instead.

In these novels, the dual traps of racism and capitalism have turned people into rats, taking away human freedom by morally bankrupting human choice. Killing a rodent is just another way to kill yourself when you’re up against the wall. It’s easier to bite a human than to love one. Internationally, the rat as omen of our dismal prospects pops up again in 1947, this time in a colonial context: Albert Camus’s The Plague, where the deaths of rats in the street herald the quarantine of humans in a French Algerian port. But this first strain finds its true fulfillment in George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, the year, incidentally, New York City started its Rodent Control Unit. The Thought Police drag disinherited totalitarian state everyman Winston Smith to Room 101 to face his most unendurable fear: rats. But Winston’s fear is not rats. It’s humans. The Thought Police are the rat writ large. They will affix a mask to Winston’s skull. When the gate on a cage rises, two starving rats will rush in to eat his face. Only one way out and Winston takes it. He promptly rats out his girlfriend.

Orwell makes the point mercilessly: the rat is vicious and half-human and, inside our twentieth-century fear, so are we. These books work by a kind of miniaturization.The rat is there to show us how small we can be. If novels operate through extreme empathy, then the rat offers a standard metaphor for the intolerable. The miniaturizing novelists lean on the slanderous public reputation of the rodent to design plots that make readers feel as if they’re in a mouse-trap—bleak, skittish, and cagey.

But the best and most provocative rodent novels are of the other stripe. These are the rodents-are-like-humans novels. They probe past simile into the irresolvable essence of why rodents so disturb us: which is, as it often is with disturbance, because they so resemble us. Perhaps the most elegant rodents-are-like-humans literary moment comes in Gwendolyn Brooks’s breathtaking puzzle-piece novel of urban composition Maud Martha (1953), a criminally underread book. A dozen years after Bigger bashes in the rat’s brains with an iron skillet, Maud catches a mouse. Of course, rodents often star in midcentury black literature, for obvious reasons: poor people just moving to the city and writing books about it are forced to negotiate with a lot of rodents. But what’s beautiful about the parallel rodents in Native Son and Maud Martha is how they capture the narrators’ approach to all the levels of existence.

Bigger kills the rat. Maud saves the mouse and sets it free. Bigger’s existential imagination collapses him in on himself. Maud liberates herself in the beauty of the everyday through the diamond-sharp prose Brooks writes for her in a close third person.

To save the mouse, Maud imagines herself into its mind. In the process, she offers a comic and musical take on what it might mean to be alive: “No more the sweet delights of the chase, the charms of being unsuccessfully hounded, thrown at….” In this scenario, out-witting the day, we become ourselves. What finally sways Maud is the “little look” the mouse flashes her from the trap. The mouse isn’t afraid. It has, rather, “a fine small dignity.” This “little look” carries us through the half-nihilistic doom of the urban trap novels to a veritable rodent psychology—a way of being briefly subhuman in order to recover a less punishing definition of being human. And when it comes to rodent psychology, there is really only one grand rat: Dostoyevsky.

It’s easy to forget that Notes from Underground (1864) reaches us from “the Mousehole.” Throughout his wheedling, whining, abjectly engaging soapboxing, the Underground Man uses the idea that he may be a mouse to depict fully how horrible it is for him to be a man. The mouse encapsulates all we might need to know about the desire for revenge without the force to achieve it, the inability to decide on a path, the doomed passivity designed for us by an invisible antagonist. His style of argument can be described only as gnawing. The word rodent comes from the Latin word rodere, “to gnaw,” and for the Underground Man, this furious gnawing is all the human has left to decipher modern times.

The Underground Man takes his final step toward rodent psychology at the end. By identifying himself with the mouse, he makes clear that he’s waving a flag for our flawedness. The more we spurn him with our efforts toward per- fection, the more, from his crack in the floor, he whispers our shame in our ears. He doesn’t fail at being human. He fails at being inhuman.

