Sara Wheeler

The year of the rat

Text settings


Robert Sullivan

Granta, pp. 256, £

‘Ah,’ Robert Sullivan exclaims in this artful book, ‘the excitement, the nail-biting and palpably semi-wild thrill of ratting in the city!’ An otherwise apparently sane American writer and journalist, Sullivan chose to spend four seasons observing the rats in New York’s Eden’s Alley, five blocks from Broadway. Settling down with night-vision binoculars, a folding chair and a thermos, he catalogued the behaviour of ‘his’ rats as they scuttled over soot-peppered ice or foraged through bags of restaurant detritus literally fuming in the volcanic heat of a New York summer. His aim, he said, was ‘to arrive at some truth about rats’.

The book that emerged embraces all aspects of Rattus norvegicus. Besides purveying biological data of the sexual habits variety, Sullivan discourses on the history of rats as vectors, examining rat-borne plagues from the mediaeval period onwards (a case was reported in New York in 2002). He dutifully voyaged away from his alley to learn about rats at conferences all over the United States, and he talked at length to sanitation workers, exterminators and pest control officers — ‘the philosopher-kings of the rat-infested world’. (In the politically correct language of civic America you must now ‘exclude’ pigeons, not kill them, and exterminators say things like ‘the object is to build out pests without pesticides.’)

Just over half way through the book we get, for the first time, something approaching action: in one heady moment, our man catches a rat. Most of the time tendrils of digression take the place of plot. We read half a page on the mania for native plants in Nazi Germany, and another on the man who introduced European starlings to America. Yet they are not really digressions: there is an invisible unity of purpose that holds the story together like glue, and extraneous comment is rigorously expunged. For a few weeks after 9/11, Eden’s Alley was inaccessible. But Sullivan studiously avoids a discussion of the catastrophe and its aftermath.

So many dreary non-fiction writers of Sullivan’s generation, both here and in the US, never even think about form, and it’s stimulating to find someone intelligent and good who is prepared to experiment. For Sullivan is preoccupied with form. In his last book, Whale Hunt, a carefully crafted story set against the spumy, cedar-threaded landscapes of the Pacific north-west, he interleaved the tale with a running subtextual exegesis of Moby-Dick, the sacred text of whaling literature. At one point in Rats, while on a trip to a conference in Milwaulkee he records what he did as if he were a rodent under observation in a laboratory, concluding a list of bullet points, ‘Stumbled into the hotel room where I took some Aspirin and collapsed.’ He uses his wife, purposefully never named, as an unseen Greek chorus, endlessly lamenting his crazy ratty hobby and prophesying doom.

This is a literary book, enhanced by judiciously deployed quotations ranging from the sublime (Thoreau, Milton, Wordsworth) to the bathetic (a poem published in Pest Control Technology). The author is a contributor to the New Yorker, and one can imagine reading a version of this book in those hallowed pages. The prose is a model of restraint. Sullivan loves to deploy that New Yorkerish trick of including a tiny detail which cannot possibly be of interest to anyone — that one particular pest control man is a vegetarian, for example — as a way of anchoring the text with specificity. All walk-on parts are meticulously described.

Of course, he cares more about ideas than rats. An expert now in the literature of vermin, Sullivan evokes his predecessors in the rat-writing field. After reading one paper he concludes that thinking about rats, ‘as low-down as it seems, can easily lead to thoughts about larger topics, such as life and death, and the nature of man’. He reduces rats to a concept — having a drink at a bar on the way home from work is ‘a nonrat thing for a city-dweller to do’ — and uses them to challenge preconceptions, as when he asks, ‘Who are we to decide what is natural and what is not?’ A moral of sorts emerges. We must be like the exterminators, those who ‘advance towards society’s depths and meet life there and see it for what it is’.

Robert Sullivan failed to make me care about rats. But he has written one of those curious books that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.