Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

There is a moment early in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore when the narrator, Clay Jannon, first meets and describes his love interest, Kat Potente, describing her thus: “[T]his girl is a Googler. So, she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a cute way.” It’s narration that not only describes Kat, but also reveals Clay’s reaction to her, and, above all, it’s true: It’s the way a twentysomething geek might react to a girl to whom he’s attracted. I couldn’t help thinking, “Reading is fun again!” Over-the-top, perhaps, but that’s how I felt throughout the entirety of Robin Sloan’s 2012 novel.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

The story begins in the wake of the Great Recession. Clay Jannon, recent art school graduate and employee of NewBagel, the pet project of two ex-Googlers, finds himself out of a job and in fear of living in a tent. Desperate for a job, Clay gives up on Internet searches (which invariably lead to hours spent bookmarking articles that are too long to read) and turns to the now-arcane art of “beating the pavement.” On one of his treks throughout San Francisco, Clay notices a “clerk wanted” sign on the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Inside, Clay meets the kindly and aged proprietor, Mr. Penumbra, and takes the job; Clay will work the 10pm to 6am shift.

But (of course) the bookstore is not all it seems. The entryway is stocked in a desultory way with the kinds of books a reader might expect to find — A Steve Jobs biography, some Dashiell Hammett — but the bulk of the store’s cavernous interior is devoted to huge folios checked out by members of the “club.” Clay opens one of these books (despite Penumbra’s instructions not to) and finds that they’re all written in code. A data simulation run on Clay’s laptop reveals a strange pattern in the customers’ borrowing behaviors. And that’s when things start to get weird.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra's store.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra’s store.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a delight to read. Clay’s narration is spot-on. Meeting Kat for a second time, he notices that she’s wearing the same t-shirt as she was during their first encounter. Clay concludes: “(a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical t-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.” Later, describing Kat’s enthusiasm for various Google initiatives: “They are making a 3-D web browser. They are making a car that drives itself…They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.” It’s that sort of knowing and just-slightly-jaded-enough tone that Clay uses throughout the story.

Of course, Clay’s commentary is informed by Sloan’s firsthand experience in the tech industry: Sloan has worked for Twitter, among other companies, and knows a thing or two about their culture. Several scenes take place on Google’s campus and, based on Sloan’s descriptions, it seems safe to say he’s been there. San Francisco, too, is lovingly described, and Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore will be recognizable to those bibliophiles who still indulge in haptic reading experiences.

Indeed, part of Sloan’s purpose appears to be the examination of the intersection of tradition and innovation, of old and new technologies. While Penumbra champions Clay’s use of technology, Corvina, Penumbra’s boss, takes umbrage: The “cult” (Clay’s word for it) should only use its traditional methods, which involve print books and slates for notes. Sloan recognizes that too great a reliance on any one idea or artifact is the basis for the cults he describes. He rightly points out that the movable type was a disruptive technology in its day, and that, of course, Google is not the antithesis of print (and other, more “traditional” forms of information and knowledge), but a continuation on a spectrum. The print book is a technology, among the most successful the world has ever known, but its use led to, and interacts with, the digital world. One does not negate the other. The story’s end points to a hopeful partnership between the two.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a pleasure to read. Sloan’s humor is snarky without resorting to cynicism; there is a touch of whimsy that buoys up what is ultimately an uplifting narrative. Even the secondary characters are recognizable, real, and readers will find themselves emotionally engaged with them, which, after all, is what you want from a good book. The “bibliomystery” aspect is really a device to move the plot forward, but book lovers, in the truest sense of that world, will especially appreciate it. Highly recommended.

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