And yet the Underground Man has a comparative luxury. At least he’s aware that definitions of the human have outpaced the experience of it. When years of fictional production again bury his triumphant rodentiality, the mouse retreats into a kind of half-conscious device of narrative unsettling— functioning like a recently discovered emergency to-do list written in a language you can’t understand.

A good example of this effect is the ominous mouse in Aleksandar Hemon’s 2002 novel Nowhere Man. Dislocated, muted, effortfully blank immigrant Jozef Pronek (again in Chicago, rat Brigadoon) is in bed when a scuffling alerts him to a mouse’s presence. He expends great effort to kill it. But it can’t be killed. Hit it with Death in Venice, it wakes up. Throw it in a bucket of water, it swims. His girlfriend insists on the kill. Instead, Jozef P. breaks down. He destroys the apartment. He falls to his knees and sobs as the mouse escapes. The mouse might be himself, but he can’t reach it anymore. It has scurried back into the wall. And it lurks there, making urgent noises only we can hear.

Still, these are only animals, aren’t they? A philanthropist would be hard-pressed, if he put it to a popular vote, to rescue the lives of many rodents, or even raise money to conduct a psychoanalytic session with one. But in the contemporary novels where characters actually assume the essential qualities of rodents, the line between human and animal becomes even more furry and gray. Through these books, the rodent in us chews its way back into our presence.

Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, commonly known as his first book in the U.S., is actually his third in Japan, the capstone of a trilogy that includes Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980). Although now out of print, both novels were published in English in the mid-’80s. These early books, by reaffirming the Rat’s inducing presence in the Murakami canon, show that critics may miss the point by ignoring the Rat in his work.

Upon consideration of these novels, I find many of the obsessions of Murakami’s books relate directly to their inner mousiness: a fixation on cats and elephants; a suspicion that there is another world just next to this one filled with shadows and, if not evil, then at least the terror of consciousness; an obsession with spaghetti; an imprintable love of the city; a horror and fascination with the countryside; a weak spot for sudden sex; a respect for wells and holes; and particularly, a conviction that the more bland, mediocre, average, unextraordinary, blank, unexcitable, and unnotable someone is, the more they might actually be a vessel for the greatest, heaviest, most unbearable intimacy with the basic pain and awareness of being alive.

Rodents, as we know, have these traits well in hand.

The Rat first appears in Hear the Wind Sing. “You can call me ‘Rat,’” he tells the unnamed narrator. Someone gave him the name a while ago, and as he points out rattily, “You get used to anything.” They drink at a bar and read science fiction and the Rat deals with his unnamable problems until he becomes a novelist. There is a suggestion that aliens are communicating with us through the wind, and that time is somehow leaving us out of something important. As with all Murakami novels, the conversational prose convinces by its silences, and honors the emotion of everyday life, elevating its slack argot to the point of literary might.

The narrator’s main line of obsession, besides the ever-vexing and confusing intimacies of sexual life (rats, we are told elsewhere, do it twenty times a day), is whether he has the courage to speak openly with the Rat—to, as it were, recognize the Rat. The Sturm und Drang belongs to the Rat himself. The Rat is a rich kid who hates money (one is certain a real rat would hate the rich), a drinker of beer and hard liquor who has a strange intimacy with J the bartender, and in true rat fashion, a hater of the outsized, large-scaled things that empty the world of all meaning.

In the second book, Pinball, 1973, also set in the narrator’s twenties, we enter at a time uncertain in relation to the first. The Rat is still concerned with going away. The narrator, who once had very little sex, is now bedding a pair of quirky twins obsessed with a dead electric panel. The main narrative arc of Pinball concerns the Rat’s breakup with a girl, and the narrator’s search for a particular pinball game from J’s bar that became a litmus test for the pair’s ability to mark time or life.

The machine, as it turns out, is a limited-edition three-flipper Spaceship model, and it has been lost in Japan. It’s been junked, actually, and, as we know, rats love junk.The Rat’s parents’ house is filled with the detritus of consumer goods. His father got rich cynically selling the same chemical—first as insect repel- lant for soldiers, then as nutritional supplement, then as toilet-bowl cleanser—over and over again.

The loneliness of living amid this junk, both historical and physical, for the thinking Rat, creates the emotional atmosphere that gives him his conscience and struggle in the books. It turns out that the Rat is better poised than we are to regret occupying a world where dumb stuff trivializes trauma and the imminence of extermination. If junk can be said to have its own melancholy, then that melancholy has spread to the Rat.

The pinball machine the narrator’s after took a path similar to that of the Rat’s father’s chemical. A Chicago (again, Chicago) company that built bomb bay mechanisms from World War II to the Korean War later switched to peacetime play industries—“pinball machines, bingo machines, slot machines, jukeboxes, popcorn vendors.” This is, in fact, the oft forgotten story of many of our most huggable goods, but it’s true. Capitalism cheerily recycled war technology into the placid smiley-face of a lovable consumer culture. Consumer culture wrote military capitalism’s tell-all memoir, and we were the page.

Gas masks became Tupperware. Bandages became Kotex. War rafts became Styrofoam coffee cups. Springs in navy ships became Slinkies. Vinyl balloons that held fresh water for downed pilots became beach balls. One generation’s protector for machines manufacturing radium kept the next’s food from sticking to the pan. And bombs became pinball machines. Our most basic, everyday objects contain historical death threats.

How to respond to this confusion? Like the Underground Mouse, the Rat is a hider, not a biter. Like the cashmere-coated mouse the narrator traps early in Pinball, the Rat longs for the exit, but he can’t seem to search it out. But in a sense, Murakami takes Dostoyevsky a step further by inverting the great Russian. He gives the Rat human form only to grant him, in his insignificance, an ambivalent relationship to being human or alive. Murakami grants the Rat consciousness only to curse him with a choice as to whether he wants to keep it or not. In this sense, Murakami is less hopeful than Dostoyevsky.

The Rat suffers from endangered animalness. But by Pinball, not only does the narrator willingly talk things out with him, he embraces him so deeply he can omnisciently narrate the Rat’s activities in the third person. The narrator and the Rat are one, and for them, the most tragic thing for people as basically tiny and insignificant as rats is that they can pine, fall in and out of love, and make such stupid yet ineradicable mistakes. Through the Rat tale, Murakami gives a soul to our disposability, a voice to a candlewick. The gently flickering result creates the faint but unbearable pressure that makes all his novels so emotional, as if, like the candle, they were about to be snuffed out.

By Wild Sheep Chase, the Rat’s only a memory. He has gone away at last, as far away as possible, to Hokkaido. One of the most poignant scenes in all of Murakami is the one where the narrator goes down to the water, to J’s new bar, and sees the apartment towers rising up around it, paving over the ocean where he and the Rat used to walk. Like all development, this one stirs up the Rats of memory and spurs the narrator north.

And the Rat, we find, has solved his human-animal problem by being the first Murakami character ever not only to disappear, but frankly to morph. (He is followed by a long line of others, the guy in The End of the World, the young woman in Sputnik Sweetheart, the boy in Kafka on the Shore, the wife in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). When we meet him again (and later in Dance Dance Dance) the Rat has used his freedom of choice to become a whole new animal, shorn of the compromises of the mouse-man.

He’s a sheep.

But our only option isn’t the present-then-absent disappearance of a Murakami novel. Give a disposable rodent a gun and a smile, and we have Walter Mosley’s Mouse.

The naming of Mouse Mouse, rather than Rat, is ironic. Mouse is more like a rat with his teeth bared. His best friend is Easy Rawlins, and for Easy, nothing is easy. He is abused by the police, abandoned by his wife and child, shot at, ground into the asphalt, screwed over by various whites as a matter of course, harassed, insulted, broken down, and disillusioned of any illusions possible for a black P.I. in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, when the books (so far) take place.

Mosley has more in common with Murakami than one would assume: a fixation on the Holocaust and the rupture of World War II, the cool-but-never-cold Chandleresque prose, the conviction that surreal dreams are messages of truth from some vital post-real source, the sense that detection provides one’s basic philosophical relationship to the world.

The Easy Rawlins books are essentially one novel, an archaeology of the remains of double-V-for-victory Los Angeles in the ethical tangles of a racially and politically mixed society intent on denying itself at the point of a gun. In this sense, Mosley’s work is an answer to Faulkner. The philosophical problem of the mixed character in the postwar era might be less the desperate phenomenological exile caused by “impurity,” as Faulkner would have it, and more that your white family members are strongly in favor of murdering you, or if not that, disowning, duping, and wounding you to the point where you’re strongly in favor of murdering them.

One response to this extermination endgame is Easy’s own voluntary family: his Mexican son Jesus and mixed-race daughter Feather, both rescued from the swamp of kill-or-be-killed white power L.A.

A second answer to this society is Mouse.

Gray-eyed, gray-suited, gray-moraled, mouse-short, rodent-faced, thin-whiskered, Mouse strides in with the first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). He’s Easy’s perilous friend from Texas. His defenseless name and diminutive size set next to his outsized reputation puts him in line with his namesake critter. But here, Mosley discovers a fundamental complexity of the actual mouse that has great metaphoric potential: If a mouse is so small, so worthless, so easily killed, so barely alive, why are entire societies, astoundingly powerful men and women, massive corporations, presidents, even, so terrified of him? With Mouse, Mosley suggests that the black character in the house of the United States is a similar phenomenon. If the little mouse scares you, it might say more about you than the mouse.

On the other hand, this Mouse can fight, and that’s why the novels love him. He can knife a man in the stomach and sit down ten minutes later to a plate of spaghetti. He can smash a clay lamp over a husband’s head while screwing said husband’s wife in said husband’s bed and then go back to finish the job. He learned about life sneaking up on river rats on the pier and swinging them down to dash out their brains on the piling. Substitute a human for a rat, and you have a pretty good idea of his approach to the world. At one point, he’s even dating Minnie.

But one thing Mouse doesn’t do is discriminate—unlike, say, the police, who swing Easy against the pilings of L.A. any time the fancy strikes them, then return with their law books the same night.

In a society that prefers him powerless and sentences him to death, Mouse rises from the dead. He smiles at you with the blue jewel in his gold tooth. By living and grinning at you, toying with your traps and the spaces between them, like an actual mouse, he mocks you. But Mouse is the books’ hero because he can survive without the fear that crushes Bigger in the first book of Native Son. Fearlessness makes Mouse a man in a society intent on chasing him down. Be- cause of this fearlessness, there is no mystery for Mouse. Mysteries that Easy spends entire books trying to unravel, Mouse casually solves. As he does with Daphne Monet in Devil, Mouse can identify people, places, and situations because he knows them from his errands of survival. Mouse just prefers to outlast human ethics rather than riddling them through. Mystery, Mosley suggests, is a luxury of conscience. Mice who want to survive don’t concern themselves with mystery.

What rodents do concern themselves with is knowledge. The mouse is with us today, as pest legend Robert M. Corrigan notes in his likable book Rodent Control (which is rife with lifelike drawings of rodent excrement and zinger phrases such as “fluorescing trickling urine trails”) because it is what’s called a “cryptobiotic” creature. That’s the biological word for secrecy. The mouse knows how to use secrets to persist. The city is our greatest secret keeper. So naturally, the mouse finds its apotheosis in the big city. And that’s why Mouse travels to L.A. from Houston.

Once Mouse is there, the novels can’t shake him. Even when he’s supposedly dead, in the weaker Bad Boy Brawly Brown (2002), Easy can’t stop thinking about him and even chats with his ghost.

But Easy sells his friend short by insisting that Mouse is some naturalistic scourge with a “nerve” that prods him into killing indiscriminately. Rather, in his guns-blazing loyalty, Mouse brings the more intimate and immediate notion of pack morality to the rodent novel. He does threaten Easy when he comes up from Houston in Devil, but after the first book, no reader really believes that Mouse would hurt Easy, any more than Mouse would hurt his wife or son. Mouse is the plague on all the houses of people who harm his friends.

This pack morality is indelible in what I take to be Mosley’s Mouse Suite, when the Easy Rawlins series hits its stride—White Butterfly (1992), Black Betty (1994), and A Little Yellow Dog (1996). Mouse lights up those books with acts that can be described only as selfless. In White Butterfly, he pulls Easy out of a lonely drinking binge. In A Little Yellow Dog, he loses his father and comes alive again only by dying for Easy at the end, only to have his body, in turn, rescued from the hospital and revived by a Texas witch in Six Easy Pieces (2003).

Without Mouse, the novels couldn’t dream their way out of the uneasy struggle. There’d be no redemption from history. Easy gets a wife and she leaves, Easy gets a real estate business and someone tries to cheat him out of it, Easy gets a job at Sojourner Truth High School and his boss tries to Jim Crow him, Easy gets a beautiful family and his daughter gets a blood disease that, for all his participation in the middle-class Easter-egg hunt, he can’t afford to treat without robbing an armored car. The movements for racial justice of the ’50s and ’60s— from Communism to Pan-Africanism to riotism—pass into dust, penetrated by spies and cops, doomed by real estate scams and defeatist megalomaniacs.

In a world like that, the blazing deminihilism of Mouse, the willingness to barge into a jail with a .41 pistol if it means getting Easy out, reverts into a weird kind of hope. This is rat hope. It makes these rodent books.

But these wouldn’t be books without Easy. Just as in Pinball, the rat needs a human counterpart to measure the length of morality between the rat race of simply lasting and the more elaborate possibilities of being. As a writer, Mosley is notable for wanting the detective novel to account for its body count. Giving the nihilistic justice of the powerful to the poor doesn’t release us from the pain of living or deliver much in terms of the potential existence of goodness. Easy may not have a better answer.

But at least he’s looking.

Mosley and Murakami mark World War II as a traumatic world moment where the scale and certitude of death, and the tissue-paper disposability the war argued for, deeply infected the mind of anyone aiming to live after it. Both authors return to the Holocaust to explore the experience.

Art Spiegelman’s two Maus books (1986 and 1991) fall in here, not only because they are so obviously about mice and the Holocaust, but because of the number of ways the books thematically and visually disturb the line between human and rodent as a means of conveying the horror behind this notion of disposability.

Maus does something for our rodent counterparts akin to what Murakami’s books do: suggests the tragedy of being a mammal that thinks, feels, and exists yet lives under the threat of a hunter that sees him as conveniently defenseless prey. Spiegelman also picks up on something of Mosley’s, that a mouse’s hope might be in his resourcefulness, his cleverness, his packrattishness, his David-like smallness that makes him the bearer not only of sympathy but of history. As Vladek, the father mouse, relates this history of survival in Holocaust-era Poland to his son Art, the artist, he is furiously riding an exercise bike, his mouse wheel. History for the rodent novel may be entombed in the mouse wheel, releasing its energy as it turns.

But there is a critical gap between Maus as title, which seems almost like a character name, and the characters inside Maus, who, despite their appearance as mice, are humans. They have human names: Art and Vladek.They are as large as humans. They dress like humans. They speak human languages. They argue like humans. But they look like mice.

Spiegelman exaggerates and toys with this unnerving gap between mouse and man to make his essential point about Jewish life during the Holocaust: people who were human but looked like mice were mice. Or were they? Maus isn’t Vladek’s name. It’s his racial imprint. In this sense, the title of the books is Jew. The scraping, jolting, and scarring constantly at work between the rodent and the man, the race and the experience, provides a painful formal counterpart to the content of Vladek’s story—one of being chased, harassed, and under threat of extermination, but also one of being in love, figuring things out, succeeding, and failing.

The visual form of the graphic novel brings these discrepancies to the heart of what race consists of. Are they mice because they look like mice? Are they inherently mice? Are they mice because cats see them as such? Are they mice because they are traveling together? Because they always have been mice? Because they have been treated historically as mice? Spiegelman pokes fun at those questions with his angsting over who can be a mouse, his inclusion of human photos of his father and old drawings of his mother as human, and, at one point, when commercial success corrupts the narrative, his portrayal of himself as a rumpled human in a mouse mask.

The rodent is there because it aptly footnotes modern notions of race—the triangulation of visual identification, cultural mores, and endangered survival. Of course, it’s also a quick comix riff on Mickey. But the presence of the rodent also begs a question at work in all rodent novels. At what scale does one draw the portrait of life, and who’s included inside it? For even a drawing as relatively narrow as the mammal would put us and the rodent in the same camp.

In the new novel Firmin (Coffee House Press), Sam Savage addresses some of these questions by making the rodent Firmin his narrator. Firmin is a rat under our feet. He lives in a bookstore and has a literally voracious love of books. Granted consciousness and a deft way with English, he uses his bottom-up point of view to briskly recount the foibles of human and literary life, as both are endangered by the cleansing rampages of urban renewal in 1960s Boston.

Firmin has teeth. By collapsing the provocative ambiguity that shades Maus into having a narrator who’s simply a precocious rodent that speaks, the novel at times has a congenial, aw-shucks cuteness Firmin himself would loathe. (Example: at one point, the rat tugs drunk experimental novelist Jerry Magoon home after a night of hard drinking, and begs, “Please, Jerry, come back home. I need you.”) But Savage seems attuned to the horror of the mousaphysical state of being “alive-but-not.” This is perhaps clearest in The Nesting, Magoon’s sci-fi novel that lives within the book.

The gentle Axions of Axi 12 study the Earth for a century. They want to make contact, but they look like giant slugs. So they send morphed emissaries to nest with Earthling families from infant hood. When the rest of the Axions arrive, these emissaries will reveal themselves and bring the two people happily together. But there’s a glitch: Axions determine the Earth’s leading species is the Norway rat. By the time the Axion emissaries discover the mistake, they’re rats. They try to communicate with the humans anyway, with predictable results. Precise images of their murders at the hands of the heartless humans are telepathically wired back to Axi 12. Enraged, the Axions spaceship over and engulf Earth in a ball of flame.

The frustration of those Axion-rats desperately trying to reach, in any way they can, the humans in The Nesting is a key emotion available to the rodent novel; it uses the rodent-human line to sound out the nether regions of modern emotional life. The Nesting also provides a good ending here in that it, like Maus, makes explicit the way rodents serve, consciously and unconsciously, as a lingering social metaphor for mass death.

In his insouciantly profound 2004 book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, Robert Sullivan, the Herb Gans of the urban rodent, writes of an exterminator who goes into his closet of poisons and discovers a mouse infestation.

“Huh,” the exterminator says, “that’s like somebody breaking into a concentration camp.”

Sullivan says rodents call to mind “Unrepresented Man.” Rodent novels suggest that our most Unrepresented Man might be the insecure one—living under the mushroom cloud of the twentieth century’s looming fears.

As far as the rodent goes, one might add the following: The good thing about rodents is that they’re like humans.The bad thing about rodents is that they’re like humans.

1 Among the rodents, rats and mice are clearly the stars here. But writers should take heart.The porcupine and the marmot, the beaver and the chinchilla, the squirrel and the lemming, still lie in wait for that precise poet of the future to come along and unlock their secret voices.
More Reads
Essays

To Be Continued…

Hanif Abdurraqib
Essays

A Voice More Beautiful Than Blue

Katie Booth
Essays

The Devil’s Bargain

Casey Jarman
more